Baltimore Bullets: All Blood and Guts, 1971

[One last story about Unseld, Monroe, and the ailing 1971 Baltimore Bullets. This article, written by New York Post scribe Jim O’Brien, ran in the magazine All Sports in November 1971. O’Brien’s articles, and there are many of them, tend to be a very clean read. Surprisingly, not this one. Structurally, it’s jumpy, and his prose lacks the usual polished. Nevertheless, if you like Monroe, Gus Johnson, and Kevin Loughery, this article is for you. O’Brien tells their playoff stories well.] 

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Dorie Murrey was among a few friends in a quiet cocktail lounge at a hotel across from the Civic Center in Baltimore following his first game with the Bullets. This was a Friday evening, October 23, 1970 to be exact, and the Bullets had beaten the New York Knicks, 98-92, in their first meeting of the season. But Murrey was unmoved by the achievement. 

He hadn’t been a Bullet long enough to know how important it has become to beat the Knicks, and he failed to savor the sweetness of the occasion as he sipped a drink at the bar. 

He came to the Bullets from the expansion Portland Trail Blazers, and when a four-year vet can’t break into the Blazers’ lineup, he has to wonder what the future holds for him with the Bullets in Baltimore. 

A girl with a great Afro who was in Dorie’s company caught sight of an oil painting on the wall of the room and remarked to Murrey, “If I had any talent, I’d still be an art major.”

“If I had any talent,” Murrey shot back, “I wouldn’t be here tonight.”

Murrey’s admission came to mind again at the end of the season. That’s when the injury-riddled Bullets went to their bench and had to depend upon the likes of Dorie Murrey to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, if they were to pull off the miracle of the sports season and win the National Basketball Association championship. 

As the Bucks and Bullets battled in a pair of nationally televised games out of Baltimore, one could see a banner strung across the wall behind the basket at one end of the building. It read:

BALTIMORE! CITY OF CHAMPIONS!

There was an outside possibility, indeed, that Baltimore could make a clean sweep of the major sports championships, starting with the Orioles in baseball last October and the Colts in football in January, just two years after the Mets, Jets, and Knicks shut down the town. 

Beating New York in the Eastern finals was super-satisfaction; beating the Bucks was asking too much of the running wounded who represented the city of crabcakes and Blaze Starr, especially when you had to call upon Dorie Murrey and Gary Zeller in championship contests against the likes of Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson storming the walls of your gym. Baltimore simply didn’t have the necessary manpower to hold them off. 

But they almost made it, didn’t they?

Nope. The Bullets, battlers that they were all the way through the playoffs, were no match for Milwaukee. It was no contest. Milwaukee proved that its basketball team, as well as its beer, were better than Baltimore’s. The Bucks succeeded the Knicks as NBA champions by beating the Bullets four straight. But this was no disgrace for Baltimore—not after their tremendous victories over Philadelphia and New York. 

The series with the Knicks, which went seven games, was something to etch into basketball’s archives. Up until this past year whenever New York teams played Baltimore teams, New York always won. Frank Robinson of the Orioles put it best after the 1969 World Series: “New York could beat Baltimore in tiddlywinks.”

No one knew that better than the Bullets. During the 1968-69 season, the Bullets, with rookie wonder Wes Unseld in their lineup, advanced all the way from last place to first in a single season, posting a record of 57 wins and 25 losses, the NBA’s best mark. The Knicks knocked them off in the first round of the playoffs in four straight games. 

A year ago, the Bullets finished third in the Eastern Division and began the playoffs against the Knicks, who finished first. It was a helluva battle, lasting the maximum seven games before the Bullets bowed to the Knicks. They had been denied by New York once again. 

Let’s go back to Baltimore and consider what happened before we met Murrey, who by the way, is a likable guy with a good handsome head on his tall shoulders. Dave DeBusschere of the Knicks, who coached Murrey in Detroit during the 1966-67 season, says he’s a bright young man with a degree in electrical engineering. It’s just that Murrey’s not up to par with the frontline players, and, when most hands weren’t healthy at the end, the Bullets needed all the able bodies they could come by. 

Back to the beginning now. 

Everybody in Baltimore’s Civic Center that night seemed to be wearing lapel buttons boasting: “I’m a Believer.”

It’s important to have faith when one is a Bullets’ backer because everybody’s bandaged in their lineup. Band-aids and knee wraps come with their equipment at the outset of the season. The airplanes and buses this team travels in should be painted white with red crosses on the sides to protect the wounded from further harm. 

