The San Diego Rockets entered the league with the Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder) in 1968. Their debut season was one for the record books – their 15-67 was not only the worst record that year but it was the fourth worst ever at that time.
For their futility, the Rockets were awarded with the number one draft pick and they selected the NCAA player of the year Elvin Hayes who led the Houston Cougars to the Final Four where they were defeated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s UCLA team.
For the Baltimore Bullets (who began in 1961 as the Chicago Packers then Chicago Zephrys), 1968 ended like their 7 prior seasons – with a losing record of 36-46 (the worst in the Eastern Conference). The Bullets had the second pick in the draft and they selected First-Team All-American center Wes Unseld from Louisville. Unseld was listed as 6-7, but later admitted he was only 6-6.
The story of these two top draft picks would become entwined over the next decade.
Hayes became the first rookie since Wilt Chamberlain to lead the NBA in scoring with a 28.4 PPG average. Hayes energized the Rockets from the second worst offense to the third best. As a result, the Rockets won 22 more games to post a 37-45 record. The Rockets even made the playoffs, losing to the Atlanta Hawks 4-2 in the opening round.
Despite Hayes’ stellar year, it was Wes Unseld who, on this day, became the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to win Rookie of the Year and MVP. While Unseld only scored 13.8 PPG, he was 5th in rebounding at 18 per game – second to Bill Russell (in his final season) in Defensive Win Shares and renowned for his outlet pass capability. More importantly, he led the Bullets to a league best 57-25 record (a 21 game improvement).
An injury depleted Bullet squad, however, was swept by the New York Knicks in the playoffs. The Knicks would be the Bullets Kryptonite, as they would eliminate the Bullets in 5 of Unseld’s first six seasons.
For the next three seasons, Hayes and Unseld were consistent All-Stars (except Unseld did not play in the 1970 game). After their success in Hayes’ rookie season, the Rockets struggled and moved to Houston for the 1972 season – missing the playoffs each season.
In 1970 and 1972, the Bullets were eliminated in the first round by the New York Knicks (who won the title in 1970), but managed to beat them in the Eastern Conference finals in 1971 before being swept by the Bucks in the NBA Finals. Unseld averaged 15 PPG, 19.5 RPG and 4.5 APG in the finals.
After the 1972 season, the Bullets traded their number two scorer, small forward Jack Marin to Houston for Elvin Hayes. Hayes would play in the Bullets new home – the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland outside Washington, D.C. and approximately 30 miles south of Baltimore.
Over the next nine seasons, Hayes and Unseld would lead the Capital then Washington Bullets to four division titles, three Eastern Conference Championships and one NBA Title in 1978.
1974: In 1974, the Bullets had their best year ever with a 60-22 record, tied with the defending champion Boston Celtics for best in the NBA. They would beat the Celtics in the conference finals 4-2 to face the Golden State Warriors. Everyone was predicting a sweep in the Finals, except nobody was predicting it would be Golden State who stunned the Bullets 4-0. (See Champions: The Biggest Upset in NBA History).
1978: In 1978, everyone was expecting a rematch of the 1977 Finals between Bill Walton’s Portland Trailblazers and Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers as they had the two best regular season records. The Bullets, however, stunned the 76ers, winning 4-2 to face the Seattle Supersonics who had upset Portland.
After Seattle took a 3-2 lead, Bullets coach Dick Motta warned the press not to write off the Bullets since “The Opera Isn’t Over Until the Fat Lady Sings.” With their backs to the wall, the Bullets crushed Seattle by a record 35-points at home.
1978 Games 1-6
Before Game 7, Hayes and Unseld called a team meeting in the Bullets’ locker room.
Hayes told the younger players “We (Hayes and Unseld) don’t have four or five more years- we have to do this now.” He said he could see in their eyes that they were with him.
The Bullets won Game 7 in Seattle 105-99, with series MVP Unseld making a key defensive stop at the end.
1978 Game 7
1979: In 1979, the Bullets were ready to defend their title and had the best record in the NBA. They once again faced the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals, but only after coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against George Gervin’s San Antonio Spurs to win Game 7 at home in Washington. The win was sealed by Elvin Hayes block in the final seconds.
The Bullets faced Seattle in a rematch of the 1978 Finals. After the Bullets won the opener at home, it was Seattle from there out as they clinched the championship in Seattle 4-1.
The Bullets have not been back to the Conference Championship or NBA Finals since.
1980-81: The next two seasons, the aging Bullets finished 39-43. In 1981, the Bullets missed the playoffs for the first time during Unseld’s tenure. Unseld retired after the 1981 season, while Hayes was traded to Houston where he played three more seasons.
Both Hayes and Unseld were inducted into the Hall of Fame and both were named to the NBA 50th anniversary team.
The Bullets changed their name to Wizards in 1997.
Elvin Hayes was a 12-time NBA All-Star and ranks:
- 4th in total rebounds;
- 5th in minutes played;
- 8th in career defensive win shares;
- 10th in points; and
- 24th in blocks (although the NBA only began tracking this in 1974)
Wes Unseld was a 5-time NBA All-Star and ranks:
- 12th in total rebounds; and
- 21st in career defensive win shares.
After his retirement in 1981, Unseld moved to the Bullets’ front office and coached from 1987-1994 amassing a 202-345 record.