It seems sort of hard to believe, given how unsuccessful the Washington Wizards franchise has been for years — 23 losing seasons and just one trip past the first round of the playoffs in 30 years — but once upon a time, the then-Bullets ranked among the NBA's premier organizations. They made the playoffs for 12 straight years between 1968 and 1980, bulling to the NBA Finals four times behind stars Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier and Bobby Dandridge. In 1977-78, coach Dick Motta made “the opera ain't over until the fat lady sings” his team's rallying cry and the Bullets lived by its precepts to the season's end, coming back from 3-2 down to the Seattle SuperSonics to win Games 6 and 7 and earn the franchise's first (and only) NBA title.
The Wizards will celebrate the '77-'78 squad on Saturday, honoring the 35th anniversary of the title team's triumph when the Wiz take on the Indiana Pacers at Verizon Center. There'll be pregame festivities, a halftime ceremony and replica championship rings for game attendees — it sounds pretty great, especially considering all the years that Washington's brass kept distancing itself from the "Bullets" name and history after re-branding in 1997.
Just how far did Wizards management remove itself from the good ol' days and the bad (according to some) ol' name? Far enough that the enduring symbol of the franchise's crowning achievement was lost for years ... and, according to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, nobody even noticed.
Shortly after taking control of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center in 2010, Ted Leonsis started asking team employees what he figured was an obvious question with an easy answer: Where’s the trophy? But instead of a simple answer, all Leonsis got in return was a lot of puzzled looks, shrugged shoulders and I-don’t-knows. Nobody, it seemed, had any clue as to the whereabouts of the 1978 Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, symbolizing the lone NBA title in Bullets/Wizards franchise history.
But then, finally, there was a breakthrough. Someone recalled someone else saying sometime awhile back that Smokey Bowie, the late building manager/head engineer/jack-of-all-trades who had been with the franchise since the old Capital Centre days until passing away a few years ago, had at some point taken it home with him for safekeeping. And sure enough, a carload of team employees dispatched to Bowie’s old house found the trophy — scuffed up, tarnished and dented — at the bottom of a closet.
“They bring it in,” Leonsis recalled this week, “and it’s got dings in it, it’s matted, not shiny. My wife [Lynn] is best friends with the woman who runs Tiffany’s in Tysons Corner, so I asked her to look at it, and I said, ‘Look at this – this is what we spend a billion dollars over our lifetime to try to win, and it’s been sitting in someone’s closet. Can you fix it?’ It took about three months, but it came back perfect.”
The disappearance of major trophies is a bit more common than you might think. The NFL's Lombardi Trophy famously went missing after the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII back in February, and two of the Lombardi's predecessors — the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Cup of the American Professional Football Association and the early NFL's Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy — have been missing for decades. (Um, maybe the NFL needs to keep a closer eye on its stuff.)
Such disappearing acts have been rarer in NBA history, though; I mean, LeBron James briefly lost track of his NBA Finals MVP trophy after the Miami Heat won the NBA title last summer, but that was quickly recovered and not, y'know, stuck at the bottom of someone's closet for years, unbeknownst to anyone. As for the dings, scuffs and tarnish, it could've been worse — after the Houston Rockets beat the New York Knicks to win the 1994 NBA championship, Hakeem Olajuwon and company reportedly did a number on the O'Brien, according to the Rockets' Matt Bullard: “We broke that son of a gun. We were handing it around, and the ball just came off.”
Since the revelation, recovery and restoration, the trophy has occupied a place of prominence in the Verizon Center, sitting spotlit on a pedestal in a glass case near the arena's main entrance to highlight happier days gone by when Washington stood atop the NBA and, just maybe, inspire hope that such glory can be recaptured. Let's just make sure someone keeps an eye on it before, during and after this weekend's festivities, OK?