Part I: The Greatest Washington Bullets Team of the Past 35 Years | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Part I: The Greatest Washington Bullets Team of the Past 35 Years

By
Updated: February 16, 2016

In the Spring of 1997, the Washington Bullets ended a nine-year playoff drought and were one of the hottest young teams in the NBA. Twelve months later, the team was dismantled. Through exclusive interviews with Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland, Tracy Murray, Chris Whitney, Bernie Bickerstaff, and Jim Lynam, Adam Rubin (@LedellsPlace) tells the story of the franchise’s greatest team of the the past 35 years.


“I’m getting chills right now as we speak when you ask me that question. I had never heard the Capital Centre that loud in my life.” —Juwan Howard


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[Screenshot: Bullets fan at Game 3, Bullets vs. Bulls 1997 First Round Playoffs.]


IT HAS BEEN 18 years since the Washington Bullets lost to the Chicago Bulls in Game 3 of the first round in the 1997 NBA playoffs, but Juwan Howard, speaking via telephone from the American Airlines Arena after a workout in Miami this fall, reacts to my question as if he is experiencing it again for the first time:

Do you remember what the atmosphere was like when you returned to D.C. for Game 3 against the Bulls?

“I’m getting chills right now as we speak when you ask me that question.”

“I had never heard the Capital Centre (1) that loud in my life,” he continued. “I had no idea that the fan base would be so excited and behind us, supporting us the way they did. It felt so special because here we had a city that rallied behind us and believed in us and supported us, so I was pumped for that game.”

Howard was my final interview after speaking with several former Bullets players and coaches—Rod Strickland, Tracy Murray, Chris Whitney, Bernie Bickerstaff and Jim Lynam—for what turned out to be hours of exclusive interviews about their time in Washington—from their improbable playoff run, to Scottie Pippen’s heartbreaking series-winning dunk, to the controversial trade that broke up the franchise’s most promising roster of the last 35 years.

This two-part series tells the story of how the team came together and how it eventually fell apart. Part I begins with the tumultuous off-season of 1996 and ends with Games 1 and 2 of the 1997 first round playoffs series versus Chicago. Part II covers the unforgettable Game 3 loss and the fallout from the Chris Webber trade.


 

Rod cropped


ROD STRICKLAND WAS at a friend’s house after a funeral when he first learned that he and former-Bullet Harvey Grant were traded to Washington in exchange for Rasheed Wallace and Mitchell Butler. “A little kid ran up to me and basically told me, ‘Hey, you got traded,’” Strickland said via phone call from the University of South Florida, where he is currently an assistant coach. “I was caught off guard, but I wasn’t shocked that I was traded.”

Rod also was not pleased. He was in the middle of contract negotiations with Portland and wanted whomever traded for him to offer a new contract. “The Wizards wasn’t really trying to do that, so from a business side of it I wasn’t happy,” he said.

From a purely basketball perspective, however, Rod was pleased to join Washington’s young core: “I was big time excited about that.”

Reaction to the trade in Washington was mixed. “I’m a huge Rasheed guy, I’ve known Rasheed since he’s been a kid in Philly, and was very reluctant to give him up,” then-Bullets coach Jim Lynam told TAI at this year’s NBA summer league in Las Vegas. “But, we were desperate for a guard, and so I became a real big Rod Strickland guy.”

Howard felt similarly:

“When they made the Rasheed trade for Rod Strickland, I had mixed emotions about it. Rasheed, I enjoyed playing with him because Webber was out with an injury, so it was mainly me, Rasheed, and Gheorghe Muresan on the front line. So we developed a level of chemistry and I felt his talent level was very elite and unique in the way he complemented me, because Rasheed was more of an outside shooter who could knock down a 3.

“[Strickland] can score, he can rebound, he’s very smart, crafty; he’s a point guard with a high basketball IQ, so I thought it was a great trade to make in the sense that you lose a great quality player but you gain another. That’s why I had mixed emotions about it.”

