News & Politics

How Washington Won Its Only NBA Championship

An oral history of the Bullets's surprising 1978 title run.

The Bullets battle the Sonics in the ’78 NBA Finals. Photograph courtesy of NBA Photos.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Washington’s last NBA championship. Will DC’s team, which changed its name from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1997, pull it off this year? To borrow the 1978 squad’s now familiar catchphrase: It ain’t over till the fat lady sings. In the meantime, here’s a look back at that unlikely season.

Phil Chenier, shooting guard, 1971–79: “[The season] started off rough, but you could see the momentum gathering near the end.”

Dick Motta, head coach, 1976–80: “We had so many dang injuries. The media’s attitude was: There’s no way you Bullets are gonna win. We just went out and busted our balls every game.”

Elvin Hayes, power forward, 1972–81: “Washington had not had a championship major sports team [for many years]. The Bullets set an example, I think, for the Redskins to come after us and win Super Bowls.”

Bob Dandridge, small forward, 1977–81: “Phil, Elvin, and Wes Unseld had been there for years, and the championship had eluded them. They were at the tail end of their careers, so that made it a thing of urgency. Everybody was willing to do whatever it took to win.”

Motta: “Game 7 [of the finals] was in Seattle, and they had Champagne in their locker room, and [after we won] they wouldn’t give it to us, so we were shaking beer bottles. We were a beer-bottle team.”

Hayes: “We all want to relive that moment when we danced off the floor in Seattle and flew back to Washington to be met by those wonderful fans—from Dulles all the way to the Capital Centre. The whole city turned out for the championship parade.”

Motta: “All these people came out dressed as Vikings with to-gas and hats, like the fat lady in the opera. I don’t remember how long the parade was, but I was sunburnt when it was over.”

Dandridge: “These guys, we were family. No matter if we disagreed on things. When you’ve played on a championship team, that’s a lifelong bond.”

Chenier: “It’s funny, you talk to Wizards fans who are 12 or 13 years old and some of them don’t even know who the Bullets were.”

Dandridge: “Longtime fans still refer to us as the Bullets.”

Chenier: “I’ve gotten used to ‘the Wizards,’ and it’s not that big a deal. But at the time, I was very sad to see that change. It wasn’t long after that they tore down the Capital Centre. I felt like a lot of our history was leaving.”

Hayes: “The name change doesn’t take away anything. Nobody’s going to say ‘the Wizards won a championship’ yet.”

This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Washingtonian.