By Neil Beldock
The Baltimore Bullets were one of the most exciting teams, with some of the most exciting players to never win an NBA championship. Now known as the Washington Wizards, for basketball fans who watched games during the late 1960’s through the early 1970’s, the Baltimore Bullets will never be forgotten.
There’s not a basketball fan alive over the age of 55 or so, who, when they hear the words “Baltimore Bullets”, doesn’t have visions of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe performing 360 degree spin moves and double-clutch mid-air extravaganzas, on his way to the basket. He wasn’t called “Black Jesus” for nothing……….
Or who doesn’t remember Wes Unseld, with his flat-top and forward sloping ‘fro, firing two-handed outlet passes from over his head as no one else previously did, or since has.
Nor would they forget Jack Marin who, although perhaps remembered more for the birth mark cascading from just below his neck, down his left shoulder and arm, was a great shooter and a great player.
And of course, who would ever forget how tough, and how great Gus Johnson was.
This was a unique team, built with unique players, who always seemed to run into a team with just a bit more than they had.
Whether it was the New York Knicks who were on their way to becoming one of the greatest “teams” (emphasis on the word “team”) ever, or the Milwaukee Bucks with two legends and dominant players in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, the Bullets would always be knocking on the door, but never quite be let in to that room where only league champions reside.
But make no mistake, this was a dangerous team, and whoever they played knew they were in for an exhaustive battle. And, without question, and to a large degree because of the exploits of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, those Bullet teams were some of the most entertaining and exciting teams to ever play.
The battles between the Knicks and the Bullets from the 1968-69 season through the 1970-71 season were legendary battles with legendary match-ups.
For three consecutive years, these two teams, with the same core group of players, would wage playoff war and produce some of the most memorable playoff games and series any and every basketball fan of that era had ever seen.
What made those confrontations so intriguing was that the two teams were a mirror image of each other.
Willis vs. Unseld: Strength Against Strength
It started at the center position where the Knicks offered the 6 foot 9, 240 pound Willis Reed to battle the aforementioned 6 foot 7 inch, 245 pound Wes Unseld.
The similarities between Reed and Unseld were so evident that it could be called scary. Both were undersized center-men at a time when the center position dominated the NBA. But, aside from the huge and powerful Wilt Chamberlain, these two men were as physically strong as any men in the NBA.
The battles between Reed and Unseld were fierce, and very, very physical. Those battles may be best epitomized by what occurred during the 1970 playoffs.
Through the first 4 games of the series which was tied at 2 games apiece, Unseld had dominated Reed collecting 110 rebounds to Reed’s 58.
The dominance was especially evident in the two games in Baltimore where behind Unseld’s physical play, the Bullets bounced back from losing two close games at Madison Square Garden to not just beat the Knicks and even the series at 2 games apiece, but won convincingly, winning first by 14 points and then 20 points the following game.
It appeared the momentum of the series had shifted to the Bullets and an upset was in the making. Reed however, would have none of it.
In Game 5 back at Madison Square Garden, Reed was seeking redemption and resurrection for both his team and himself, and he would not be denied.
Responding to being outplayed through most of the series, and specifically the last two games in Baltimore, Reed responded with a 36 point and 36 rebound effort to lead the Knicks to victory and gain a stranglehold on the series. Like a classic heavyweight fight, it was a case of punch, counter-punch.
DeBusschere vs. Johnson: “Like A Heavyweight Fight”
If the battles between Reed and Unseld were battles between two mirror image players, the same could be said for the war which was waged at the power forward position between Dave DeBusschere and Gus Johnson.
In the history of the NBA, there may not be a match-up which could parallel the physicality displayed by the 6 foot 6 inch, 220 pound DeBusschere, and the 6 foot 7 inch, 230 pound Johnson night in and night out. Nor did two players ever go as hard at each other, but respect each other to the degree displayed within the DeBusschere-Johnson encounters.
The coach of the Knicks in those years, Red Holzman, described the DeBusschere-Johnson battles as “The Classic Confrontation; man against man, will against will and body against body”.
And this from the voice of the Knicks in those years, Marv Albert: “DeBusschere-Johnson battles were like a heavyweight fight”.
When it came to DeBusschere battling Johnson, no quarter was asked for, and none given.
One particular story perfectly sums up the battles they waged.
Competing as they always did, there was a loose ball. Both DeBusschere and Johnson dove after the ball becoming entwined with one another and rolling on the floor. As the whistle blew and play stopped, with both players on the floor and still somewhat entwined with each other, smiles could be seen on both their faces. DeBusschere is quoted as saying that Johnson looked at him, and with the smile still on his face said “this is fun isn’t it”.
There’s the DeBusschere-Johnson war in but five words…..”this is fun, isn’t it”.
Dollar Bill vs. Jack Marin: Mirror Images
The small forward position would follow suit with obvious similarities easily seen. There was Bill Bradley for the Knicks and the aforementioned Jack Marin for the Bullets.