SPEAKING OF JUWAN … two days before Strickland arrived, Howard, who was an All-Star in his 1995-96 sophomore season, sent the franchise into a public relations nightmare when he opted out of his rookie contract to become a free agent and signed a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Miami Heat. The Washington fan base, which had been sold a future led by ‘Fab Five’ teammates Webber and Howard, was up in arms.

juwan miami

Washington moved on from its young All-Star, signing sharp-shooting free agent Tracy Murray, who was coming off a breakout season in Toronto, to fill the starting small forward spot. However, in a twist of fate that is worthy of its own lengthy blog post, Juwan’s stay in South Beach was short-lived. One month after Murray arrived, Howard famously returned to Washington when his Heat contract was voided due to salary cap violations following a highly contentious legal battle between the NBA (David Stern), the Heat, and NBA Players’ Association.

At Juwan’s “Welcome Back” press conference, head coach Jim Lynam captured the excitement surrounding the team: “I’m looking forward to this season, more than anything than I have ever done in my whole life.”

Unfortunately for the coach, the 1996-97 season did not turn out as he hoped.


LYNAM NEVER MADE it to the All-Star break. The team struggled early, as Strickland’s traditional point guard sensibilities clashed with Webber and Howard’s free-lancing point-forward proclivities.

“I think I had a hard time in the beginning kind of blending in because Juwan Howard and Chris Webber were so good at getting the ball and bringing it out in transition and making plays,” Strickland explained. “It kind of hurt me a little bit because I was used to having the ball and making the plays.”

Washington was not terrible in the first half of the season but they were inconsistent, managing a 15-15 record through December(2). It is a testament to how high expectations were for Webber and Howard that a .500 record was considered a disappointment for a team that had the longest active playoff drought in the NBA at that time, having last experienced the playoffs in 1988.

When the calendar turned to February with Washington sitting in 10th place in the East, three games out of the playoffs, the season looked like another in a long line of unfulfilled promises in D.C. The Bullets were scheduled to move to a new downtown arena with a new team name (Wizards) the following season, and Abe Pollin was hell-bent on ending the playoff drought.

The Bullets were on a four-game West Coast trip before the All-Star break when the other shoe dropped. Washington lost to the Lakers and Jazz on back-to-back nights by a combined 52 points, dropping their record to 22-24. That’s when general manager Wes Unseld made a surprisingly bold move. He fired Lynam and, after assistant coach Bob Staak took over for one game, hired NBA-lifer Bernie Bickerstaff, who had actually started the season as head coach of the Denver Nuggets before being removed after a 4-9 start(3).

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[Screenshot: Abe and Irene Pollin watching Game 3 of the 1997 Playoffs.]


ABE POLLIN LET Bickerstaff know exactly what he wanted from his new head coach. “The expectations for [Unseld and me] and for the organization—because I remember talking to Mr. Pollin—was the fact that they were building a new arena downtown,” Bickerstaff said via telephone this past fall. “They were breaking ground there, so we needed to start moving into a very positive direction, and I think that was what the organization was about.”

Chris Whitney, who played seven seasons with the Bullets/Wizards and is now director of player development with the Charlotte Hornets, laughed when asked whether it was difficult to come back from the All-Star break to a brand new head coach: “It was tough, and I think what made it even tougher was the expectations that we had prior to the season starting.”

Bickerstaff’s first priority was making Strickland comfortable: “[T]hat team had talent, it was just kind of defining roles and again giving the ball to Rod and letting Rod orchestrate what was going on.”

Strickland appreciated the offensive adjustment:

“I think when coach Lynam—and he did a great job—when he got fired and they brought in Bernie Bickerstaff, you know, I think that basically started the change. He had it to where I had the ball in my hands and I made plays because that was my game.”

In addition, Bernie gave his players a history lesson. He knew the franchise well, having served as an assistant coach for 13 years from 1972 to 1985, including during the 1977-78 championship season. Bickerstaff wanted the players to be aware of the Bullets’ winning tradition, so he showed them video of that championship season.

“I think people forget that the Bullets were probably one of the better teams in the decade of the 70s. They had been in three NBA finals,” he said. “So it was about revisiting and making the guys aware of the tradition.”

bullets1978_3

[Source: Getty Images/NBA Photos.]

At first, it looked like Unseld’s late-season gamble would not pay off. The team started 2-5 under Bickerstaff and fell to 24-30 after a three-game losing streak. However, in mid-March, something clicked. “I think it was just a matter of us meshing and coming together,” Strickland explained. “Once we did that, we just got on a roll.” That is an understatement.


