Remember the Bullets, Baltimore’s pro basketball team of yore? The fast-breaking, undersized five with its crew-cut coach (Gene Shue), windmill-dunking forward (Gus Johnson) and stutter-stepping maestro (Earl Monroe)?
For 10 years, the Bullets played the Civic Center — now Royal Farms Arena — before moving to Landover and eventually to Washington to become the Wizards. While here, the Bullets never won a championship but, 50 years ago, they achieved a feat no NBA team had done: They won their division with a losing record.
In the 1971-72 campaign, the Bullets captured the Central Division with a mark of 38-44. Don’t remember? Neither does Jack Marin, a star forward on that Baltimore team.
“No ----? That we had a losing season is news to me,” said Marin, 77. “I either repressed it or forgot it. Not only was it a losing year, at six games under .500, it was a pretty bad one. With three guys on the All-Star team, you’d think we might have been better.”
In NBA history, only one other team — the 1975-76 Milwaukee Bucks — has done the same, ending the regular season with an identical 38-44 record and a division flag.
Finishing first with a losing mark is a rarity in major sports. It has happened once in baseball (1994 Texas Rangers), three times in football (most recently the 2020 Washington Football Team) and four times in the National Hockey League.
The Bullets’ sour year proved troubling from the start. In October, three games into the season, the team traded for Archie Clark, a high-scoring All-Star guard from Philadelphia, with hopes of pairing him in the backcourt with the deft-handed Monroe. Clark seemed willing, calling Baltimore “the best team I’ve played for” and announcing “how nice it would be to play with Earl.”
Monroe, it seemed, had other plans. For weeks, the acrobatic showman had demanded a trade; bright lights and big cities beckoned. The next day, “Earl the Pearl“ failed to appear for a home game against the New York Knicks. Coincidentally, Clark was absent, too. Both of the Bullets’ stellar guards had flown the coop.
At the Civic Center, public address announcer Johnny Dark stunned the crowd with the news:
“The Bullets regret to announce that neither Earl Monroe or Archie Clark are in uniform tonight and ... are under suspension.”
New York won by 23 points.
Club official Jerry Sachs confessed that the team was “embarrassed and chagrined,” and that fans could exchange their tickets for a later game.
Word spread that the two players were in cahoots, the team was on the fritz and — this was true — the owner, Abe Pollin, was busy attending his niece’s bat mitzvah in Oregon.
Three days later, things looked up. Clark rejoined the club, explaining that he’d simply wanted a contract extension in writing. Monroe? The 26-year-old superstar stood firm.
“The entire atmosphere of the city of Baltimore is somewhat depressing to me,” said the four-year pro, who’d helped the Bullets reach the NBA Finals the year before.
Bargaining dragged on in what the media dubbed Monroe’s Trade Doctrine. Finally, three weeks after walking out, Earl The Pearl was dealt to the archrival Knicks for two reserves: guard-forward Mike Riordan, who arrived with a cast on his broken (shooting) wrist, and forward Dave Stallworth, who’d suffered a heart attack five years earlier.
Monroe’s new contract?
“I didn’t even read it,” he told reporters.
His stubborn stand was clear for one of his stardom, said Marin: “In basketball, New York was the place to be.”
Bullets fans let Monroe have it. On Nov. 24, the Knicks’ next game in Baltimore, a near-capacity crowd unleashed lusty boos and hung him in effigy from the Civic Center balcony, pinning a sign to the body that read, “Benedict Monroe.”
The newest Knick scored 12 points in a victory, then surveyed the throng and declared, “Well, I’m still putting [people] in the stands here.”
All season, the Bullets plodded along. Losing record aside, they reached the Eastern Conference semifinals in a best-of-seven series against New York, which won in six games. Monroe went on to play nine seasons with the Knicks and won an NBA title, but played under restraint, unlike his earlier freewheeling days. When the Hall of Fame called, he went in as a Bullet.
“I loved that team because we started from nothing and grew together,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2009. “I never wanted to leave but, during negotiations that year, for some reason I got angry. Now, I don’t even know what I was mad about.”