The Washington Wizards headed into the NBA playoffs last week as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a remarkable accomplishment for the long-moribund franchise, a team that many have, perhaps generously, dubbed “the Clippers of the East.” In 1978, the then Washington Bullets won the franchise’s only NBA title. The Bullets returned to the finals the following season but were swept in four games. In the 25 years since, the franchise has only won a single postseason series. It has been a quarter century full of questionable trades, off-the-court scandals, and old-fashioned bad luck.
The 1979-80 team posts a losing record. After the season, head coach Dick Motta resigns. His replacement, Gene Shue, in a misguided effort to fire up his team and bond with the community, institutes the “slash and burn” offense in honor of D.C.’s 1968 riots.
Record: 39-43. Swept in first round of playoffs.
Forward Spencer Haywood wins NBA’s “Most Pensive Player” award.
Record: 42-40. Fail to make playoffs.
Guard Jeff Malone and center Moses Malone are both selected for the All-Star game. In the off-season, ABC commissions the television pilot Malone and Malone, an hourlong drama about two basketball-playing brothers who run a private-detective agency. The siblings could not be more different: Moses is a hotheaded and streetwise character, while Jeff does things strictly by the book. Tim Reid co-stars as Clifford “Downtown” Brown, a former NBA referee who is now the Malones’ short-fused police sergeant. Downtown’s famous punch line: “Time-out, Malone!”
Record: 42-40. Swept in first round of playoffs.
The Bullets draft 5-foot-3-inch Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in NBA history. Bogues joins a lineup that features the league’s tallest player, 7-foot-7-inch Manute Bol. Despite another losing season, attendance increases. Noticing that the duo appeals to mankind’s fascination with the ill-formed and unknown, Bullets marketing director Susan O’Malley grows a beard. The team also begins listing center Charles Jones in game programs as “The Human Enigma.”
Record: 38-44. Lose in first round, 3 games to 2.
Septuagenarian owner Abe Pollin legally adopts head coach Wes Unseld.
Record: 22-60. Fail to make playoffs.
The Bullets sign Australian guard Andrew Gaze to a 10-day contract. Scouts describe Gaze as an Australian Michael Jordan but without the talent or bitter narcissism. On ESPN’s popular SportsCenter program, anchor Dan Patrick debuts the catch phrase “And BOOM goes the wallaby!” It fails to catch on.
Record: 24-58. Fail to make playoffs.
Cal Ripken sets a record by playing in 2,130 consecutive games and is dubbed baseball’s “Iron Man.” Regulars at a Gaithersburg, Maryland, Stuckey’s dub Bullets center Kevin Duckworth “Bacon Man.”
Record: 21-61. Fail to make playoffs.
Owner Abe Pollin announces an open competition to find a new name for the franchise, citing concerns that the nickname “Bullets” connotes violence. Some of the less popular suggestions include:
Laron Profit 90210
Foggy Bottom Dancers
“Wizards” is ultimately the winner, clearing the way for previously unpopular Bullets jerseys to become wildly popular Bullets “throwback” jerseys.
Record: 44-38. Swept in first round of playoffs.
The film My Giant opens, starring Billy Crystal as a Hollywood agent who discovers a Romanian giant played by 7-foot-7-inch former Bullet Gheorghe Muresan. Inspired by his nuanced performance, Stanley Kubrick casts Muresan as A.I.‘s Gigolo Joe. When Kubrick dies, Steven Spielberg recasts the part with Jude Law. His Hollywood dreams dashed, Muresan now wanders MCI Center as the team’s “suite ambassador,” though he mistakes the title for “sweet ambassador” and insists on carrying a cotton-candy platter.
Record: 42-40. Fail to make playoffs.
