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

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

By
Updated: February 16, 2016

This is Part II of a retrospective of the 1996-97 Washington Bullets based on exclusive interviews with Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland, Tracy Murray, Chris Whitney, Bernie Bickerstaff, and Jim Lynam. Click here to read Part I.


“I had some butterflies because the building was packed. The fans were rowdy, the towels were waving around and that game went down to the wire.” —Juwan Howard


 

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FOR WASHINGTON BULLETS fans in the 1990s, there were two distinct segments of every NBA season: the Washington Bullets regular season and the NBA Playoffs—and never the twain shall meet. It was like the franchise existed solely to allow transplanted fans of the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks to watch their favorite team twice a year. Walking up those Capital Centre steps game after game was a Sisyphean effort. Everything changed on April 30, 1997.

Game 3.

Juwan Howard got chills when I asked him about the atmosphere in the arena after the Bullets returned home from two hard-fought losses in Chicago.

“I had some butterflies because the building was packed,” Howard recalled. “The fans were rowdy, the towels were waving around and that game went down to the wire.”

Tracy Murray had not seen anything like it. “The crowd was electric,” Murray remembered. “I think it was the first time that the crowd actually cheered for us because they loved Michael Jordan and they always cheered Michael Jordan and that game they were 1,000 percent on our side and the atmosphere was electric. It was very loud in the building. We fed off of that.”

Washington was shot out of a cannon to start the game. The Bullets made their first six field goals and rode the frenzied crowd to an early 14-2 lead, punctuated by a Webber dunk off a Calbert Cheaney fast break.


Phil Jackson called a rare early timeout to settle his team, and the Bulls then slowly chipped away at the lead, cutting the deficit to one at the end of the first quarter. It got a little chippy in the second quarter, with Dennis Rodman and Gheorghe Muresan squaring off after Rodman shoved him in the back after the whistle. The teams traded baskets until halftime; Chicago led 50-48 at the break.


THE THIRD QUARTER belonged to Tracy Murray. The Bulls opened up an eight point lead midway through the period, 65-57, after Jordan blew past Howard for an uncontested dunk. Bickerstaff called a timeout. That’s when Murray went unconscious.

Murray hit a corner 3-pointer off a nicely designed play out of the timeout. Toni Kukoc responded with a 3-pointer of his own and Murray went right back at him, knocking Kukoc to the floor and hitting a baseline jumper from behind the backboard. After two Scottie Pippen free throws, Murray got a steal and hit another 3-pointer to cut the lead to five. On the Bullets’ next possession, Murray pump-faked Kukoc into the air at the 3-point line, leaned in to take the foul and hit an acrobatic 22-foot fade-away plus the free throw. When the smoke cleared, Murray, who had scored 35 of Washington’s 37 bench points in Games 1 and 2, was 5-for-5 for 13 points in the period.


Cheaney capped the Bullets’ run with two free throws to tie the game at 70-70 entering the final quarter, setting the stage for the most entertaining 12 minutes of basketball in the franchise’s last 35 years. The score remained tied at 79-79 a few minutes into the fourth quarter before Washington went on a thrilling 11-2 run.

Every Washington basket raised the USAir Arena’s decibel level to maddening heights. Webber dunked off an offensive rebound. Howard scored off a pretty fast break assist from Strickland. Webber hit a jump hook off the glass, and Strickland blew by Kukoc for an easy layup to give the Bullets an 88-81 lead.

The crowd was in a frenzy but the best was yet to come. On the Bullets’ next possession, Webber and Howard gave the 20,000 screaming fans a reason to lose their minds.

Juwan dribbled the ball at the top of the key. Webber, who was being guarded by Luc Longley in the high post, signaled to Howard with his left hand, then spun off Longley toward the rim. Howard floated a lob toward the basket and before Longley could even turn around, Webber leapt into the air, corralled the ball in his right hand, and threw down an alley-oop, giving Washington a nine-point lead, 90-81, with 5:07 left in the game.


