For the local NBA franchise’s final three home games, the Bullets were back. So was their merchandise.
Owner Abe Pollin didn’t just drop the name “Bullets” six years ago. He demonized it. But from the clanging of cash registers and the turning of turnstiles at the MCI Center, one could get the impression that those demons have all been exorcised.
Pollin first announced his intention to find a new moniker for his team in November 1995. He had just returned from a trip to Israel to attend the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by a handgun-wielding assassin.
“My friend Rabin was shot in the back,” Pollin told the Washington Post. “The name Bullets for a sports team is no longer appropriate. That is more important than the history of the franchise.”
The continued high murder rate in D.C. was also cited by the owner, who was preparing to move the franchise from the Capital Centre downtown to the MCI Center, then being built. So at the same time he disclosed he’d be dropping “Bullets,” Pollin announced the formation of an anti-violence campaign, “Time Out From Violence,” that would be pushed in the city’s junior high schools.
“All that we do in the community will be focused on an antiviolence message with a conflict-resolution theme. Our name change will go hand in hand with the Bullets’ antiviolence campaign,” Pollin said in the Post. “The Bible says that if you save one life, you save the world. Hopefully, we will save many more than that.”
The team began a new name search, and fans were asked to deliver their nominations to area Boston Market outlets. A panel of media stars and celebrities convened by Pollin picked five finalists”Wizards,” “Sea Dogs,” “Dragons,” “Express,” and “Stallions”out of the reported pool of hundreds of thousands of proposals. The last round of voting was done through toll calls over 900 lines, the profits from which were to go to a nonviolence promotional campaign set up by the team. Pollin never released the final vote, but he said “Wizards” was the clear winner.
“I have a ring that says ‘Bullets’ and ‘Pollin’ on it,” he told reporters at the time. “I’m prepared to give that up. If I can maybe make a difference and save some lives, that’s more important than the history that will be lost. I finally decided if there was the possibility of making a difference with this anti-violence campaign, it’s more important than the nickname of a team.”
Some cynics pointed out that Pollin’s rationalization came at a time when the Bullets ranked last in the NBA in sales of licensed goods, while the logos of newer franchises such as the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves were finding their way onto kids’ T-shirts.
But Pollin stuck to his guns, always insisting that the anti-violence aim was paramount, and he was hailed near and far as a do-gooder.
The Post’s Colman McCarthy credited Pollin with “understanding the essence of social reform: Don’t do great things, do small things in a great way.”
Columnist Ray Richardson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press editorialized that Pollin “deserves praise for his social consciousness” in taking a step to fight “Washington’s well-documented crime problem.”
“It is rare when money, the driving force behind professional sports these days, takes a back seat to principle,” wrote Richardson.
Money appears to be riding shotgun these days around Pollin’s arena.
“We’re sold out,” a clerk at the Modell’s outlet at the MCI Center told me after I inquired about the availability of the Bullets throwback jerseys that were on sale in the concourse last week. The garments, produced by Nike and priced at $59 and $69, hit the shelves in conjunction with the “Retro Night” promotion the Wizards put on for the game against the Boston Celtics. All but two members of the 1977-1978 NBA champion Bullets (Greg Ballard and Elvin Hayes) showed up for the contest and were introduced at halftime.
Retro wear is very hot right now, and vintage Bullets jerseys are as hot as any. They got their biggest boost in January, when high-school phenom LeBron James was suspended from the St. Vincent-St. Mary basketball team for accepting two throwback jerseys from a local sporting-goods store. One of the garments that got James in trouble was a replica of the No. 41 shirt Wes Unseld wore with the Bullets during the championship season, which in wire-service reports was valued at $450.
The MCI Center Modell’s didn’t sell the jerseys bearing the names and numbers of old Bullets, however. Only Jerry Stackhouse’s No. 42 and Michael Jordan’s No. 23 were up for sale. The champion Bullets all went back home after the Celtics game, but the Wizards continued wearing the retro gear and playing as the Bullets for the remaining home dates.
Matt Williams, Pollin’s spokesperson, says the team made the decision to go retro before the season started, and he adds that the promotion, coming during a war in the Middle East and with D.C.’s murder rate on the upswing, shouldn’t be taken as evidence that the owner has changed his opinion on the evils of “Bullets.”
“He feels the same way about the name now that he did when he [announced the change],” Williams says. “But he does love that uniform and that team from 1978that’s very close to him.” Profits from sales of old-school jerseys are split among all the NBA teams, Williams said.
According to staff at the MCI Center Modell’s, talks are under way with Nike to get more Bullets jerseys in the store this summer. Dave McKenna