THE BULLETS’ PLAYOFF run was swift and decisive. On March 11, Washington was in a four-team race for the final two playoff spots. The Bullets (28-33) trailed the Cavaliers (34-27) by six games, the Magic (33-28) by five games, and the Pacers (29-32) by one game.

Washington caught fire just as Cleveland was slumping. The Bullets won 10 of their next 12 games while the Cavs lost 9 of 11.

The Bullets had a balanced roster that posed match-up problems all over the court. They could pound smaller teams up front with Webber, Howard, and Muresan; they could run against slower teams with mobile bigs out on the break; and they could score in the half-court with Strickland penetrating and finishing at the rim.

If Strickland was the engine, then Webber was the heart and soul. There were very few NBA players, if any, who could match Webber’s size, athleticism, ball-handling, and passing. Finally healthy after two seasons worth of shoulder dislocations, Webber had all his talents on display during that 1996-97 season, even shooting 40 percent from 3-point range on 151 attempts. He led the team in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, 3-point shooting, and was second in assists.

“C-Webb doesn’t get enough credit,” Strickland told me. “You knew every night he was giving you 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals—like you knew that’s what you’re getting. Plus, he was bringing that fiery energy—athletically and intensity—and that swag to the game.”

Howard was the utility man. “Juwan was really our guy defensively in terms of being able to play and defend multiple positions,” recalled Bickerstaff. “I was really surprised about his versatility, because Juwan could defend the 3, the 4, and we even put him on some 2s; and he had the ability, he made the 14-, 15-foot shot. We ran some good stuff for him to make shots.”

Bickerstaff leaned heavily on his two young forwards. Howard and Webber played 40 and 39 minutes per game, respectively, during the 1996-97 season—totals that would have led the NBA last season (4).

Gheorghe Muresan was the X-factor. He was underutilized for most of his career in Washington but when the Bullets made a concerted effort to run the offense through their big man, the baskets came easy. Muresan, the reigning NBA Most Improved Player, led the league in field goal percentage for the second straight year and commanded defensive attention on the low block. “I loved playing with Gheorghe,” Strickland said. “Every time in the game when we needed a bucket, we knew run ball screen, let him shift down under the basket, pass it in to him, and he is making a shot.”

By the end of the regular season, Tracy Murray established his role as instant offense off the bench and became a leading scorer in the playoffs, while Calbert Cheaney, Harvey Grant, and Chris Whitney rounded out the rotation.


WASHINGTON WAS NOT just winning. They had swagger. “When you’ve got guys like Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, those guys are like ultimate, confident dudes,” Strickland remembered. “When they are in the locker room, they automatically think we are winning any game.”

“You look at the Fab Five—just go back and (look at) their personalities,” Strickland continued. “Chris and Juwan had no problem with [confidence]. Any time we played them dudes were talking junk like they loved that. There was no star-struck with those two at all.”

webber howard together

The rest of the league took notice. After Washington beat Indiana on April 1 behind a balanced scoring attack with seven players in double figures, then-Pacers coach Larry Brown confessed to Bickerstaff that Washington was hungrier than his guys. “That gave us some energy, some confidence,” Bickerstaff said. The win brought Washington into a tie with Cleveland for the 8th seed.

The next game Washington returned home to face the 63-9 Chicago Bulls. With President Bill Clinton in attendance, the Bullets overpowered the defending champs for their signature regular season victory. Strickland dominated the ball with 26 points (10-15 FGs), 14 assists, and seven rebounds, and Gheorghe Muresan controlled the paint with 24 points (11-16 FGs) and 13 rebounds en route to a 110-102 win. Phil Jackson remarked presciently after the game, “Their penetration was definitely a problem for us. We have to remedy that if they are an opponent for us in the playoffs.”

Washington would indeed become Chicago’s first round opponent, but—according to a surprising revelation from Strickland—not before the Bullets faced an unexpected foe on the road to the postseason.


ROD STRICKLAND TODAY BELIEVES that Orlando Magic coach Richie Adubato orchestrated a conspiracy to get the Cavs the last playoff spot. After some research, Strickland’s story checks out—and the conspiracy is even bigger than he imagined. Put on your tinfoil hats because this gets interesting.

With two games remaining in the season, Washington played Orlando at home before facing the Cavs on the final day of the regular season. According to Rod, that’s when things got interesting:

“It was funny because the game before [Cleveland], we played Orlando, I think it was, and I forgot the coach, I can’t remember the coach’s name, I felt he was letting the game, like he was playing his players almost wanting us to lose for his guy over in Cleveland.