“I remember watching and thinking, ‘Hey, we got this. Momentum was there, the crowd was unbelievably loud.”  —Chris Whitney



The Capital Centre erupted with a combination of exultation and relief—the kind of euphoria that can only be generated by a fan base starved for so long. You could even see it on the players’ faces. “Oh yeah, I remember watching and thinking, ‘Hey, we got this,’” Chris Whitney said. “Momentum was there, the crowd was unbelievably loud.”

That alley-oop should have been the signature play of Webber and Howard’s young career in Washington. The highlight that gets shown over and over during multiple playoff runs. Instead, another play that occurred five minutes later would be the lasting image of the Webber-Howard era.


WEBBER FOULED OUT on a flop by Dennis Rodman with 3:22 remaining and the Bullets leading by seven. Jordan, like a shark smelling blood in the water, started circling. He hit a jumper. Then another.

“That’s what the great ones do,” Bickerstaff recalled. “From him, Kobe, Magic, all of the guys, the great ones I’ve been around, they recognize when it’s time to go to work.”

The crowd grew uneasy. They had seen this movie before. Pippen hit a clutch 3-pointer with two minutes left to bring the Bulls within one. More nerves. Chicago’s dynamic duo would go on to score 24 of Chicago’s final 26 points.

The Bulls finally took the lead, 94-93, after Jordan hit back-to-back jumpers with 1:12 remaining. The teams traded scoreless possessions and Washington got the ball back with 35 seconds remaining. Strickland missed a long jumper and Howard fought for an offensive rebound, drawing a reaching foul on Ron Harper.

With the Bulls over the limit, Howard stepped to the free throw line with the season in the balance. Webber, standing with his teammates in front of the bench, could not bear to watch. He turned his back to the court and looked off into the crowd before each attempt. Juwan calmly hit both free throws to give Washington a one point lead with 22 seconds left.


What happened next
is the stuff of Capital Centre lore.


IF YOU ASK Juwan Howard, Tracy Murray, Chris Whitney or Bernie Bickerstaff what they remember about the 1997 Chicago Bulls series, they all say the same thing: The Play.

“Yeah, I remember that play,” Howard lamented. “I thought that we were going to have an opportunity to seal the game with a victory and for a freak play like that to happen it was deflating.”

Chicago called a timeout after Juwan’s free throws gave Washington a one point lead. The entire stadium knew who was taking the last shot. Pippen brought the ball up the court and tossed it to Jordan on the left side near midcourt with 17 seconds remaining. Jordan worked his way to the top of the 3-point line then drove left on Calbert Cheaney. After he crossed the foul line, Jordan elevated for a shot and Cheaney swiped at the ball. Miraculously, the ball slipped out of Jordan’s hand and sailed backward 15 feet into the air.

The crowd, which had been standing for almost the entire fourth quarter, was apoplectic. Everyone in the stadium was staring at the ball as it hung in the air—except for one person. “Juwan didn’t see it because he was defending [Pippen],” Bickerstaff recalled.

The ball landed perfectly in Scottie’s hands and he drove baseline toward the rim. Howard, 18 years removed from The Play, narrated what happened next as if he was watching it unfold before his eyes: “Harvey tried to contest the shot and Scottie went up trying to make a strong basket finish, tried to dunk it, but Scottie got fouled, he fell on his back and the ball bounced up and went in.”

The crowd was stunned. MJ had finally been stopped on a last second play and Chicago still scored.


“It was my fault. I let Pippen out of my sight and he went back door and he finished. And it bothered me.” —Tracy Murray



TRACY MURRAY’S VOICE softens as he discusses Pippen’s dunk. “It was my fault. I let Pippen out of my sight and he went back door and he finished. And it bothered me.”

Murray is still not over The Play. “Every mistake it will continue to haunt you but what can I do now? I’m 44 years old with a hip replacement. I can’t do nothing about it.”

Murray’s regret is genuine but, as the tape shows, it is misplaced. Everyone was scrambling after the loose ball and Murray reacted as quickly as he could. “It was not a play of omission,” Bickerstaff said, “It was guys doing their jobs and that was that bounce … where effort created a loose ball and [the Bulls] came up with it and got a basket.”

Bickerstaff, for his part, still bristles when he thinks about Pippen’s shot. “There’s always those plays that stick out. . . . So you think about those things and you shake a little.”

