On Sunday, the Wizards will welcome back the 1977-78 championship team at halftime, when they were known as the Bullets. Here’s some information on how things were like when Washington cemented its place in NBA history and where the members of that team are today.
The Bullets won the title. Who were the Western Conference champs in 1978?
The Seattle SuperSonics. Washington defeated the Seattle, four games to three. The Seattle SuperSonics are now the Oklahoma City Thunder after they relocated there in the 2008-09 NBA season. In the following year, the Bullets and Sonics faced each other in the NBA Finals, but Seattle came out victorious, beating D.C. four games to one.
How was the 1977-78 NBA season like as a whole?
The Bullets were 44-38 and were second place in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. They ended up being the third seed in the Eastern Conference behind the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs, and the first-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
Before you call the 1977-78 team a mediocre squad, it’s important to look at the NBA’s environment at the time. The league only had 22 teams, so it was harder to see teams get 60 win seasons, and the worst teams generally won well over 20 games.
The NBA only had three teams with over 50 regular season wins in 1977-78. The Sixers won 55 games while the Spurs won 52 in the East. In the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers won 58 regular season games in a Bill Walton’s heyday. He was the MVP that year despite playing just 58 games. On the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey Nets were the NBA’s worst team with 24 wins, but the second worst team was the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) with 27 wins. The Sonics were 47-35 in 1977-78 and were the fourth seeded team from the West.
How did the Bullets win the NBA Playoffs?
The NBA Playoffs in 1978 consisted of 12 teams, six from each conference. The top two seeds earned byes to the semifinals while the remaining four teams in each conference played a best of three series. The Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals, and Finals were all Best of Seven Series.
The Bullets played the sixth seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round and swept them 2-0. They then beat the Spurs in the Conference Semifinals, 4-2 and the 76ers in the Conference Finals, 4-2.
The Sonics played the fifth seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and won 2-1. They then beat the first-seeded Trail Blazers in the Conference Semifinals and the second-seeded Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.
The Bullets and Sonics’ finals series is certainly big to fans in Washington and Seattle. But from a general NBA perspective, the Finals were an anomaly because neither the Bullets or Sonics were widely expected to win their conferences. After all, both teams defeated the top-two seeds in their conferences to get to the Finals. It’s also the only NBA Finals where both teams didn’t win 50 regular season games.
Finally, this Finals featured a squad where the NBA Champion won a title on the road in Game 7 on June 7, 1978 — that team being the Bullets for course. No road team won Game 7 in an NBA Finals ever again until 2016 when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors.
Here is a video chronicling the 1978 Finals, with 1970’s elevator music.
What were the hit songs during the 1978 NBA Playoffs?
Today, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars are some of the hottest acts in town. In 1978, the Bee Gees were enjoying their heyday after contributing several songs to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The Big E and Grevey were probably having dance offs to “Stayin’ Alive” during the regular season which was number one throughout February. I’m shocked this song wasn’t the top hit of 1977 and 1978:
From mid-March through early May, “Night Fever” was the number one hit in the USA and the top jam in the locker room:
The star of “Saturday Night Fever” was John Travolta, who was better known for showing off his dance moves than being in action movies later in his career. He and Olivia Newton-John starred in “Grease” in 1978, where “You’re The One That I Want” was the top song in the USA when the Bullets won the Finals in June:
Who was on the 1977-78 Team?
Here were the players on the team, last names in alphabetical order.
- Greg Ballard, SF, Oregon - Ballard was a rookie on the team and played sparingly. He would go on to play 11 NBA season, eight of them with the Bullets though the 1987 season. His best NBA season was in 1981-82 when he averaged 18.8 points and 8 rebounds a game. After retiring, Ballard went into NBA coaching and scouting after retiring. He passed away in 2016 due to prostate cancer.
- Phil Chenier, SG, California - Chenier was a three-time All-Star, but began to decline in this season due to a back injury. Chenier would ultimately become the TV color announcer for the Bullets/Wizards from 1985-2017. His number 45 was retired last Friday!
