Before the Washington Wizards organization celebrated the 35th anniversary of the then-Bullets' 1978 NBA championship run this past weekend, the Washington Post published a feature by Dave Sheinin on that often overlooked title team. Sheinin opened the feature with an anecdote about the 1978 Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy, which longtime Bullets/Wiz owner Abe Pollin had hoisted with fans in D.C.'s Dulles Airport after the win, but which had apparently gone missing when Ted Leonsis bought the team in June 2010:
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.
The story of the hidden trophy — which was then reportedly cleaned up, restored and returned to the Verizon Center, where it's now prominently displayed near the arena's main entrance — sounded too good to be true. That's because it's not true, according to Bowie's family and Irene Pollin, Abe Pollin's widow, who is still part-owner of the Wizards.
[The Bowies and Pollin] say the trophy was never at Bowie’s house and in fact was displayed — in a different case, built by a construction crew overseen by Bowie’s son, Mike — for most of the 2000s at Verizon Center.
“It never left the Verizon Center,” Irene Pollin said.
Contacted by The Post about the discrepancies in his account and that of the Pollin and Bowie families, Leonsis, through a spokesman, issued a statement that acknowledged the errors in his anecdote.
“The Bullets’ 1978 championship trophy wasn’t off-site when Monumental Sports & Entertainment purchased the team,” Leonsis’s statement said. “Rather, it was in a Verizon Center closet in a location that had limited access. Previously the trophy had been on display, but we initially had a difficult time locating it. Once we found it, we had it repaired and spruced up at Tiffany & Co. and placed it in a new display case on the arena’s main concourse."
That new display case, according to former Wizards spokesman Matt Williams, began in the spring of 2010 ... before Leonsis even bought the team. The "closet" was actually an office on the third floor of the Verizon Center; the trophy was "wrapped in protective material" while it was there, according to Williams; the trophy had actually been displayed alongside other Wizards memorabilia for large chunks of the last decade, rotating out "every four to six weeks" so that historical pieces belonging to the NHL's Washington Capitals and WNBA's Washington Mystics could be displayed.
How exactly Leonsis didn't know this — or, if he did, why he'd lie about it — remains unclear. (How this didn't come up in the reporting and editing of Sheinin's feature remains an open question, too, of course.) Any positives generated by the warm-and-fuzzy initial story would certainly seem to be washed away, or at least undercut, by this follow-up, right?
"A championship is incredibly difficult to achieve, and we want to celebrate and respect our history," Leonsis said in his statement. "The organization was honored and grateful that the ’78 team, Mrs. Pollin and her sons were able to participate in last weekend’s 35th anniversary celebration. It was a great event for the players, our organization and the fans."
And it was, by all accounts — fans got replica '78 championship rings, the members of the title-winning team were rightly feted for their efforts, and the Wiz beat the visiting Indiana Pacers like a drum. Probably would've been at least a little bit greater if not for the unnecessary fabrication/lie, though, y'know?
It is, as Bullets Forever's Mike Prada writes, "a bad look" for the Wizards owner, and something of a puzzling one, at that. It's kind of remarkable that in a story about the whereabouts and condition of a 35-year-old trophy, it's a billionaire who comes out looking sort of scuffed up and dingy.