These two were eerily similar in the way they played the game. Both mastered the art of moving without the ball, both were smart and crafty players, and both were exceptionally good shooters. For each, guarding the other was like guarding themselves.
Their similarities even extended to academics as both attended two of the finer institutes of higher learning in America. Marin attended Duke University while Bradley earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton. And, just for good measure, they both wore the same uniform #24.
Barnett vs. Loughery: Classic 2-Guards
The shooting guards matched up with the veteran Dick Barnett for the Knicks and New York bred Kevin Loughery for the Bullets.
(Kevin Loughery driving vs. Dick Barnett)
Although very different in style, both were very similar in what they accomplished on the court. Both could shoot, both could score, and both were seasoned and wily veterans who played the shooting guard position exactly the way it was meant to be played, perfectly complimenting the magnificence of the point guards on their respective teams.
And speaking of the point guards for both the Knicks and Bullets…….
Ladies and Gentlemen: Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Walt “Clyde” Frazier……
As great as every other match-up was, Pearl vs. Clyde was something all together different, something very special, and something to behold. It was “style & substance” multiplied by two.
In style, there was very little comparison between these two players.
In substance, they were both young, rising superstars. Both possessing extraordinary levels of magnetism.
The style the Pearl displayed was a herky-jerky, spinning, faking, double and triple pumping, hanging-in-the-air playground style that would draw as many, if not more oohs and aahs from the fans than any player ever had. His style had fans on the edge of their seat(s) whenever he touched the ball.
In contrast to the visual style displayed by Monroe, Clyde was smooth and cool. He glided, almost like he was on ice skates, skating at his own comfortable pace. Never in a rush, and never showing any emotion. Fans seemed to relax when Clyde had the ball.
Whereas Monroe’s style could be described as captivating and breathtaking, Clyde’s style can be described as mesmerizing and hypnotic.
In musical terms, the Pearl was jazz personified. In a free-wheeling and unbridled fashion, he could change direction at any moment. An improvisational genius and magician. Clyde, on the other hand, was like classical music; flowing easily, smoothly and effortlessly. A great Conductor orchestrating the fundamentals.
Two great players, both drafted in 1967 by their respective teams, and although the Pearl seemed to have already achieved stardom at the professional level, there was no question Clyde was ascending quickly.
And the beauty of it was that unlike today, where perhaps superstars are intentionally not matched-up against one another, it was understood that whenever the Knicks played the Bullets, these two would absolutely be assigned to one another.
And come playoff time, whoever could win this duel would greatly advance their teams chance of prevailing. It was great theater, and a great, great match-up.
Playoffs – Knicks vs. Bullets:
The Knicks-Bullets rivalry through the 1969, 1970 and 1971 playoffs were nothing short of incredible with a story-line that moved in a connected fashion from one year to the next.
It started during the playoffs following the 1968-69 season. The Bullets had just finished an incredible year, the best year in the short-lived history of the franchise (which started in 1963).
For the Bullets, it started with the college draft after the previous season, and their drafting of Wes Unseld.
By drafting Unseld, the Bullets found the final piece needed to advance from mediocrity and accomplish what few teams have ever been able to accomplish.
With Unseld winning both the Rookie-of-the-Year and Most Valuable Player award for the 1968-69 season, the Bullets went from worst-to-first finishing the year with a 57-25 record, best in the NBA.
In similar fashion, the Knicks also found themselves during the 1968-69 season, although their transformation occurred shortly before mid-season when they traded Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Dave DeBusschere.
Just as Unseld provided the Bullets with the final piece needed to become an elite team, so too was the case with DeBusschere becoming a Knick.
With DeBusschere in tow, the Knicks increased their win total from 43 wins the year before to 54 wins and a 3rd place finish upon conclusion of the 1968-69 season.
Both the Knicks and Bullets were on the rise, and the teams were on a collision course for a first round playoff match-up in the spring of 1969.
Unfortunately for the Bullets however, Gus Johnson had injured his knee late in the season and was unable to play against the Knicks.
1968-69 Playoff Series:
With the Knicks maturing as a team, and with Gus Johnson unable to play, the Knicks whip-sawed through the Bullets, sweeping their way though the series 4-0.
Monroe was spectacular for the Bullets, averaging 28.3 points per game over the four games, but the overall team play of the Knicks was more than the Bullets were able to handle, especially being without the services of Gus Johnson.
Reed was dominant matching Monroe’s 28.3 points per game. Both DeBusschere (21.3) and Frazier (20.5) also averaged over 20 points per game. And Barnett at 19.5 and Bradley at 17.8 points per game were not far behind.
A crushing defeat for the Bullets given the season they had, but optimism still existed and revenge was on their mind heading into the 1969-70 season.
(Above: DeBusschere battling Unseld)
1969-70 Playoff Series:
The Knicks had one of the great seasons of all-time during the 1969-70 season, winning 60 games and setting an NBA record for consecutive wins with 18 in a row along the way.
In an exact flip from the year before, the Knicks posted the best record in the league and the Bullets, with a 50-32 record, finished 3rd.