Rod Strickland was the one guy who did not immediately remember The Play. “I don’t remember where I was [on the court],” Strickland admits, “and I would be interested if you knew because I know most of the time if it’s a free ball then I’m there, I’m going after it, I’m getting it.” Unfortunately, Rod was on the opposite side of the floor glued to Steve Kerr.

Rod’s memory was cloudy because he was focused on the possession after Pippen’s dunk, which turned out to be the final shot in Washington Bullets history.


PIPPEN STEPPED TO the free throw line with 7.4 seconds left and the Bulls leading 96-95. Pippen missed the free throw and Strickland corralled the rebound with precious few seconds remaining in the Bullets’ season and headed up court. Bulls’ guard Randy Brown picked Strickland up at the 3-point line.

“I remember Randy Brown on me and I remember penetrating and giving it to Cal Cheaney,” Strickland said, before revealing second thoughts. “That’s a great option but if I could take that back I probably would have shot that ball.”

You could hear a pang of regret in Rod’s voice as he replayed the final possession in his mind. With the benefit of re-watching the play, I reminded Strickland that Jordan had completely abandoned Cheaney and was camped in the lane to stop his penetration. Rod must have seen Cheaney wide open.

“Yeah, I did. And I made the right play. You know, people are like, ‘take the last shot, take the last shot,’ but my instincts were to be a playmaker so I was always looking to make the right play, so my instincts kind of took over there,” Strickland said, before once again second-guessing himself. “Cal’s a great option, but sometimes I just felt like I probably should have took that shot but my instincts took over and that’s what happened.”

Calbert caught Rod’s pass with his outstretched left hand and rose up for a jumper. Jordan ran past as he released the ball and hit Cheaney’s elbow. The shot missed completely and the buzzer sounded. Cheaney turned to the refs, tapped his elbow and raised his arms in protest as confetti fell and the Bulls stormed the court in celebration.

Strickland also appealed for a foul but knew it was futile. “At the end of the game, I mean how many of those refs are really going to make a foul call on MJ?” Strickland asks rhetorically. “As those games go on and it gets closer to the end of the game, he would probably disagree to this, but they would give [Jordan] some liberties on guarding you and how physical he could be.”


JORDAN FAMOUSLY PROCLAIMED during the series that the Bullets were one of the teams of the future, and that statement has become a lasting remembrance of the unfulfilled promise of that Bullets roster. Bickerstaff, who was later hired by Jordan as president and coach of the Charlotte Hornets, (jokingly) blames Jordan’s post-game comments for the Bullets’ demise.

“I tease Michael about it now, because … the worst thing that can happen is for you to be anointed, and we are all very good at that—anointing,” Bickerstaff said. “And I teased him about it, ‘We were fine until you stepped out there and said we were the team of the future.’”

Tracy Murray thinks that Bulls team, which would go on to beat the Utah Jazz for Jordan’s fifth NBA title, caught a break by catching the Bullets so early in their playoff run: “If we had gotten into the playoffs and started getting comfortable and confident, I think we would have been a problem down the line. I thought they did a good job of getting rid of us quick.”

Howard was (and still is) a believer. “I was maybe 24, 25 years old, and some would call me naïve, but I truly felt in my heart that we had a chance to someday win a title or titles with that team,” Howard said. “I really loved our roster.”

Time has not diminished Howard’s youthful optimism. Even after earning an NBA title as a player (and coach) in Miami and learning first-hand how difficult it is, Juwan adamantly contends the Bullets were on their way.

“[W]hat I told you that’s exactly how I feel to this day. That’s exactly how I feel about that team. We had a chance to do something special. That team would have been maybe mentioned as one of the elite teams and an NBA champion. We had a chance to have a banner hung up in that arena.”

[Source - Getty Images - NBA.]

[Source: Getty Images/NBA.]

NO ONE KNEW at the time, but the Bulls playoff series would be the franchise’s high water mark for the last 35 years.

Washington spent the 1997 off-season changing its team name, colors, and logo, and preparing to move into a state-of-the-art downtown arena. “It was a lot of buzz going around about us the way we performed in that first round of the playoffs so we were very, very excited about the upcoming season,” Whitney said.

