The Wizard’s series of promotions and ceremonies commemorating and celebrating the Bullets 1978 NBA Championship has been a success – serving not only as a convenient distraction from the current team’s woeful early spring, but also as an instruction in the franchise’s ancestral tradition of winning that most fans under 40 probably never fully appreciated.
Sure, any semi-competent Wizards fan knows that the team has one NBA title to its name, but it was won so many years ago that any pride new generations of fans might hope to extract from it has long since expired. The lone championship banner hanging in the Capital One Arena has always been like the black-and-white pictures of your long-deceased great grandparents that your mother displays on the piano; the single Larry O’Brien trophy in the mezzanine trophy case like the forgotten antique crystal vase stored away in the china cabinet to preserve the family heirloom from wear. We know these relics carry some significance to our heritage, but their origins are so far removed from our everyday experience that we struggle to attribute the appropriate value to them.
As such, the 40-year anniversary of this franchise’s crowning achievement has proven an opportune time to recount the old legends of our success and sustained excellence to fans who have known only mediocrity and disappointment. I, for one, have learned a ton about this team’s history – history I previously only vaguely understood – by watching the documentary on our banner year, listening to interviews of our former champions, and reading profiles both new and old of our winningest teams. Perhaps this is even the optimal time for reminiscing on our solitary triumph, as the highest-potential Wizards squad since that championship team limps into a playoffs where it hopes to take the next step to winning a second trophy.
I think all of us – fans, media, and the WizKids players themselves – can learn some valuable lessons from the ‘78 NBA Champions and from what it took for them to earn that title. Then, this anniversary celebration can be more than just an exercise in decades-late self-applause or a marketing ploy to sell more season tickets. Here are a few takeaways that the 1978 Bullets can teach us about our NBA heritage and about what it takes to be a champion.
A Heritage of Winning: We are the descendants of winners.
This is the most critical fact that the Bullets40 hashtag calls us to remember. Winning is in our blood. Winning on the largest of stages. Hard-earned winning. Perennial winning.
Younger fans can be forgiven for underestimating how great our team once was. Our championship was won just before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson galvanized the league, and while the highlights of those stars’ triumphs are easily accessed in YouTube montages and 30 for 30’s, the footage of our heroes is grainy and rarely aired.
Maybe that’s why fans seem to only vaguely recall our championship story, some misremembering it as a fluky playoff run, or dismissing it as from a time when the level of competition was subpar. The championship documentary sets the record straight. The Bullets of those days were serious contenders each and every year, making more Finals in the decade than any other team (4 times – ’71, ’75, ’78, ’79), being heavy favorites in some of those Finals, and making a return trip to the championship round the year after their banner-raising season. That’s no fluke, that’s sustained excellence. And the level of competition in the NBA was higher, not lower. With only 22 teams in the league, each squad was stacked with premier talent. Of these, the Bullets were the best.
Team Identity is Set at the Top: The 1978 Bullets, much like their counterparts from forty years later, were led by an All-Star duo whom teammates relied on for energy and to establish the team’s identity. Hall of Famer big men Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes dripped with contagious motivation, and they dictated that the team’s persona would be a punishing one. Hayes made his living putting in work in the low post, and Unseld – built like the Hulk – did the dirty work on the boards, on the defensive end, and anywhere else he could fling his massive body around to help the team win. Taking the lead from Wes and Elvin, the team’s mantra became to do whatever it took to win. Opponents knew when facing the Bullets that every game would be a dogfight.
John Wall and Bradley Beal can take a page out of the book of their forerunners in this regard. The WizKid pair are already the undisputed leaders and brightest hopes for this roster, but to take the next step they need to take it upon themselves to set the standard for how this team plays every night. Wes and Elvin were bullies in the paint; John and Brad need to be the same on the perimeter.
Gotta’ Beat the Best to Be the Best: For anybody fretting that the Wizards won’t have a chance in the playoffs if they fall to too low a seed, and for those with designs of manipulating our way to the 7th spot to face-off against the depleted Celtics, let me remind you the ’78 Bullets made it to the Finals after knocking off the #1 and #2 seeds. The Bullets took down George “Iceman” Gervin’s Spurs in the Conference Semis before toppling Dr. J and the Sixers to advance to the Finals
You have to beat the best to be the best. And by beating the best, you become even better. So, let’s not sweat about playoff seeding and matchups over the last weeks of the season – Cavs, Raptors, Sixers, Pacers – it’s all the same! It’s more important to focus on how we’re playing as a team, which brings us to the next point.
Success is All About Timing: As mentioned before, the 78 Bullets won the title after finishing the regular season with a record far off the league-best mark, posting a record of 44-38 (is it fate if we finish with an identical record??). The team had a tumultuous season that saw them lose six of the first ten games and then suffer a season-ending injury to key contributor Phil Chenier. Despite the turbulence, the Bullets started gelling at the end of the season, playing their best basketball and carrying the momentum into the playoffs where it translated into success.
The current Wizards can draw a lot of parallels between their uneven season and that of the old championship squad. Player controversies, injuries, and poor performances have characterized the first nine-tenths of this campaign. However, like with the 78 Bullets, there still remains the opportunity for the team to change this narrative by coming together and playing its best ball over the last games of the year. Especially with John Wall coming back soon, the focus needs to be on getting everybody on the same page, playing together seamlessly, and geared up for a deep post-season run.
Homecourt Advantage is Critical: The onus of this key takeaway rests solely on us, the fans of the Washington Wizards. Several of the Bullets champions credit the fans of the 70’s for being a huge motivator, source of energy, and competitive advantage. They say the home crowd made the Capital Arena the loudest place they’d ever played. Who’s ever said any of these things about the spectators in the MCI Center/Verizon Center/Capital One Arena?
I’ve heard all the excuses – DC is a transient town, fans in the district have become wary of getting disappointed again, “I’m saving my voice to scream for free Chickfila in the 4th Quarter” – and they’re all crap! If we want a championship-quality team, we fans need to do our part by being of that same caliber. That means showing up early, cheering the whole game, standing up for important possessions, and heckling the hell out of opponents and all their bandwagon fans. Game 3 of the 2015 Wizards-Bulls playoffs, our first home playoff game in 8 years, was the loudest, most raucous I’ve ever seen our arena, from pre-game to final buzzer. We need to collectively bring that level of intensity every time out from now til the player debriefs in the summer.
In Conclusion: Conventional wisdom says that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Maybe for the Wizards it will prove that by learning from our history we’ll be able to repeat it.
As we participate in these 40-year anniversary events and re-educate ourselves on our previous success, we must do so with a mindset intent on picking up clues for how to replicate that success. The 1978 Bullets have reminded us that we’re winners at our core, that we come from the stock of champions. They’ve also taught us and inspired to hope to be champions once again.