“Now that’s just me, don’t take that any kind of way. That was just my train of thought, and I remember saying something to him after [Orlando] lost, kind of at the end of the game like, ‘That was wrong.’ “

Let’s unpack this a little. Adubato’s “guy over in Cleveland” was Cavs coach Mike Fratello. Adubato was Fratello’s assistant coach in Cleveland before joining Orlando’s staff. He and Fratello were long-time friends from the tight-knit New Jersey coaching fraternity, and they also worked together in Atlanta and New York.

Cavs_1993team_photo_2

[Cleveland Cavaliers 1993-94 team photo. Mike Fratello, center; Richie Adubato, top left (circled).]

Orlando had already clinched the seventh seed and had nothing to play for against Washington. Strickland felt Adubato played his starters an unusually high number of minutes for an inconsequential game that the Bullets won, 104-93. Look at these minutes totals: Anfernee Hardaway (43), Rony Seikaly (38), Dennis Scott (38), and Nick Anderson (36).

Maybe Adubato played his starters to keep them sharp heading into the playoffs? 

Not quite. By coincidence, two days before playing Washington, Adubato played his good friend Fratello’s Cavs. Adubato treated that meaningless game very differently than the one versus Washington. Not only did he rest his starters down the stretch, but Adubato gave Seikaly, one of the top centers in the league, the night off and played little-used rookie Brian Evans a season-high 13 minutes. Orlando would only score 63 points in a lopsided loss to the Cavs.

Moreover, in Orlando’s final game of the season after playing Washington—another meaningless game—Adubato once again gave Seikaly the night off and played Evans a new season-high 15 minutes. For the record, Evans played zero minutes versus Washington (and Seikaly, as mentioned, played 38).

Strickland was not the only one who noticed Adubato’s curious substitution patterns. “I think that crossed our minds,” coach Bickerstaff remembered when told of Rod’s allegations. “We discussed that … among our coaches and our staff.”

Bickerstaff concedes the evidence is circumstantial. “There’s no way that I can get into [Adubato’s] mind and substantiate that. It’s all conjecture.” But he renders a verdict nonetheless. “I think Rod’s on it. I think he’s right on the money. You know, Rod’s very protective about things like that.”

Bickerstaff laughed when told that Rod made a comment to Adubato after the game: “That’s Rod. Now, see, he’s on the other side. He’s coaching now.”

Despite Adubato’s (alleged) shenanigans, Washington won, setting up the aforementioned winner-takes-all showdown in Cleveland on the final day of the season, which Washington won, 89-85, behind Webber’s 23 points and 17 rebounds.

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[Murray, Howard and Cheaney celebrate Washington’s playoff clinching victory over Cleveland. Source: Getty Images, Kimberly Barth.]

The nine-year playoff drought was over, but the toughest test was yet to come. The defending NBA Champion Chicago Bulls were waiting in the first round.


“No. I was not in awe at all. Whatsoever.” I remember that like it was yesterday.” —Juwan Howard


bulls1996-97


ONE MIGHT EXPECT Howard to be nervous returning to his hometown of Chicago to play in front of his friends and family in his first career playoff game. One would be wrong. “No. I was not in awe at all. Whatsoever,” Howard said. “I remember that like it was yesterday.”

Juwan was confident. “I think we were probably the only people that thought we can beat them,” Howard said. “The rest of the world felt that Chicago was going to run right through us.”

Strickland, looking back, was a little more reserved. “Now, if you really think about it, did we want to play the Bulls? No,” Strickland admitted. “We would have loved to be in a position to play somebody else, probably been favored.”

Rod was not exaggerating about the Bullets being favored against almost any other playoff team. Washington closed the season winning 16 of their last 21 games and even Phil Jackson acknowledged that the Bullets entered the playoffs as the third or fourth best team in the East.

Game 1.

Webber and Howard got into early foul trouble and sat for long stretches in the first half but their teammates were unfazed. Led by Strickland’s 10 first quarter points, Washington kept pace with Chicago in the first half and the Bulls grew increasingly frustrated with their inability to shake the scrappy underdogs. Phil Jackson was uncharacteristically animated in the second quarter, calling a timeout to berate Brian Williams for a lackadaisical inbounds pass and earning a technical from referee Steve Javie for arguing a foul call.

