Your Baltimore Bullets History Primer

Posted on October 17, 2013 by Pasquale Prezioso

Photo Credit: Uni Watch

This Thursday is the first Baltimore Basketball Classic, where the Washington Wizards will face off against the New York Knicks to commemorate 50 years since the team moved to Baltimore. While the Washington Bullets finer moments are recognized, like the 1978 NBA championship, the franchises' days in Charm City are left rather untouched. In honor of the Baltimore Basketball Classic, let's go back to when the President was Lyndon B. Johnson, the Beatles were kings of the pop charts, and our favorite basketball team held court at the Baltimore Civic Center.

The first two seasons of play had not gone well for Chicago. Their inaugural year in '61-'62 had gone poorly at the box office and in the standings column. The Packers only real saving grace was Walt Bellamy, their treasured rookie from Indiana. "Bells" had the best rookie year the league had seen since Wilt Chamberlain, becoming Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, and coming in second to The Big Dipper for the scoring title, no small feat considering Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points that season. However, even with a name change to the Zephyrs and another Rookie of the Year in Terry Dischinger, the team still floundered.

So, the Zephyrs were shipped off to Baltimore just in time for the '63-'64 season, to be renamed the Bullets, after the former championship BAA/NBA team*. This year would be unremarkable but for two acquisitions: the Bullets drafted a high flying forward out of Idaho named Gus Johnson and were bought by a group headed by Abe Pollin, who would own the team for 45 years. The next season was very different for the Bullets. The roster was shaken up by a trade with the Pistons that gave Detroit Dischinger, '63 first rounder Rod Thorn, and Don Kojis in exchange for All-Stars Don Ohl and Bailey Howell, Wali Jones, Les Hunter, and future Bullets GM Bob Ferry. This retooled Bullets team sent Bellamy, Johnson, and Ohl to the All-Star Game and took the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the Western Division Finals.

After four years with the franchise, Walt Bellamy was moved to the Knicks for Jim Barnes, Johnny Egan, and "Jumping Johnny" Green, along with cash. The rest of the "Tall Men of Baltimore" would fill in for him, with seven different players scoring averages in double digits and Gus Johnson making second team All-NBA for his second time in a row. However, the team would be swept by the St. Louis Hawks in the '66 postseason. 1966-67 would be a low point for the franchise as they moved into the Eastern Conference, with the team changing coaches twice, losing 13 conseutive matches, and finishing 20-61, the bottom of the NBA ladder. 

Things would improve for the team the next season, brightened by a shiny Pearl. Picked 2nd in the 1967 Draft out of tiny Winston-Salem State, Earl Monroe made the Bullets a much better team. Even though the squad still finished in last place in the Eastern Division, The Pearl ended up with a 24.3 scoring average and won Rookie of the Year. But the best was yet to come in Charm City, in a very big way.

For the second year in a row, the Bullets got the second pick in the draft. For the second year in a row, the Bullets got the Rookie of the Year. But when the 1968-69 regular season was over, Baltimore stood atop the victories column with 57 wins, the first winning record in team history, coach Gene Shue took home top honors, and Wes Unseld stood atop the league as NBA MVP. Yet the postseason was another beast, as the Bullets, like every major league Baltimore team in 1969, were beaten in the playoffs by New York, swept in the first round. This started a fierce rivalry between the Bullets and the Knicks, with both teams meeting in the postseason for six consecutive years. Unseld and the team took a small step back as the 70's arose, but gave the Knicks a tough seven games, complete with a gritty double overtime Game 1.

Gus Johnson, Jack Marin, Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, and Kevin Loughery show their support for the Baltimore Orioles in an ad from a 1970 World Series program.

In 1970-71, the franchise slipped further in wins, notching a 42-40 season, just above .500, yet still good enough for the first Central Division crown. The Bullets bested the 76ers in a series that went the distance, setting up another matchup against the Knicks, for the third time in three seasons. After New York took a 2-0 lead, it looked like the defending champs would get to fight for their title again. But Baltimore scrapped and clawed their way to a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden, where unlike the previous two years, the Bullets emerged victorious, 93-91.

As their reward for getting over their blue and orange hump, the Bullets got to face the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Lew Alcindor (who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the day after the Finals), Oscar Robertson, and Bob Dandridge.  Alas, the same magic that had propelled Baltimore to the NBA Finals had seemed to run out. The team, bruised from their battle the previous round, succumbed to the Bucks in a four game rout. But for a team that had won only 18 games ten seasons ago, the Bullets had risen to great heights.   

After their journey to the NBA Finals, Baltimore dropped to 38-44 the next season, but new players Archie Clark and Phil Chenier helped provide for enough scoring to secure another division title in a watered down Central. But those 44 defeats were not the only losses the Bullets had accrued. On November the 10th, 1971, after requesting a trade to New York, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles, Earl Monroe bid the Bullets goodbye for the loathed Knicks, whom the team would once again duel in the postseason. New York would avenge their loss from the last season's playoffs in six. Then, another cornerstone of the franchise, Gus Johnson, a shadow of his former self, was sent to the Suns for a second round choice on draft day.

The 1972 offseason would make the Bullets final season in Charm City a better one, as future league assists leader Kevin Porter was plucked by the team in the draft, and Elvin Hayes, the only player chosen before Wes Unseld in '68, was swapped to the Houston Rockets for Jack Marin. This Bullets squad would regain some of their former regular season luster, racking up 52 wins and easing into their third Central Division championship. Once again, the dreaded New York Knicks awaited them in the playoffs. The Knicks, on their way to their second NBA championship, dispatched the Bullets in five games.

The 1973 Eastern Conference Semifinals was the last of the Baltimore Bullets. Abe Pollin was unimpressed with the team's attendance and the Civic Center, as well as wanting the team to be closer to his hometown of Washington. The next season, the franchise was branded the Capital Bullets. After a month at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, the brand new Capital Centre opened. But the Bullets couldn't quit Baltimore. From 1988 until 1997, the team held select regular season home games at the Civic Center, abandoning the practice when the MCI (now Verizon) Center opened its doors.

Several reminders of the Baltimore Bullets still remain. Earl Monroe, Bailey Howell, Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson, Elvin Hayes, and Walt Bellamy are all enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. 1971, '72', and '73 Central Division championship banners and a 1971 Conference Champions banner hang in the Verizon Center rafters. The Wizards wore orange Bullets throwbacks in 2005 to celebrate the '71 conference winning team. And the Civic Center, where the Wizards will go against the Knicks in the Baltimore Basketball Classic, still stands, forty years after the last Baltimore Bullets game. 

      *The most credible explanation for "Bullets" is that the team took their name from the Bata Bullet shoe, made in nearby Harford County, but no absolute confirmation has been given.          

next up:

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