The team’s television announcers, Steve Buckhantz and former Bullet forward Phil Chenier, grow increasingly despondent over the Wiz’s losing ways. The duo’s forsaken play-by-play evokes August Strindberg’s famous call from the 1900 Olympic soccer final: “Alas, it’s still nil-nil, two sides of this wretched coin called life.” Buckhantz and Chenier’s broadcast of a 107-86 loss to the Nets receives a special jury prize at the Gothenburg Film Festival.
Record: 18-32. Fail to make playoffs.
The team hires Michael Jordan as president of basketball operations. Two years later, Jordan comes out of retirement to play for the Wizards. What appears to be a watershed moment for the franchise soon turns into a tale of bad knees, trading talent for yes men, and calling teammates “mules.” It’s a tale about an old ruler who climbs into a burlap sack with a possum called “Legacy” and refuses to come out until one of them lies dead. On May 8, 2003, owner Abe Pollin brings Jordan into his office and unceremoniously fires him. It is a shocking development; even Jordan himself seems to be caught off guard.
The National media curses Washington and rapidly withdraws its reporters. Game attendance drops off precipitously. Celebrity sightings all but cease. Once again, Wolf Blitzer drinks alone in the VIP suite. Sales decline at Jordan’s D.C. restaurant. Sales also decline at the half-smoke cart operated by former Wizard forward Tyrone Nesby.
Record: 29-53. Fail to make playoffs.
Things I Learned From Jahidi, a little instruction book for life written by Wizards center Jahidi White, reaches No. 10 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Jahidi’s lighthearted nuggets of wisdom include:
6. Teach a child something every day.
32. Remember the three S’s: self-esteem, sacrifice, sliced meats.
67. Stone hands does not mean no hands.
82. The secret to not feeling your age is to think about the hams you will eat, not the hams you have eaten.
97. Be a good listener, because sometimes the pizza man knocks quietly.
Record: 19-63. Fail to make playoffs.
As part of a seven-player trade with the Dallas Mavericks, the Washington Wizards acquire former Syracuse standout Etan Thomas. The burly center has an athlete’s body and a poet’s mind. In describing teammate Brendan Haywood, Thomas paraphrases e.e. cummings: “No one, not even the rain, has such small hands.” He then adds his own poetry: “It’s a beautiful wonder—like golden sun on a child’s face and the medicinal aroma of Executive Nachos—that Brendan can shoot a basketball with such immature digits.”
A few weeks later, the team obtains Tyrone Nesby, who has an athlete’s mind and a poet’s body.
Record: 37-45. Fail to make playoffs.
Free agent Gilbert Arenas flips a coin 10 times to decide whether to sign with the Wizards or his hometown Los Angeles Clippers. The coin comes up Clippers eight of 10 times—but Arenas still signs with Washington. When asked to explain why, Arenas says, “It feels good to do the opposite of what people expect. For instance, I was in a grocery store with rookie Peter John Ramos recently and he asked me for some bacon. I handed him a rump roast, tipped over his shopping cart, and sang the national anthem. It totally threw him off—and it was hilarious!”
Record: 37-45. Fail to make playoffs.
Former Bullet Richard “Rip” Hamilton signs an endorsement deal with Goodyear, whereby the company compensates Hamilton for braiding his hair to resemble the company’s signature tire tread.
This is the second time in recent years that a Washington player has negotiated a hair-based business deal. In 2001, Charles Oakley received a one-time cash payment from Balkan Angels, a Serbian massage parlor, because his hair resembled angry whores.
Record: 25-57. Fail to make playoffs.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, farmers report the birth of a rare white buffalo, regarded to be a symbol of hope and rebirth among Native American cultures. Iraq conducts its first-ever Democratic elections. An international team of scientists announces that the Earth’s gravitational field is in the process of reversing its polarity.
The Wizards compile a 45-37 record, their best in a quarter century, and clinch a spot in the NBA playoffs. In the small Italian town of Pienza, 66-year-old Fiora Mella sees the face of former Bullets guard Ledell Eackles on the surface of her grilled cheese sandwich.
Record: 45-37. Clinch fifth seed in the playoffs.