- Bob Dandridge, SF, Norfolk State - Dandridge averaged 19.3 points a game in the championship season. It was his second title, after winning one in 1971 with the Bucks where his number there is retired. Dandridge remains active with the Wizards for alumni activities.
- Kevin Grevey, SG/SF - Kentucky - When Chenier was hurt, Grevey stepped in his place, where he averaged 15.5 points a game. Grevey opened a sports bar in Merrifield, VA in 1979 and ran it well after his playing days ended in 1985. He closed the bar in 2016, and a Five Guys now took its place.
- Elvin Hayes, PF, Houston - Hayes formed one of the NBA’s strongest post duos with Wes Unseld and was the leading scorer on the team. He earned an All-Star appearance that season and his number 44 is retired and Hayes is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Today, Hayes lives in the Houston area and serves part-time on a reserve police force.
- Tom Henderson, G, Hawai’i - Henderson was in the middle of his nine-year NBA career in the Wizards’ championship where he averaged 11.4 points and 5.4 assists in the regular season. According to the Wizards’ alumni site, he is now working at a juvenile facility as an administrator in Houston. Henderson is also known for being part of the 1972 USA Basketball men’s national team that won the silver medal.
- Charles Johnson, PG, California - Like Chenier, Johnson played at Cal for college and even played alongside him. After getting waived by the Golden State Warriors where he began his career, the Bullets signed Johnson midseason after Chenier had his season ending back surgery. As a Bullet, Johnson shined at this brightest in the NBA Finals where he scored 80 points in Games 4-7 to bring Washington over the finish line. He retired after then 1978-79 season. Johnson passed away in 2007 due to cancer.
- Mitch Kupchak, PF, North Carolina - Kupchak was a sophomore player in 1978 coming off an All-Rookie season the year before. He averaged a career high 15.9 points a game while backing up the Big E and Wes. Kupchak finished his career with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1986 where he would go on to a career in basketball operations. Kupchak is better known to casual NBA fans as the Lakers’ GM during the heyday of the Kobe Bryant Era from 2000-2017 when the Lakers won four NBA championships with him leading the front office.
- Joe Pace, C, Coppin State - Pace was a backup center for the Bullets on the championship team. In 2008, he was homeless in Seattle, but was able to get back on his feet again thanks to benefactors.
- Wes Unseld, C, Louisville - Unseld is regarded as the best player in Wizards franchise history, where he won the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same year. A member of the Hall of Fame, his number 41 is retired. He was not an All-Star in this season since he was entering the twilight of his career. But Unseld averaged 9.4 points and 12 rebounds a game in the NBA Playoffs and was the Finals MVP. After he retired, Unseld was the Bullets’ head coach and general manager durjng some if the Bullets’ leaner years. He now lives in Baltimore.
- Phil Walker, SG, Millersville (PA) - Walker played one season in the NBA where he was a seldom used reserve. Here is a link to an interview that he gave to Phil Chenier.
- Larry Wright, PG, Grambling State - Wright was a sophomore player who averaged 9.2 points a game on the championship team. He finished his NBA career with the Detroit Pistons in the 1981-82 season, but would go onto the Italian League where he won a FIBA European Champions Cup (today’s EuroLeague) with Banco di Roma in 1984. He was the Grambling State basketball head coach from 1999-2008.
And here was the head coach and GM from the 1977-78 team:
Dick Motta - Motta was the Bullets’ head coach from 1976-1980 after an eight year stint with the Bulls. He is one of the first people to make the saying “The opera isn’t over ‘til the fat lady sings!” but he’s not the guy who was the first to say it. That phrase came about in the Eastern Conference Semifinals when the Bullets were about to eliminate the Spurs. After coaching the Bullets, Motta spent time later on with the Mavericks, Kings, and Nuggets but would never replicate the same success again.
Bob Ferry, GM - Ferry was a longtime NBA player from 1959-1968 where he finished his career with the Bullets. As a GM, Ferry ran basketball operations from 1973 to 1990 and won two NBA Executive of the Year awards in 1979 and 1982.