Hubie Brown noted the tension in the United Center on the game telecast: “There is major concern here. Everyone in this building understands this is a tough matchup for Chicago.”

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[GM Wes Unseld joins Craig Sager for an interview during the third quarter of Game 1. Screenshot via NBA on TNT]

Washington was ultimately done in by turnovers (22) and second chance points (the Bullets gave up 20 offensive boards), but they only trailed by four points early in the fourth quarter, despite Webber only managing eight points in 24 foul-plagued minutes before fading down the stretch in a 98-86 loss.

Despite the loss, Washington—not the NBA champs—shot the opening salvo. We felt like we had nothing to lose, and if we played freely then we would probably have a chance,” Chris Whitney remembered. “We felt that any given game any team could be beaten.”

Michael Jordan said after the game, “It’s hard to send a message to a team that really doesn’t have anything to lose.”

Game 2.

THIS GAME IS remembered for Michael Jordan scoring 55 points on a remarkably efficient 22-for-35 shooting, but few people remember why MJ was compelled to take over the game. Washington steamrolled Chicago in the first half to the tune of 65 points. And it all started with their talented big man.

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Chris Webber walked to center court for the opening tip of Game 2 looking like a man possessed. He had clearly spent the past 48 hours seething over his Game 1 performance, and he took out his aggression on the rim early and often.

Strickland punctuated the first half dominance by faking out all five Bulls defenders for a buzzer-beating reverse layup to take a 65-58 lead into the break.

The second half was not so easy. Washington elected to defend Jordan one-on-one, a strategy Bickerstaff had some success with in Denver. “Stopping MJ, no one is going to stop him,” Whitney explained. “But we felt Calbert (Cheaney) with his size, his defensive prowess, Calbert could make it tough on him, and that’s all you want to do. If Michael wants to score 50, he’ll get 50 because he’s gonna get up enough shots, so we felt that if we let Michael go for his and hold everybody else down we’ll give ourselves a better chance for a victory.”

Although the strategy worked in the first half—Jordan scored 26 but his teammates could not do enough to keep pace with Bullets—it allowed Jordan to get in a rhythm. By the start of the fourth quarter, MJ was locked in and he ended up scoring 20 of Chicago’s 23 points in the final period (“You don’t concede anything to him, he earned his 55,” Bickerstaff said). The Bulls needed every one of those points, as the Bullets only trailed by three points, 105-102, with 35 seconds remaining before Jordan slipped a double team and drove for a wide open layup to put the game out of reach (see 8:10 mark in video below).

The Bullets left Chicago down 0-2, but they were not out.

Washington’s inspired play set the stage for what turned out to be the greatest home game of the last 35 years and the final one played in Bullets’ uniforms.

To be continued in Part 2


  1. The Capital Centre in Landover, MD was known as the US Air Arena from 1993 to 1997, but for the purposes of this article, it shall be called the “Capital Centre.”
  2. Washington’s struggles were exacerbated by Tracy Murray’s pre-season wrist injury: “I tore the ligaments in my shooting wrist so I got off to an extremely slow start that year. I shouldn’t have even been playing but I gutted through the whole season and I got booed out of the gym [early in the season] because I couldn’t shoot the ball.”
  3. Lynam’s firing surprised everyone. Except for Rod Strickland. “Everyone liked coach,” said Chris Whitney. “We all played hard for him, we never laid down for him.”

    Strickland – perhaps because as an elite point guard he sensed the team was not clicking on all cylinders – was not shocked: “We had struggled a little bit.”

  4. Howard’s 40.5 minutes per game ranked fifth that season; Anthony Mason led the NBA with 43.1.
Adam Rubin on EmailAdam Rubin on Twitter
Adam Rubin
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Adam grew up in the D.C. area and has been a Washington Bullets fan for over 25 years. He will not refer to the franchise as anything other than the Bullets unless required to do so by Truth About It editorial standards. Adam spent many nights at the Capital Centre in the ‘90s where he witnessed such things as Michael Jordan’s “LaBradford Smith game,” the inexcusable under-usage of Gheorghe Muresan’s unstoppable post moves, and the basketball stylings of Ledell Eackles.