Earl Monroe’s arthritic knees could cave in or Gus Johnson could be sidelined at any moment, as could Kevin Loughery, and take your pick of the injuries that might victimize them. You name it, they’ve been hospitalized with it. 

The Bullets beat the Knicks that night, 98-92, and that went a lot farther than the banners, buttons, and billboards around town—all paid for by management—to restoring the faith of Baltimore’s basketball buffs. “People still underrate us,” said Gus Johnson. 

“They were better than us tonight,” said Walt Frazier following the game, “but they can’t right last year by winning one game. It’s not a battle until we meet in the playoffs.”

The Bullets, including their clever coach Gene Shue, were saying the game was reminiscent of some of the storied clashes between the two teams in last year’s playoffs. “This was just like a continuation of the playoff games,” Johnson said. 

Uh uh, not if you’re talking to Willis Reed of the Knicks. “Tell them it’s a new year,” the team captain advised us. “And they won the first one.”

Now it was April, almost a half-year later, and it was the playoffs and, lo and behold, it was the Bullets vs. the Knicks. The Bullets had come back from losing the first game to the Philadelphia 76ers to win the division semifinal series in seven games. The Knicks knocked off the Atlanta Hawks in short order, requiring just five games. 

The appearance of the Bullets in New York’s Madison Square Garden brought back another memory of that October evening. DeBusschere was at the bar in Baltimore’s airport, and he was volunteering thoughts on Monroe, the best of the Bullets. 

“They say to watch your man’s stomach,” DeBusschere said. “He can’t go anywhere without moving his stomach. I don’t go with that; I watch their eyes. Sooner or later, sometime, they’ve got to pick up the hoop. 

“Everyone, that is, except Earl Monroe. He’s looking down, dribbling the ball, and there’s no way you can tell me he picked up the hoop, and all he gets is the bottom of the basket.”

“There’s a hesitation in there somewhere,” offered Walt Frazier on the same subject. “He’s not jumping, then he is, and he keeps the ball in there, where he can shoot it later. I can’t figure it out. I thought I had it—but if I did, I’d stop him.”

Monroe’s magic is the most distinguishing feature of the Bullets’ ballclub. Larry Merchant, a coworker at the New York Post, calls Monroe, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” “He makes baskets while hanging from the rafters by his big toe,” Merchant wrote, “dribbles across the highwire and mesmerizes lions and tigers by juggling 14 basketballs at once.”

Or, so it seems. At their best, the Bullets are the greatest show in the NBA anyway. Unseld and Johnson are both brutes under the basket, work at each end of the court, and Unseld gets off the best outlet pass after a rebound since Bill Russell. He hurls the pass, and suddenly the likes of Monroe, Loughery, or Fred Carter and Jack Marin are moving in on your basket at breakneck speed. Monroe and Johnson both have a flair for this game and turn houses upside down with their acrobatics, while wrecking their own bodies as well. There’s a certain masochism to Monroe and Johnson. “We’ve got to do our thing,” Johnson said.  

By the time the playoffs and the Knicks were upon them, however, it seemed impossible for the Bullets to do their thing. The Bullets were holding their NBA title hopes together with a couple of yards of tape, foam rubber, pills, and painkilling injections. Anyone who wasn’t hurt couldn’t wear his official Bullets’ badge on his breast. 

But as long as there was life in the dangerous Monroe, Baltimore was also dangerous. Against Philadelphia, for instance, Monroe was hit by Archie Clark’s elbow on his already damaged right side with 8:24 left in the second quarter and Philly leading, 33-29. He fell to the floor in pain, and doctors worked over him several minutes before he was able to get up and go to the dressing room. 

Nobody expected him back. “It was unbelievable that he could go back and score 23 points,” said team trainer Skip Feldman. “He was in shock. He didn’t know who he was. He was ready to throw up and his ribs were killing him. The doctors were checking with a stethoscope to see if a rib was sticking into a lung. If they hear a hissing, bubbling noise, it means a rib is in a lung. Once that was checked out and cleared, I made a foam rubber brace for him, taped it up, and gave him a codeine pill for the pain.”

Wearing the brace that he used the rest of the series, Monroe returned to hit on 10 of 15 field goal tries, three for three from the free-throw line, to get three assists and guard Hal Greer on defense. The Bullets won, 111-103, in the third game. 

Monroe was mobile enough to play against the Knicks, but Johnson, one of Baltimore’s three key men, was not able to play in the first game. He had two damaged knees and had fluid drained from them before the game in which the Bullets eliminated Philadelphia. 

