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To go along with the new handle and the new home, the local NBA franchise has revamped its fight song this year.
Rest in peace, “Bullets Fever.”
The team now known as the Wizards pumps its fans up with “You da Man,” a slick rap number written and produced by hired guns from New York. The new theme got talked up recently when Prince George’s County’s finest pepper-sprayed Chris Webber and kept him from a video shoot by dishing out nine speed and weed countsmeaning that if the stats-conscious forward had drawn just one more charge he’d have had a Double Trouble docket.
“Bullets Fever” never got a video, and nobody got arrested to help hype it. But for several weeks back in the spring of ’78, as the Bullets were in the midst of grabbing the first and only championship in franchise history, the song actually dominated the local airwaves. Its success was as surprising as the team’s.
A zealous Bullets fan from Bethesda by the name of Nils Lofgren couldn’t restrain himself from penning the paean to Wes and Elvin and Bobby D. and C.J. and Mitch and Kevin and the rest of Dick Motta’s overachieving “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings” bunch.
Lofgren, like all rockers, would rather have been a jock. (Pro athletes, of course, have the opposite dream.) For all his guitar glory, Lofgren swears he’d chuck every note for a few seasons in the NBA.
“I’d put down the guitar in a minute if I could be a point guard,” he says. “Absolutely.”
Lofgren knew early on that his NBA career wouldn’t come to pass: He maxed out at 5-foot-3 while still in high school, which was when he picked up the ax. At just 17, his career path was set when he stalked Neil Young backstage at the Cellar Door, picked up the star’s guitar, and forced him to listen. A year later, Young called Lofgren up to play on and tour behind “After the Gold Rush.”
But even while playing the big arenasonstage rather than on the hardwoodLofgren still dreamed. His musical abilities and sports fantasies melded in the Bullets’ championship run.
The Bullets were a lowly wild-card team and therefore expected to bow out quietly when the ’78 playoffs tipped off. But Lofgren got so wound up watching his team win a close first-round game against the Atlanta Hawks (back when the first round was two-out-of-three) that he couldn’t sleep. He went down to his basement and spent the night putting his feelings in front of three chords.
It happens to me every year
And this year’s the one
Not exactly Ira Gershwin, but it gets the point across. After just a few hours’ sleep, Lofgren, still pumped up, called his buddies at Bias Studios (then in Falls Church) and asked if he could rush over and get it on tape.
Lofgren’s connections to Young and his role as the front man for Grin made him a major figure on the D.C. scene long before Bruuuuuce came calling, so of course Bias made time for him. Lofgren also could have gotten any local sidemen he wanted to help him with his cheerleading cut, but then he would have had to confess his basketball jones to them. And that, he decided, just wouldn’t have been cool.
“I did all this because I couldn’t believe how jazzed I was about the team, and it was an amazing feeling to be as excited about anything as I was about the Bullets. But I really didn’t want to tell anybody because, to tell you the truth, I was a little embarrassed about it,” he says. “So I just went in there and played every instrument myself. Even the drums, though I’m not a drummer at all. I even brought this song to all the radio stations by myself. I wanted to do it all anonymously.”
But then the Bullets kept winning, and “Bullets Fever” hit the local pop charts with a…well, a bullet. Atlanta went down in two games. The vaunted Philadelphia 76ers and Doctor J lasted six. In the semifinals against anorexic scoring machine George “Iceman” Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs, the Bullets surprised everybody by advancing in six. D.C. was a town desperate for a championnone of the city’s sports teams had won a title in 40 yearsso everybody jumped onto the Bullets’ bandwagon. All the pop stations put the song into heavy rotation, and the Capital Centre crowds shouted out requests for it before, during, and after Bullets’ home playoff games.
Soon enough, Lofgren’s little secret got out.
Bullets owner Abe Pollin put word out that he wanted the artist tracked down and brought to him. Lofgren wasn’t keen on the idea of hobnobbing with multimillionaire moguls, but he answered Pollin’s call.
“That’s one of the strangest meetings I’ve ever been a part of,” Lofgren laughs. “Here I am, this funky, raggedy musician typeI didn’t dress up for himand I’m sitting across from Mr. Pollin, who looks me over and kind of suspiciously asks, ‘You did this? You did this song?’ And I tell him, ‘Yes, sir, that’s all me.’
“And after a while he says, ‘Who played drums?’ ‘Well, yes, I did.’”
At the meeting, Pollin asked Lofgren if he could print up 45s of “Bullets Fever” and sell copies at games for charity, and the artist agreed to give him the song for free.
The Bullets’ players were actually among the last to find out what the buzz was all about. But by the time they dispatched Seattle in Game 7 of the finale, they knew the score.
“The sound system at the old Cap Centre was so bad that after the games I couldn’t hear what was going on over the PA. All I ever heard was the screeching,” recalls Kevin Grevey, the team’s shooting guard. “But riding in my car after a game, I heard the song and said, ‘Oh, that’s what the screech is all about!’ Like everything else about the Bullets that year, the song just seemed to work.”
Grevey, now a restaurateur in Falls Church, says the only mementos he saved from that championship season are “a ring, a T-shirt, a couple of sore knees…and a cassette of ‘Bullets Fever.’”
Lofgren, however, didn’t keep any copies of the song for himself, though he still gets calls from sports memorabilia types requesting old 45s.
Lofgren lives mostly in Arizona these days, but he has a home in Montgomery County and plays around here often; he did a two-night stand at Wolf Trap over the weekend. He didn’t play “Bullets Fever,” though not because of embarrassment or a bad attitude.
“I don’t remember the words,” he chuckles. “I don’t know that I like being known as a guy who writes sports jingles, because I don’t. But for all the ‘serious’ songs I’ve written in all the years I’ve been doing this, ‘Bullets Fever’ is the only ‘hit’ that I ever had, the only song that I got to hear myself sing on AM radio while driving in the car, and that was a wonderful experience for me. For better or worse, ‘Bullets Fever’ is the song most people around here know me by. That’s show biz, baby.”
When out west, Lofgren keeps up with and roots for the Wizards via cable television. He will make his first visit to the MCI Center to see a Wizards game on Feb. 18. Lofgren won’t sing “Wizards Fever,” but Pollin should sign him up to do another tune. “The home team is 5-0 when I sing the anthems,” Lofgren says.Dave McKenna