The year is 1975. The nation is just starting to recover from the shame of the Watergate Scandal, and the city of Washington DC has been without a major sports championship for over thirty years, the last one coming in 1942, well before the modern Super Bowl era. Although they were swept in the NBA Finals four years previously, the Bullets – anchored by undersized big men Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld – have moved to the nation’s capital and finished the season tied for the league’s best record at 60-22 with the defending champion Boston Celtics.
After outlasting the Buffalo Braves in seven games, the Bullets stole game one of the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston Garden, meaning they only needed to win three home games to advance to the NBA Finals. They held serve at home and moved on to the championship series as the decided favorite over the 48-34 Golden State Warriors.
In what turned out to be the “closest sweep” in NBA Finals history, the Warriors upset Washington and took four straight games (by a total margin of 16 points), and became the 1975 NBA champions. The Bullets were now 0-8 in NBA Finals games, and question marks surrounded the franchise after they traded away starting point guard Kevin Porter to the Detroit Pistons for Dave Bing, a 33-year-old veteran in the twilight of his career.
The 1976 and 1977 seasons proved to be disappointments for the Bullets, as they finished 48-34 both seasons and bowed out in the conference semifinals. The acquisitions of point guard Tom Henderson and small forward Bob Dandridge helped to off-set the declines/departures of Bing, shooting guard Phil Chenier, and small forward Mike Riordan, but Washington only won 44 games in 1978 and looked far from capable of contending.
A down year across the league saw the Bullets enter the playoffs as the #3 seed despite their win total, and a two-game sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the first round pitted them against the #2-seed San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals. A new arrival from the ABA, the Spurs under their current name had yet to win a playoff series, but 52 wins was their most in franchise history to this point.
The Spurs took game one at a home, but the Bullets stole game two in San Antonio to tie the series. After two straight wins in Washington, the Bullets were one win away from another Eastern Conference Finals birth. The Spurs extended the series with a game five win at home, but the Bullets closed it out behind 25 points from Elvin Hayes in a tough 3-point victory in game six to eliminate the Spurs.
Facing off with the defending Eastern Conference champion and top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, the Bullets were underdogs despite having won two straight series. The 76ers won 55 games in 1978 and were eager to avenge their blown 2-0 series lead in the NBA Finals the year before.
Washington stole homecourt advantage with a five-point upset in game one (despite a clutch game-tying shot from Doug Collins), and their dominance at home continued with wins in games three and four, establishing a 3-1 series lead. The 76ers stayed alive with a 13-point victory in game five at home, but the Bullets survived 33 points from Collins in a two-point win in game six to clinch their third NBA Finals appearance of the decade.
Meanwhile in the West, another underdog was making their way through the playoffs. The Seattle SuperSonics – fresh off an upset of the league-best, 58-win, defending champion Portland Trailblazers – finished off #2-seed Denver in six games to reach their first championship series in franchise history. By virtue of 47 regular season wins, the Sonics entered the NBA Finals with homecourt advantage
An unorthodox series scheduling implemented a 1-2-2-1-1 format for homecourt, far different from the standard 2-2-1-1-1 to which the NBA has grown accustomed. Perhaps the league anticipated a longer series, in which case having three of the final four games at home would be ideal for the team with the greater record. This formatting would become a critical factor after game three.
1978 NBA Finals
Game One (Seattle 0, Washington 0):
Given that most fans of the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans hockey team were either deceased or elderly by this time, game one of the 1978 NBA Finals was the first championship game in any major sport to be played in Seattle for modern fans. Most Sonics fans were likely disappointed with the inaugural showing as their team trailed by 19 in the fourth quarter, but “Downtown” Fred Brown went nuts in the final period and poured in 16 in the last nine minutes to bring his team back to win by four.
Game Two (Seattle 1, Washington 0):
Entering game two, the Bullets were now 0-9 all-time in NBA Finals games. Dandridge erupted for 34 points to complement Wes Unseld’s inside defense and crisp passing to help Washington tie it up and claim their first victory in a championship series. The series would stay in the capital for game three before shifting back to the west coast for games four and five.
Game Three (Seattle 1, Washington 1):
The Sonics nearly squandered a late 3-point lead in game three. With 10 seconds left, Henderson stole the ball and converted a lay-up to bring the Bullets within one. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Paul Silas turned the ball over after stepping over the line, but Dandridge missed the potential game-winner. The series now returned to Seattle with the Sonics holding a 2-1 lead and three home games left. The Bullets would have to win at least two games at the Seattle Center Coliseum – where the Sonics were 31-10 in the regular season – to win the title.
Game Four (Seattle 2, Washington 1):
Up two games to one, the Sonics only needed to win two of three home games and/or split the remaining four games to become NBA champions. Midseason acquisition and former champion Charles Johnson came alive late in the third with the Bullets trailing, helping to tie the game and force overtime. He traded baskets with his unrelated counterpart Dennis Johnson, who finished with 33 points, but three quick baskets in the extra period allowed Washington to knot the series at two and avoid an insurmountable 3-1 deficit.
Game Five (Seattle 2, Washington 2):
The dominant team throughout the series so far, the Sonics again held serve at home to notch their third win. The Bullets’ free-throw shooting proved their undoing, and Seattle moved to within a single win of the NBA title. They would get two bites at the apple, so all they had to do was win either game six on the road or game seven at home.
Game Six (Seattle 3, Washington 2):
Desperate to stay alive, Bullets coach Dick Motta inserted Greg Ballard into the starting lineup for Kevin Grevey and slid Dandridge to shooting guard. After steadily building a lead after the first half, Washington blew the Sonics out in the second behind 70 points, emerging with a 35-point margin of victory to force a decisive game seven back in Seattle.
Game Seven (Seattle 3, Washington 3):
With all the cards on the table, the Sonics sought to avoid becoming the third team in the past ten years to blow an NBA Finals game seven at home. Alternately, the Bullets’ late-season run had been so unexpected that they played free and easy in the finale on the road, looking to take the series advantage for the first and final time. Young Dennis Johnson was completely ineffective and didn’t make a single shot from the field. Washington steadily built a lead over the first three quarters and held off a late charge from Seattle to clinch their first championship on a dunk from Dandridge. The improbable was now reality, and franchise center Unseld was deservedly named Finals MVP (although the TV broadcast mistakenly announced it as Dandridge before being corrected).
The Washington Redskins would win three Super Bowls from 1982-1991 to bring more glory to the nation’s capital. The 1978 NBA championship remains the sole title for the Bullets franchise, now dubbed the Wizards, but a first round playoff win in 2017 and superb play from cornerstone point guard John Wall has given the team reason to believe in this season and beyond.
The most interesting take-away from that glorious championship season is undoubtedly the similarity to later runs from the 1995 Houston Rockets and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. All three teams were considered underdogs despite previous successful seasons, and all three teams had to upset favored opponents in multiple rounds en route to winning their titles.
Winning the title in 1978 also served as vindication for Wes Unseld, a man who until that series was 0-8 in NBA Finals games. Overcoming that history of failure proved his resiliency and showed that a center can impact the game without serving as the offensive focal point.