Johnson played well in that game, but, as he would say later, “Billy Cunningham and Jack Ramsay told me I was insane, but I think it’s in my blood ever since I was a kid, and I owe everyone something. They pay to see me play, and I just wish I could tell them all how thankful I am for how good this game’s been to me.”

Gus has been good for the game, too. No one puts more of himself into it, and he sacrificed himself in channeling so much of his energies and skills into defense, something more appreciated by his opposition than by the fans or critics. 

Kevin Loughery and Wes Unseld were not in their best physical shape either for the annual war with the Knicks, whose only real concern was the condition of their captain, Willis Reed, who was troubled by a sore knee and shoulder. 

Loughery had a stone bruise on the right heel. Unseld was receiving daily treatment for a puffed ankle, Monroe’s ribs we’re still aching, and assistant coach Bob Ferry had mononucleosis. 

Johnson didn’t dress for the game and sat in civvies on the bench as the Bullets lost a toughie, 112-111 at the Garden. The day after, Loughery was in considerable pain and had more trouble walking than Johnson. 

The Bullets went into the second game with Johnson and Loughery both ailing, and Coach Gene Shue $500 poorer as the result of a fine from Commissioner Walter Kennedy. Shue had drawn a technical in the first game in coming out on the floor to protest a resetting of the 24-second clock that aided the Knicks. They had enough in their favor without that nonsense. 

Johnson won’t play, but Loughery will. The former St. John’s star from New York City is a tough cookie, and he’s played despite injuries four of the five times Baltimore has been in the playoffs. Last year during the series with the Knicks, he discarded a protective corset used to protect a punctured lung. Two years ago, he played despite a badly torn groin muscle, and, once before, he tried to play on what he thought was a sprained ankle only to learn after the season that it had been broken. 

The Bullets couldn’t beat the Knicks with half a ballclub, however, and lost the second game, 107-88. In the dressing room, one heard names like xylocaine, novocain, and cortisone tossed around like they were the language of the sport. “We’ll try and give them another day’s rest,” was the way a report on each player began. 

“No depth, simply,” DeBusschere said of the Bullets. 

“Undermanned,” Monroe said. “Period. But that’s been the case in every playoff game I’ve ever been in.”

Undermanned and ill-equipped, the Bullets folded in the face of the Knicks attack at the Garden. We visited the Bullets in their dressing room that night. The pungent odor of various liniments assailed the nostrils. Without Band-aids and painkillers, the Bullets might not have gotten this far. 

A wild-eyed thought went through one’s mind standing among the battered Bullets. You fully expected Elliott (M*A*S*H) Gould, a Garden regular for Knicks games, to pull back the tent flap, enter in his whites, and ask if anyone needed medical assistance. This was, indeed, a field hospital. 

“But you always go to work,” Monroe said. “Gotta go to work. Don’t worry ‘bout me. These old knees will hold up. Just got to get it together here (ankle), there (rib), and up here (head). And then, go get it together out there.”

Johnson sat in a corner, a forlorn look on his noble, rather handsome, face. He was asked if he felt the Bullets had been denied true greatness because they never were able to play up to their potential in the playoffs. They were never physically able to. 

Gus agreed to that, but he thought the Bullets had been tough on themselves, never willing to play the kind of team ball that the Knicks had shown a season earlier to be the key to coming up with a championship. “We’ve been one or two passes away from it,” Johnson said. “I said p-a-s-s-e-s from being a great ballclub. If players would’ve whipped the ball a few more times instead of taking shots.

“Every year in the playoffs, we’ve had major injuries to a player,” the Bullets’ leader went on. “Two years ago, it was me; last year, Kevin. This season, me and Kevin.”

Johnson looked to Loughery, sitting halfway across the crowded room. “At times, he’s in miserable pain,” Gus observed. “He walks in pain. I have, too. I know what he feels like.”

Then to Monroe, in the other corner. “The offensive burden is on his shoulders,” Johnson said. “His pain is gone when he comes back to the offensive end, but the pain is there on defense. He’s an offensive player. Yeh, he loafs at times on defense, but he’s more aware of moving toward the basket. When we get the ball, he forgets the pain.”

You may want to read the above paragraph once more. It seems an extraordinary explanation of what Monroe and the Bullets are all about. 

