Ask old Bullets fans the highlights of Baltimore’s onetime pro basketball team and they’ll reel off some lulus, like the night rookie Earl “The Pearl” Monroe scored 56 points, or the times Gus Johnson’s windmill dunks shattered backboards in three different cities. Truth be told, though, nothing can match the Bullets’ white-knuckled victory over the rival New York Knicks in the 1971 NBA playoffs.
Fifty years ago, in April, the teams met in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals. Odds favored a rout. The defending champion Knicks finished the regular season 22 games over .500; the Bullets barely broke even. Four of the champs’ starters were future Hall of Famers (Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere). The Bullets were a fast-breaking and undersized bunch — though a beast on the boards, center Wes Unseld stood just 6-foot-6 — and seemed to draw their strength from the crowd.
New York seemed a cinch to boot the Bullets from the playoffs for the third straight year, adding yet another Baltimore sports team to the city’s list of patsies. (Two years earlier, the Jets upset the Colts in Super Bowl III and the Mets stunned the Orioles in the 1969 World Series.) That weighed on the underdogs.
“It was very important that we beat the Knicks, not only for us, but for the city,” guard Kevin Loughery remembered. Not that the pressure showed.
Before the series opener, Monroe said, “Gus drove up [to Madison Square Garden] in a brand new Lincoln Continental Mark III, charcoal gray, the same color as the leather suit he was wearing. He did it just for the Knicks.”
And Monroe, the double-pumping, triple-spinning maestro?
“I wore a black suit with a black hat that had a red band around it,” he said. “That told folks I meant business.”
In the opener, Monroe scored 29 points but the Bullets lost. They lost the next one, too, a game that left Monroe with a twisted ankle and Loughery, a bruised heel. Meanwhile Johnson, the high-flying All-Star forward, sat on the bench in a mauve jumpsuit, nursing an injured knee. New York and its fans foresaw a four-game sweep; the Bullets disagreed.
On Easter Sunday, with just eight healthy players, the home team romped, 114-88, rocking the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena). Unseld, the rebounding savant, led the winners with 18 points (shooting 8 of 9 from the field), 26 rebounds and 9 assists. The following day the Bullets won again, 101-80, behind a stifling defense and a big game from Marin, who scored 27 points despite being hounded by Bradley, who kept stepping on his toes and tugging at his shorts.
New York won Game 5 and the Bullets won the next, setting up a Game 7 showdown on the road. The atmosphere was like none other.
“The circus was playing the Garden then, and you could smell the animals during the game,” Loughery said.
Years later, Carter remembered the shot — and its aftermath:
“In the last minute, during a timeout, [coach] Gene Shue looked into the heavens and said, ‘Please, let us win this one.’”
The Knicks scored again, then got the ball back with a chance to tie. Three seconds remained when Bradley arched a jumper, but Unseld brushed the ball aside. For the first time in their nine-year history, the Bullets were conference champs.
In the locker room, champagne flowed as Bullets owner Abe Pollin shook the hands and slapped the backs of his tuckered-out team.
“All the frustration of losing out all those years, particularly to New York, is gone now,” he said. “We had guys who played with pain nobody knows about. But they gave their all.”
Apparently, so did the owner.
“Beforehand, [Pollin] gave the greatest pregame speech we’d ever heard,” Loughery said. “He said, ‘Boys, if we win this one, you can have my share of the gate.’”
Pollin kept his word. Never mind that the weary Bullets were swept in the NBA Finals by the Milwaukee Bucks and their megastar, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).