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From 1968 to 1969, the Baltimore Bullets went from worst to first

From 1968 to 1969, the Baltimore Bullets went from worst to first
Wes Unseld (41) of the Baltimore Bullets tries to keep the ball in play in a 1969 game versus the Boston Celtics. Unseld would be named the NBA's Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in 1969. (Baltimore Sun file)

As turnarounds go, it was a lulu. Fifty years have passed since the Baltimore Bullets won their first National Basketball Association division title — after finishing last the year before.

On March 21, 1969, having clinched first place with a win over the Bulls in Chicago, the players made merry. John Barnhill strode around the locker room singing “The Impossible Dream.” Kevin Loughery sat at his locker puffing on a foot-long cigar. And Earl Monroe, the Bullets’ flamboyant guard, confessed that he’d just scored 41 points despite having put his pants on backward.

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Fans wait to welcome home the Baltimore Bullets, Eastern Division champs, in March 1969, at Friendship Airport.
Fans wait to welcome home the Baltimore Bullets, Eastern Division champs, in March 1969, at Friendship Airport. (Joseph A. DiPaola / Baltimore Sun file)

These were the best of times for the Bullets, who buoyed the city for a decade before moving to Washington in 1973. Never a winner before the 1968-69 season, they went 57-25 (the league’s best record), thanks to three future Basketball Hall of Famers (Monroe, forward Gus Johnson and heralded rookie center Wes Unseld), a deep bench and a crew-cut coach, Gene Shue, who’d starred at Towson Catholic and Maryland.

Nine times, the Bullets won by a basket or less, including three in a row, in March, as they neared the title. On March 15, they spotted Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics a 17-point lead before winning, 99-98. The Civic Center crowds went nuts. They’d hoot when, during timeouts, a fan named Dancing Harry put the whammy on opponents, and Alex, a dachshund and the Bullets’ mascot, raced around the court.

Alas, the end was near. In the Eastern Division playoffs, Baltimore was swept by the New York Knicks, four games to none. In 1971, the Bullets reached the NBA Finals before losing. Three years later, the team was gone.

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