1977-78 NBA Season
Injuries to center Bill Walton derailed the hopes of the Portland Trail Blazers, the league’s defending champions, and opened the door for two upstarts, the Washington Bullets and Seattle SuperSonics.
Somehow the Bullets found a chemistry in the strong-willed personalities of two of their key figures, hard-driving Coach Dick Motta and veteran star Elvin Hayes, and won the first championship in the 17-year history of the franchise that began as the Chicago Packers in 1961-62.
“Dick demanded a lot of his players,” Hayes recalled. “He demanded a lot of himself. He gave us direction, and we followed it.”
“What we needed was an iron hand,” Bullets center Wes Unseld would say later when asked about Motta. “We had such diverse talent on that team,” Hayes said. “We had Mitch Kupchak, Larry Wright, Charles Johnson and Greg Ballard all coming off the bench. Any one of those guys would have been a great starter on another team. For starters, we had Unseld, Kevin Grevey, Tommy Henderson, Bob Dandridge and myself. From the bench to the starters, we had great balance.”
The Bullets’ franchise, which had been to the NBA Finals twice before without winning a single game, rebounded from a 3-2 deficit to defeat Seattle in seven games, winning the title on the Sonics’ home floor. After tying the series at three games apiece at home, the Bullets had made a pensive flight back to Seattle for Game 7.
“I remember flying out to Seattle,” Hayes said, “thinking about all of the things that I had gone through all of the years I had played in the NBA.
“All of that was coming down to one game, a championship game, and after that game I remember feeling a joy over the next 48 hours, just a spring of joy, a feeling of great accomplishment. Out of my 16 years of playing, I had waited for that moment, and that moment came and it was just tremendous.”
It proved to be the only NBA championship for Hayes, who played in 1,303 regular-season games.
Two violent incidents during the regular season cast a shadow over the league. (NBA Crisis) On opening night, the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar punched Milwaukee rookie center Kent Benson, breaking his hand and drawing a $5,000 fine from Commissioner Larry O'Brien. Abdul-Jabbar missed 20 games.
In December, Kermit Washington, a powerfully built forward for the Lakers, got into a fight with Houston center Kevin Kunnert. As Houston’s star forward Rudy Tomjanovich ran toward the combatants, Washington turned and swung his fist, inflicting massive injuries to Tomjanovich’s jaw, eye and cheek. The league fined Washington and suspended him for two months, costing him more than $50,000 in salary.
“It was the most physical blow I’ve ever seen anybody throw or receive,” said former Lakers General Manager Pete Newell. “When he saw this uniform coming at him, from then on it was a blur. He responded almost instinctively.”
“Kermit was into karate and happened to throw the right punch at the right time,” said former Laker Lou Hudson.
“All Kermit did was turn and throw, just as Rudy was coming in,” former Laker Stu Lantz said. “With those forces colliding, that’s what made the damage as severe as it was.”
His face shattered, Tomjanovich missed the rest of the season while undergoing a series of reconstructive surgeries. A former All-Star, he resumed his career the next season, yet he never achieved his former level of play.
Washington was fined and suspended without pay for 60 days, bringing an additional $50,000 in salary losses. Shortly after the incident, the Lakers traded Washington and Don Chaney to the Boston Celtics for Charlie Scott.