Once again, a 1st round playoff encounter was set-up. Only this time, there would be no sweep.
The playoff series in the spring of 1970 between the Knicks and Bullets was nothing short of epic; One of the great 7-game playoff series of all-time with the Bullets looking to turn-the-tables on the Knicks as the Knicks had done to them the year before.
With Gus Johnson back, the Bullets were a very different team than the team the Knicks faced 1-year prior.
Johnson would average 18.4 points per game for the series and, as importantly, he was also able to limit DeBusschere to 15.9 points per game after DeBusschere had averaged 21.3 the year before when the Bullets were void of Johnson’s services.
Monroe was breathtaking and magnificent once again, averaging 28.0 points per game over the 7-game series and giving Frazier all he could handle. Frazier was outstanding as well, and averaged 19.0 points per game for the series.
Marin outplayed Bradley scoring 17.9 points per game to Bradley’s 12.0. And newcomer Freddie Carter at the 2-guard averaged 14.1 points per game, effectively offsetting Dick Barnett’s 14.7 points per game.
At the center position, the battle was brutal (as described previously herein). Reed averaged 21.3 points per game to Unseld’s 10.4. But Unseld was dominant on the boards, more than making up for the disparity in points.
Through 7 incredibly engrossing and exhausting affairs, the Knicks would prevail.
What made the Knicks a great team, and ultimately a championship team that year, was that they were in fact “a team”. And it was this sense of team which ultimately swayed the series in the Knicks direction.
The difference in the series, plain and simple, was the depth and play of the Knicks bench.
(Above:Mike Riordan providing scoring off the bench)
Behind the play of Mike Riordan, Cazzie Russell and Dave Stallworth, the Knicks bench would outscore the Bullets bench by over 7 points per game (25.5 to 18.2), providing the difference needed to prevail. Only Kevin Loughery, who was now coming off the bench for the Bullets, was able to provide any significant contribution for the Bullets by averaging 9.6 points per game, but it would not be enough.
How close was the series? Through 7 games, the average difference in points per team was a mere 1.57 points per game. Through 7 games, the Knicks scored 746 points to the Bullets 735. Neither team was able to win on the road. The home court advantage held by the Knicks, together with the play of the bench, proved to be the difference.
Another devastating and crushing end to the season at the hands of the Knicks for the Bullets. But they were not to be deterred.
1970-71 Playoff Series:
The Knicks and Bullets would meet for the third consecutive season in the 1971 playoffs with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. Once again the teams would engage in an epic 7-game series.
Earl The Pearl was once again, well, Earl The Pearl. He and Frazier locked horns in an unrelenting battle which saw Monroe average 24.4 points per game and Clyde check in at 20.4.
Marin once again dominated Bradley averaging 21.9 points per game to Bradley’s 10.1. Freddie Carter was once again able to effectively offset Dick Barnett scoring 16.7 points per game to Barnett’s 17.7.
But after 6 games, the series was looking very much like the series from a year ago as neither team was able to prevail on the other teams home court. And Game 7 was to be played at Madison Square Garden in New York City; A daunting task and up hill battle was right in the face of the Bullets.
The Bullets were determined to not fall short one more time.
In Game 7, Monroe was at his best scoring 26 points to Frazier’s 13. Marin continued his dominance over Bradley scoring 20 points to Bradley’s 13. And although Reed, who struggled most of the series came up big with 24 points, Unseld did enough, contributing 17 points to keep the Bullets in the thick of it.
The game came down to this: Bullets 93, Knick 91…..Knicks ball with 11 seconds on the clock to defend their championship from the year before.
Barnett in-bounds the ball from the left sideline to Frazier who dribbles right and is cut-off. He hands to Bradley who dribbles to the left corner with the clock winding down. For a second Bradley has an open look and rises for the game-tying shot.
But before Bradley was able to release the ball, Unseld lunged at Bradley and got just a slight piece of the ball, enough to misdirect the shot as the buzzer sounded.
The Bullets, after two years of heartbreak finally prevail in year 3, and they are on the way to the NBA Finals to face the Milwaukee Bucks (ultimately losing to the Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar/Oscar Robertson led Bucks).
(Above: Game 7 Breakthrough)
A Great Trilogy Comes To An End:
What an amazing trilogy. Three years, three epic battles. It felt like Ali-Frazier. Heavyweights battling until they had nothing left to give.
Sadly it would end there. By the next season, with Monroe embroiled in a contract dispute and requesting a trade, the Bullets shipped him to of all places, the Knicks!!
Clyde and Earl-The-Pearl, mortal enemies and contestants in epic personal duels, would now team up to form one of the most dynamic backcourts to ever play together in the NBA.
And the following season, their first full season playing together, they would lead the Knicks to their second NBA championship in the spring of 1973.
But without question, the battles which Clyde and Earl-the-Pearl, and their teams engaged in during those three season were nothing short of sensational, and never to be forgotten by anyone who witnessed and lived through those epic and classic confrontations.
After Their Playing Days Ended……..
Enemies Turned Friends