The Wizards’ inaugural season was quickly sabotaged by injuries. Muresan missed the entire season, Howard and Webber missed 18 and 11 games, respectively, and Strickland, who earned second team All-NBA honors, missed critical games at the end of the year. Washington still managed 42 wins and remained in the playoff race until the final day of the season but fell short. “The team was fighting, they were competing but it was hard to overcome those injuries to key positions,” Bickerstaff remembered.

The players were frustrated but remained optimistic. “We were young and our oldest guy was probably Rod and Harvey, but Strick was really coming into his prime,” Whitney recalled. “We felt we still had an opportunity to be relevant in the Eastern conference.”

One month later, the bottom dropped out of the franchise.

webber richmond mitch

MAY 14, 1998.

Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. The trade that will live in infamy. The Webber trade ripped the heart out of the team. Seventeen years later you can still hear the regret in the players’ voices.

“My thought at that time was we were done,” Murray stated bluntly. “We’re done, because, nothing against Mitch Richmond, he’s a great player, he’s a franchise player, he’s a Hall of Famer, but we lost our best player, we lost our play-maker, we lost our inside guy, a 25 and 12 guy. When you lose that type of player that can get you assists as well, we lost our best player that was a young guy, and he was only going to get better and I thought that was the end.”

Strickland agreed. “Once you trade C-Webb—and no disrespect because Richmond is my guy, a very good friend and all that—but Mitch was like me, we’re kind of up there in years … Once they got rid of C-Webb, that was it. C-Webb was that guy. At the end of the day he was that guy.”

Bickerstaff, apropos of a man with extensive front office experience, was more diplomatic. “I’d have to punt, and have you talk to Wes on those things,” he said. “I don’t get into that. The trade was done. Obviously we were all a part of it, so it was an organizational decision and we are all a part of the organization.”

Despite his diplomacy, Bickerstaff hinted at where his allegiances lay. “We missed a good, good player—a great player—and at that point in time Richmond was a great player but he had lost a step or two, so it was a size factor that really hurt us.”

There was some discussion that Webber and Howard were not an ideal fit in the front court, but Bickerstaff disputes that notion. “That was no problem at all because I talked about the versatility of Juwan,” Bickerstaff explained. “And the guys obviously played together in college.”

“Did they get to the Final Four?” Bickerstaff asks rhetorically. “That’s pretty good, pretty good.”

Howard also dismissed the idea that he had any problem playing with Webber: “I remember there were rumbles saying that people thought him and I and Gheorghe Muresan, it would be a little too much and how can it work, but we found ways to make it work.”

More likely, the front office’s decision to unload its young, promising star was motivated by non-basketball concerns. Webber was involved in a couple off-court incidents and the negative press attention presumably played a role in the front office’s decision. Bickerstaff, however, insists he saw no need to jettison his star big man: “There were no off-the-court issues as far as I was concerned.”

Nevertheless, Howard hints that some of the players’ transgressions impacted the team’s performance. “I think also, as a player on the roster, I think we could have done a better job of being a little bit more professional, and that’s me included, on what we did on and off the floor to prepare us to help us win ballgames,” he told me.

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IN SPEAKING WITH the players and coaches about this oft-forgotten era in Washington Bullets history, one theme emerges: time. They wish the Bullets young core was given more of it. “I just wish that the organization would have been a little bit more patient with that team,” Howard said. “I think that team had a chance to be special and I look back on it. I miss playing on that team. I thought that was one of the best highlight moments of my career and I will always cherish those moments.”

Lynam is more matter-of-fact: “You know, it’s, what do you wanna do? It’s history now. They should have given us a little more time to be honest with you, and I think history has proven that.”

We will never know what could have been if that Bullets roster was given an opportunity to mature together. As is often the case in sports, there are more “what ifs?” than answers.

Lynam offers the only thing that can be said with certainty: “It was a shame because the franchise suffered for Chris Webber and Juwan not to have been able to contribute there in Washington. They did in other places, to me that’s a shame.”

A shame, indeed. But we’ll always have Game 3.

[1996-97 Washington Bullets team photo. Source - Getty Images - NBA.]

[1996-97 Washington Bullets team photo. Source: Getty Images/NBA.]

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.