Editor's Note: And so it begins. Here's part one of our summer Bullets/Wizards oral history from the fan's perspective project, via hotplate. A description of the project, along with a list of landmark events in Bullets/Wizards' history, can be found here. There are still many, many openings left. -Mike
Our story begins in 1989. I was a big Bullets fan and along with a buddy and his brother had a 10 game ticket plan. That was a fun year to root for the Bullets. During the off season, we let Moses Malone go to free agency. I was ok with the move as he was clearly on the decline. But we had no one to replace him so it was difficult to imagine that the team could get better. But we did, especially at home. Led by Jeff Malone, Bernard King, and my namesake John "Hotplate" Williams the team played inspired ball for Coach Wes Unseld that year. The ended at 40-42 and barely missed the playoffs. At home, the team was almost a powerhouse. The record was 31-10 (I don’t even want to think about what that says about the road record) and included wins over all of the powerhouses including the Celtics and Lakers. Nothing thrilled me more than to watch my overmatched Bullets silence the opposing fans with a close well played victory. It was a great basketball watching year for me and the excitement carried over into the summer
I started dating my now wife during that summer. During that first blush of romance, she wanted to know and share all of the things I considered important. The Bullets were darn close to #1 and she gallantly made an effort to share my love of attending Bullets games, even joining in on our ticket plan Unfortunately, John Williams went down with a serious knee injury early in the 1989-1990 season. This started an instant transition for the Bullets from a mediocre 35 to 40 win team to a bad 20 to 30 win team. Crowds dwindled and the Capital Center was quiet. The most exciting day of each season became lottery day and we perpetually ended up with the worst possible draft position that we could receive. So we added ok players such as Tom Gugliotta and Calbert Cheney, but never had a chance to draft someone who could actually be a difference maker for a franchise. My wife failed to see what my enthusiasm had been all about and went so far as to bear a child just to have an excuse to get out of attending games with me.
Our luck looked to get a little better when we had the opportunity to draft Juwan Howard with the number 5 pick. I remember watching the list of underclassmen applying to the draft, hoping that enough would declare so that Howard might fall to us. I was thrilled when he did because he was a tough inside player with a good jump shot who looked ready to contribute immediately. But the Bullets, being the Bullets, decided to take a one team stand against escalating rookie salaries and refused to offer Howard a contract that matched his "slot". I have no idea why they felt the need to get tough. They’d done the same with Tom Gugliotta and barely got him signed before the season started. So Howard and his agent David Falk held out and the Bullets started the season without their top draft pick. As a fan, this was a slap in the face. They weren’t even making an effort to get better. I was still a plan holder, but quite an unhappy one. Fan discontent had never been higher. Things couldn't get much lower.
I work for the government and most agencies have some sort of recreation department that organizes activities and such. They also distribute a newpaper. I was glancing through it and saw an ad for sky box tickets to the Bullets games that some agency‘s rec department had available.. I thought that if we got sky box seats, we could bring my toddler son along to a game as there would be room for him to toddle around. So I consulted my buddies and wife and we decided to get these tickets for the next Saturday night game. Nothing special about the game or night, just that it was the most convenient for all of us.
Then it happened. Webber was unhappy in Golden State! He hated Don Nelson and wanted out! Amazingly, somehow Washington became the favored suitor. I have no idea how. The Bullets never made the news. They were simply an afterthought of a franchise. So I was stunned that they would even be mentioned in the story but didn’t believe that we could ever get Webber. A couple of days went by and the story became more credible. The Webber news also helped with the Howard contract talks. Things were happening on that front too. I drove downtown on my lunch hour to pick up the tickets I had ordered and the guy who gave them to said "Think they’re going to get him?" I think I replied that I wouldn’t believe it until it the deal was absolutely done.
And then the next day, it was done. Webber was coming here in a trade for Gugliotta and 3 future first round picks and as a bonus, Howard agreed to a contract. They would both play this coming Saturday against the Celtics. The one I had sky box tickets for! I was ecstatic as was the city. My wife and I, along with my toddler son, got to the game and the place was more electric than I had ever seen it. There was an amazing buzz in the air. The late ‘80s playoff games were nowhere near as loud or full. The seats were filled early and the crowd was as loud as I have ever heard it. Finally, my wife got to see an excited crowd. "See honey, this us what it is all about."
I don’t remember much of the actual game except for the incredibly loud crowd and the electric atmosphere. It was extremely close and the Bullets took the lead by 1 with about 5 seconds to go. Both teams must have been out of timeouts because Boston had to dribble the ball up court. Rex Chapman met the dribbler at halfcourt. Contact, whistle, "Oh No, how can you call that at this point in the game?". Also "Rex, what the hell are you doing out there?" A blocking foul was called on Chapman and Boston made both shots. 3 seconds remained for the Bullets but as I said, they must have been out of time outs because they inbounded the ball from underneath the Celtics basket. The next play typifies everything about the Bullets fans and the Chris Webber experience. The Bullets fired a long pass down court a la Grant Hill to Christian Laettner. Incredibly, Calbert Cheney was open! Alas, Webber was also down there unaware of Cheney’s presence. They didn’t make much of it in the papers the next day but I swear the following is true. Webber knocked the ball away from Cheney so that neither got it. Time expired without a shot. Bullets lose by 1. Had Webber stayed away, Cheney would have had a good shot to win it for us. But what a game anyway!
The ending typified Webber’s entire career. He was a very good player but could never finish. He always seemed to try to do a little too much and come up just short. And the Bullets always seemed to fight the good fight, but lose in the end. When I reminisce about Bullets seasons, the theme was always "an undermanned team played great before just missing the playoffs".
Well we didn’t know that on November 19, 1994. What we knew was that we had just seen a great game in front of a loud full house. And man were things going to be fun! In the words of a popular song of the time "The Future’s so Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades". Even my wife was impressed.