Half a century ago, the Baltimore Bullets came into the world without much fuss. There was no parade for the city's new National Basketball Association team. The opening night crowd fell far short of a sellout. And the Bullets bowed meekly to the world champion Boston Celtics, as they would the first nine times they played them.
A storybook beginning, it wasn't. But that game — a 109-95 loss to the dynastic Celtics in the Civic Center on Oct. 16, 1963 — christened the Bullets' 10-year stay in the city that would thrill to the feats of stars to come: the acrobatic dunks of Gus Johnson, the ball-handling artistry of Earl Monroe and the rugged inside play of Wes Unseld. Hall of Famers, all.
The team took the same name of a former professional basketball team that played in Baltimore in the 1940s and 50s. And while that 1963 season fell short of fans' expectations — the Bullets finished 31-49, having lost 12 of their first 15 games — there were highlights. Fifty years ago Thursday, they won their first game, a 115-113 comeback victory over the New York Knicks.
Déjà vu? This Thursday the Washington Wizards, successors to the Bullets, play the Knicks in a preseason game at Baltimore Arena at 7 p.m.
In the decade that the Bullets played here, before moving to D.C., they won four division titles, made the playoffs six times and advanced to the NBA championship series in 1970-71.
The seeds were sown early on. Both Johnson and Kevin Loughery, starters on the team that would reach the league finals, played for the Bullets in 1963-64. So did Gene Shue who, seven years later, would coach Baltimore's NBA runners-up.
"It was, as I remember, a good young ball club," said Bob "Slick" Leonard, 81, then the head coach. "Those guys played hard, ran the fast break and had a good time. The only thing they didn't do was win."
"Thrown into the breach"
The fledgling Bullets were raw and inexperienced, a third-year expansion team uprooted from Chicago — where they'd twice finished last, under different nicknames — with the promise of 3,000 season tickets sold.
They were a cast of promising newcomers and journeymen and were led by the league's two most recent Rookies of the Year: Walt Bellamy, an enigmatic 6-foot-10 center who could score 48 points one game and be chewed out for loafing the next, and Terry Dischinger, a second-year forward with a killer jump shot but — at 6-6 and 190 pounds — little heft.
None of the five regulars were older than 25. Even the volcanic Leonard was, at 31, the youngest coach in the nine-team NBA. That immaturity cost them at crunch time.
"We were in a lot of ball games, but we just couldn't get over the top," recalled Leonard, now a broadcaster for the Indiana Pacers, whom he coached to three American Basketball Association championships.
Of the Bullets' 80 games in 1963, 24 were decided by three points or less. They won only nine of them, mostly because they lacked leadership down the stretch, said Rod Thorn, then a rookie guard and the Bullets' first-round draft pick from West Virginia.
"We were thrown into the breach to play without a true playmaker on that team," said Thorn, currently president of basketball operations for the NBA.. "If we'd had a real experienced point guard, one who knew what he was doing, we could have been pretty damn good."
Thorn was one of two rookie starters. The other was Johnson, a strapping 6-6 power forward from Idaho who arrived in training camp at Fort Meade virtually unknown. That changed quickly.
"The first day, Slick tells Dischinger, Gus and myself that he wants us to play one-on-one against each other," Thorn said. "So I play Gus, never having heard of the guy, and he's so strong and quick that he destroys me. Then Gus plays Terry and destroys him too.
"I'm thinking, my God, how can this guy be only a second-round draft choice?"
Fans embraced Johnson, who wore spiffy clothes and a wide grin that showed the gold star which had been drilled into his front tooth.
"I used to sing the old Texaco jingle to Gus, remember? 'You can trust your car to the man who wears the star,'" said Don Kojis, 74, a rookie forward on that team.
On Dec.10, Kojis was on the court in a game against the San Francisco Warriors when Johnson stole the ball, raced the length of the floor and scored on a swooping dunk, shattering the Plexiglass backboard in the Oakland Auditorium.
"I was nearby when Gus broke it and all of the glass kind of hit my arms," Kojis said. "I had Band-Aids up the wazoo for the rest of the game. I said, 'Thanks, Gus.'
"He was proud of having done it."
The Bullets improved as the season wore on. On Nov. 30, they won back-to-back games for the first time and, two months later, managed a six-game winning streak. Crowds were small, save on giveaway nights. The club averaged nearly 5,000 fans, sixth best in a league struggling to find its niche despite marquee players such as Bill Russell (Boston), Wilt Chamberlain (San Francisco), Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati Royals) and Jerry West (Los Angeles Lakers).
"Pro basketball hadn't really caught on everywhere," Shue said. "The college game was much better, with more support."
A two-time All-American guard at Maryland who'd prepped at Towson Catholic, Shue came to Baltimore in a trade with the lowly Knicks six games into the season. Ecstatic, he caught a 6 a.m. train from New York.
"Honestly, my career was about over," said Shue, 81. "Returning here for my last year was incredible."
A day earlier, the Bullets had acquired Loughery, a little-used guard, in a trade with the Detroit Pistons.
"Best thing that every happened to me," said Loughery, 73, who blossomed in his eight years here. The Bullets liked his fiery demeanor, which showed when a fight broke out in a game against San Francisco at the Civic Center in December. During the melee, the Warriors' Guy Rodgers punched Loughery, knocking out his dental plate. A Bullets' fan chased Rodgers into the stands, and referee Tom Burch ripped his own trousers down the back trying to intervene.
A month later, when the Warriors returned to town, Loughery was waiting.
"I'd play this one if I had to do it in a wheelchair," he told reporters. The Bullets won, 93-86, led by Loughery's 20 points.
"Good year ... great town"
The coach liked such spunk. Leonard, who'd played for the club in Chicago, was tossed from several Bullets games and once simply walked off the court, disgusted with the officiating, with four minutes left.
Bellamy's attitude drove Leonard nuts. While the All-Star center averaged 27 points and 17 rebounds, he was prone to an ennui that could last for games.
"Walt was talented, for sure, but he wasn't all that excited about playing every night. You had to get on him," Leonard said.
In January, fed up with his star during a three-game losing streak, the coach slapped Bellamy with a $200 fine for "lack of hustle." A day later, Leonard fined him again.
"He's the highest-priced player on this club and it's about time he starts playing like one," the coach said.
That night, Bellamy managed 37 points and 27 rebounds in a victory over the St. Louis Hawks. Two games later, he had 33 points and 33 rebounds as the Bullets ripped off four wins in a row.
Leonard's message got through, players said.
"Bob would later prove himself to be a great coach," Dischinger said. "He was just starting out then, but he knew the game, he expected you to fill your role and he made that clear."
At the same time, after a tough workout, you might find the coach and his players having a beer together. Or playing a round of golf.