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The halftime introduction of Bullet legends during the Dec. 2 game against Seattle drew a muted response from the sellout crowd at USAir Arena. Since the team’s current fans seem to have forgotten the glory days, maybe it’s worth reminding them that the Bullets have boasted some of the most intriguing players in NBA history.
Let’s begin with the best: the Bullets’ Dream Team (player selections date back to 1968, current Coach Wes Unseld’s rookie season and the era when the team—then the Baltimore Bullets—began playing a few games a year in the Washington area):
Forward: Elvin Hayes (years as a Bullet: 1972-81). The quintessential power forward and the greatest forward to play for the Bullets, Hayes makes Karl Malone look like a limited player. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Hayes, a Hall of Famer, could run the court, shoot, rebound, and block shots with the finest. Off the court, the “Big E” and Unseld were like oil and water, but as players, they served as perfect bookends: the streaky Hayes with his magnificent natural ability, and Unseld, the fundamentally sound rock. During the ’70s, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook was more unstoppable inside than Hayes’ trademark turnaround jumper.
Forward: Gus Johnson (1963-72). Called by some the strongest man, pound for pound, to ever play the game, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound “Honeycomb” was a marvel of power and grace. His playoff battles with New York Knick Dave DeBusschere were bruising theater. Johnson was shattering backboards long before Darryl Dawkins and Shaquille O’Neal, and leaping from the foul line for soaring dunks long before Julius Erving. Honeycomb, who died in 1987, was also known for his rebounding: He could snare a defensive rebound in a crowd and quickly whip a blind, full-court, behind-the-back outlet pass to a teammate, creating an easy layup.
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Center: Wes Unseld (1968-81). Listed at 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, Unseld was closer to 6’6” and 265, making his ability to out-rebound the likes of Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain even more astonishing. Though Unseld entered the league with ample ability to shoot and dunk, “The Franchise” instantly became known for his bone-jarring picks, relentless rebounding, and tough defense. Arthritic knees and lack of height forced the Hall of Famer to combine brains with brawn as well as any big man who has played the game. He was best known for grabbing a rebound and, still in midair, throwing a perfect full-court outlet pass, triggering the potent Bullet running game. Unseld remains the only player besides Chamberlain to win NBA rookie of the year and most valuable player honors in the same season.
Guard: Kevin Porter (1972-75, 1979-83). The greatest point guard to don a Bullet uniform, Porter was a crowd favorite with his “KP Shuffle” on the fast break, usually preceding a perfect, no-look pass for a layup. He brought the alley-oop pass to Washington, setting up Hayes for easy dunks. Barely 6 feet tall, Porter thrived on flashy behind-the-back passes and relied on tough Chicago street smarts (he didn’t hesitate to fight players nearly a foot taller), but his real strength was knowing exactly where his teammates wanted the ball for their best shots. Although these assists were his least spectacular, they made him one of the top playmakers in NBA history.
Guard: Earl Monroe (1967-72). Sorry, Michael Jordan fans, but “The Pearl” is arguably the most spectacular player the NBA has ever seen. Jordan defied gravity, but Monroe, only 6’3” and also hobbled by arthritic knees, defied reality with whirling-dervish legerdemain. Known for his spin move and herky-jerky fade-away jumper, Monroe also defied gravity in a more subtle though no less thrilling way. Although the Hall of Famer could hardly dunk, he had the ability to hang in the air, double and triple clutch, and unleash jumpers from impossible angles anywhere on the court. The Philadelphia playground legend, also known as “Black Jesus,” was Magic Johnson’s favorite player and the inspiration for Magic’s trademark spin move.
Forward: Bob Dandridge (1977-81). Without him, Washington wouldn’t have won its only championship in 1978. “Bobby D” was a steady outside shooter, underrated defender, and intelligent player who outclassed Dr. J in the 1978 playoff series. With Hayes and Unseld, Dandridge rounded out one of the best front lines in the NBA.
Forward: Mike Riordan (1971-77). When he got his feet set, “Iron Mike” was one of the deadliest outside shooters in the league, though he was best known as one of the NBA’s stingiest defenders. A no-frills mensch, the 6’4” Riordan often guarded the other team’s best player, even if the opponent was half a foot taller.
Center: Moses Malone (1986-88). Malone gets the nod by default. Though he only played two seasons in Washington, beginning the twilight of his career, he was still one of the league’s best centers as a Bullet. Malone was an unrivaled rebounder and inside scorer in his heyday, but without help in Washington, his one-dimensional offense was often disruptive.
Guard: Phil Chenier (1971-80). A classic jump-shooter with long arms and a knack for stealing the ball, Chenier was often likened to New York’s Walt Frazier, but he didn’t have Frazier’s complete game. Chenier, a streaky shooter, was unstoppable when he was on.
Guard: Kevin Grevey (1975-83). Also a streaky shooter with impressive range, the “Kentucky Rifle” wins kudos for improving his game in the latter stages of his Bullet career, learning the value of an assist and becoming a better defender.
Jack Marin (6’6” forward, 1966-72); Archie Clark (6’2” guard, 1971-74); Dave Bing (6’3” guard, 1975-77); Mitch Kupchak (6’11” forward/center, 1976-81); Greg Ballard (6’7” forward, 1977-85); Jeff Ruland (6’11” center, 1981-86); Bernard King (6’7” forward, 1987-91)
But the Bullets’ less-glorious players should be remembered, too.
Some Dubious Awards
Most Overrated Bullet: Jeff Malone. This guard prided himself on his classic jump-shooting ability, but he had limited range and forced his shots.
Most Selfish: Leonard “Truck” Robinson, who as a young player complained that too many of the Bullets’ plays were being run for Hayes and Chenier. Sorry, Truck, you weren’t in their league.
Least Accurate Passer: Ruland. The big man could make nice passes, but he often forced them, especially outlets, and remains the Bullets’ career leader in turnovers.
Bricklaying Disappointments: Jay Vincent, Darren Daye, Gus Williams.
Dirtiest Bullets: Rick Mahorn, Leonard Gray, Ricky Sobers, Darrell Walker.
Worst Trades: Riordan and Dave Stallworth for Monroe; Bing and first-rounder for Porter.
Worst Draft Pick: Kenny Green (12th choice, 1985). Karl Malone was selected 13th.