Johnson was asked if he’d be back in action before it was all over for the Bullets. “I have my doubts,” he said. “If they fix it so I can bend my knee, I’ll be full of drugs but I’ll make it. Lot of people don’t realize what courage professional athletes are playing with. All they know is that a guy’s not 100 percent. If I had played tonight and Dave (DeBusschere) would’ve burned me, all they say is he’s killing me. Inside, I’m dying a little more. If you play badly, they say, ‘He must’ve been up all night boozing it up.’ They don’t care if you’ve got a virus. 

“Up until last month, I had so many needles I thought I was addicted to them. This time, it’s got me right here (he stuck his hand in the pit of his stomach). I’m so scared. 

“It’s been hell at home. I was lying in a pool of water one night in bed, and my wife heard me moaning for two hours until she couldn’t stand it anymore. She’s gotta listen to me. There were beads of sweat all over my body. I was cold and trembling. During the Philadelphia series, we didn’t say over 50 words to each other. I just came home and went to bed. It was tough on Janet. 

“I’m scared, yes, scared that I’ll never be able to play again. Playing basketball . . . it’s my thing.”

The Bullets routed the Knicks, 114-88, in Baltimore’s Civic Center in what Coach Shue described as “the greatest Bullet game ever.”

Johnson was still sidelined, and so was Loughery this time. Eddie Miles, the sixth man, whom we failed to mention earlier, was also nursing an ankle cast, which kept him out of the playoffs altogether. 

Beyond Monroe and Carter in the backcourt, Shue had to use Gary Zeller as a substitute. Zeller seldom saw any action all season. As a result, Monroe played 42 minutes and Carter 43. Monroe scored 31 points and Carter 20. Up front, forwards Jack Marin and John Tresvant and center Wes Unseld played 45 minutes each. 

The Bullets, displayed outstanding shooting and hustle; the Knick offense simply disappeared, and New York was badly outrebounded. The Bullets, by being sky-high emotionally for the second-straight game, had achieved a position of real hope. Willis Reed was hurting again. 

Johnson didn’t play again, and Loughery only for a few minutes. But Monroe, Carter, Unseld, Tresvant, and Marin did the job by themselves. Marin scored 27 points this time. Monroe scored 25 and Carter 23, while their opposite numbers, Walt Frazier and Dick Barnett, scored only 30 points between them. 

New York won the fifth game, 89-84, at the Garden, and now it was back to Baltimore. The Bullets blew out to a 20-point lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter and crushed the Knicks by 17 in a 113-96 Sunday afternoon contest to knot the series at three wins apiece. “We’ve got to prove we can beat them in New York in a close game,” said Loughery. “To be the champs, you have to do that. We all knew before the series that we would have to win one in New York.”

Loughery sat in the dressing room after each game with an ice pack taped to his right ankle. “Teams who usually win championships,” he offered one evening, “are teams that stay healthy. 

“It’s part of basketball being hurt, but there are some injuries you just can’t play with. In a half hour, I’ll hardly be able to walk. After a good sleep, it’ll come back down. There’s absolutely no pain during the game, so it doesn’t hurt my play. The only time it doesn’t hurt, in fact, is when I play.”

We were in Chicago with the Rangers hockey team that night, ready to play the Blackhawks in the NHL playoffs, and I watched the Knicks-Bullets game on television. With two minutes to go in the game, we went to the bathroom to secure a towel to keep our hands dry. No kidding. We couldn’t decide who we really wanted to win. New York was the new hometown team for us, but the Bullets were such beautiful underdogs, we didn’t know whom to root for. 

The Knicks, who had eliminated the Bullets in the playoffs the past two years, missed the big shots at the end, and the Bullets were on target, and that’s what it all came down to. 

Back in New York, N.Y. Post columnist Merchant wrote that “the Knicks and the Bullets gave us one of the best basketball games a basketball city has a right to have.”  He pointed out one of the plays that told the story of the game. Monroe and Unseld, whom he called the two best players on the floor, collaborated on it. 

Monroe pulled three Knicks on a dazzling drive and zapped a pass to Unseld all alone under the basket. “When you do that,” said Red Holzman, the coach of the Knicks, “that’s what basketball is all about.”

That’s what the Bullets were all about in the playoffs, too. They were making those passes, or p-a-s-s-e-s that Johnson said they hadn’t made in previous playoffs, and they turned teamplay against the Knicks, who knew what it was all about. 

“We’d been coming in and getting our butts beaten,” said Loughery. “When you win and win the seventh game and a two-point game in New York, it’s really something. I’m from New York, and we beat ‘em in New York in front of my family. Super.”

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