As Wizards return to city for preseason game, many recall glory days

When the Washington Wizards drew a sellout crowd to Baltimore last year, it was more about the homecoming of a visiting All-Star, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, than about a team going back to its ancestral roots.

The Wizards returned Monday night to play against the New Orleans Pelicans at the newly renamed Royal Farms Arena, and it seemed like the memories came flooding back more than the fans came storming into the antiquated venue.


"There's nothing bittersweet, I have fond, great memories here," said Wes Unseld, who starred for the Baltimore Bullets, led the Washington Bullets to the franchise's lone NBA title in 1978 and later served as head coach and general manager.

Unseld wasn't alone in that regard. As he sat one row off the court, Howard Berman thought back to the early days of the then-Baltimore Civic Center more than a half-century ago.

"I remember when they were building the damn place," said Berman, 84. "First they came with ice hockey, then when they came with basketball [in 1963 when the team was moved from Chicago], that's when I started coming with friends. We had season tickets for years."

Berman's favorite player was Earl Monroe, the magical guard from the Philadelphia playgrounds and Winston-Salem (N.C.) State whose ankle-breaking spins and feathery jumpers helped the Bullets become one of the best teams in the NBA.

"I was sitting across the court, and I saw him score 56 points one night," Berman recalled of a player whose franchise record as a rookie against the Los Angeles Lakers in February 1968 stood until Gilbert Arenas scored 60 against the Lakers in 2006. "That was probably the highlight from the standpoint of his abilities."

Phil Chenier, whose arrival as a first-round draft pick in 1971 ultimately led to Bullets owner Abe Pollin trading Monroe to the Knicks, made a few memories of his own during the two seasons he played in Baltimore before the team moved to Landover.

One of Chenier's earliest recollections of playing in Baltimore came after Monroe was traded to the Knicks. The season opener was against New York at home.

"Earl didn't play, and neither did Clyde [Walt Frazier]," said Chenier, who had his highest-scoring game as a professional in Baltimore — 53 points against Portland, then and now the team's record for a regulation game.

As he scanned the arena before the game, Chenier smiled.

"It looks about the same, the stage back there," Chenier said.

Chenier's longtime broadcast partner, Steve Buckhantz, said he used to come up from Northern Virginia as a kid, getting tickets from Pollin's business partner, Earl Foreman, a family friend.

"This is the first place I ever saw Wilt Chamberlain," Buckhantz said. "I remember going over to where the players came out of the tunnel and him going by me, and I recall him being the largest human being to this day that I have ever seen. I was only about 3 1/2 feet tall, but he was enormous."

Buckhantz also remembers catching a sweaty wristband from Monroe, which he later had signed after becoming a Washington television sports anchor and later the Wizards play-by-play man.

"This is where I cultivated my love for the Bullets and my love for Earl Monroe, Kevin Loughery and Wes and even Don Ohl," Buckhantz said. "When I think about this building, I think about those players, I think of the orange uniforms and the blue Bullets [insignia]. That's something in my head forever."


Buckhantz had one other memory shared by many who went to Bullets games in those days.

"I remember it being smoky in here, a lot of smoke, but an excellent place to watch the game because you were so close" he said.

It seems doubtful that any similar memories were born Monday during a typical preseason game, won by the Pelicans, 88-84, over a Wizards team that didn't suit up either All-Star guard John Wall or free-agent acquisition Paul Pierce because of nagging injuries, as well as third-year rising star Bradley Beal, who is out with a broken wrist.

"If you don't play hard in this league, you're going to get embarrassed," said Wizards coach Randy Wittman, whose team trailed at halftime, 49-29, and barely mustered any energy until the fourth quarter. "We went through the motions in the first half, and that's inexcusable. In the second half, we didn't."

Still, Wittman said: "It was fun coming back here. I had a couple of games in here against the old Bullets. What did they play, five or six games a year here back in the day? See, I'm old."

Mike May, 45, is a little too young to recall games in Baltimore, but he became a fan of the team shortly after they moved around the Beltway to the Capital Centre and ultimately to Washington.

May, who grew up in Baltimore and now coaches recreation league basketball in Baltimore County, said he would love to see an NBA team move to his hometown permanently. He knows that's a long shot.

"I know that it's going to take fan support, which I know they have, and of course a new arena, definitely a new arena," May said.

May, who calls himself a "quasi-fan" of the Wizards, said a better job could have been done promoting Monday's game, which drew an announced 5,159. May came to see a team that he thinks has a legitimate chance of making the Eastern Conference finals.

"Each year they've gotten a little bit better," he said.

Berman, who still follows the team on televison, is excited about the upcoming season.

"If they get everybody healthy, they can do like last year, which is very, very good," Berman said.


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