Let’s glance at The Washington Post the last time the Wizards franchise clinched a divisional title. The lead story in sports was the upcoming Michigan State-Indiana State basketball final — Magic vs. Bird. Down the page, 22-year old Martina Navratilova was winning a title in New York over 16-year old Tracy Austin. Further down, Lanny Wadkins was claiming the third ever TPC at Sawgrass, in a story told by a young staff writer named Thomas Boswell.
Flip to the front page, and Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were just hours away from signing the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The Post announced that subscription prices for home delivery were increasing from $5.60 to $6.20 every four weeks, and The Calvert Wine and Cheese Shop was advertising a handle of Kentucky Gentleman bourbon for less than eight bucks. Thirty-five-year-old Neil Diamond was recovering from back surgery, The Post’s health columnist was opining that “excess weight unaccompanied by disease is probably overrated as a health hazard,” “Norma Rae” played in theaters as “Hair” was released, and the Maryland legislature was considering raising the drinking age — to 19.
Okay, division titles matter virtually not at all in the modern NBA. No one sets a season goal of raising a division banner, and fans typically don’t care, either. Okay. Sure. Still. Take a moment to reflect on this one, clinched with an overwhelming comeback and a 119-108 victory over the hapless Lakers early Wednesday morning, with the Wiz ending the game on a 49-22 avalanche. That led to Washington’s first division title in 38 years (plus two days).
If you’re under 40, you surely don’t remember D.C.’s last NBA divisional title. If you’re under 50, the memory would probably be dim. If you’re under 20, this might as well have happened in the peach basket era. As CSN’s Chase Hughes discovered, this had been the longest divisional drought in U.S. sports — well ahead of the 30 years the Edmonton Oilers have waited. And after all those years — and after this season’s horrid start — the Wizards wound up strolling leisurely to a first-place finish, clinched on almost the same date as their 1979 brethren.
“It’s great, man,” John Wall said on CSN after the game. “I’ve been here for seven years; it feels like I’ve been here my whole life. We haven’t accomplished a lot of things. This is something that’s exciting for the city, just the start to where we want to be. Hopefully they can enjoy it. Hopefully we put a banner up for it, because it hasn’t happened in so long. But we’ve got bigger goals that we’re trying to reach.”
Take away the first 15 or 20 games of this season, and watching these Wizards has been among the most disorienting D.C. sports experiences I can remember. Nothing went wrong. No one suffered a tragicomic injury. No teammates publicly feuded. There were no incidents with half smokes or French dressing. No off-court nonsense prompted one-liners and snorts. No guns. No fatties. The coach did not say a single objectionable thing. There were no losing skids, no freak-outs, no bouts of panic. Start on Dec. 1, and the Wizards have been the best team in the Eastern Conference. Start on Jan. 1, and they’ve been the third-best team in the entire NBA.
This is the kind of thing — consistent winning — that fans have pleaded for over the past decade. (Or two.) (Or three.) The team would sometimes be okay, or pretty good, or briefly dangerous. It would virtually never offer month after month of sustained success. This team? It came to feel reliable, which is the weirdest thing of all. Down 16 to the Lakers on Tuesday night, you still felt sure the Wizards would roar back to claim first place.
“It’s a steppingstone,” said Phil Chenier, who played for that 1979 division champ. “Winning the division title, getting to 50 wins, getting past the second round. All those things are on the path to greatness, [toward] doing the things that you hope to do eventually.”
Perhaps the craziest part of the past 38 years is how baffling they would have seemed to a fan in 1979. That Bullets team — which finished with the league’s best record — wasn’t teetering on the brink of irrelevance. That team was a model of quality. In the same month the Bullets clinched their last division title, The Post described the Bullets as “so team-oriented and unselfish,” marked by “stunning consistency.”
“Only the Lakers and the Bullets have been able to produce consistently excellent teams throughout the decade,” The Post wrote.
Abe Pollin was “making Washington a basketball town,” Joe Theismann declared.
“They have a hell of a good club,” New York Coach Red Holzman said.
And so even after the team failed to defend its title — losing to Seattle in the Final — the mood was cheery and bright.
“I think the Bullets have arrived in this area,” assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. GM Bob Ferry called his squad “the best basketball team going.” Dave Kindred wrote in The Post that “another celebration is in order,” title or not, and then went on:
Twice they won seventh games to get into the championship round. Jimmy Carter came to see them. Hayes was grand for 101 games, Dandridge beautiful in his work, Unseld a redwood inspiring awe. Motta was never more a genius than this year when he took a team within three games of doing something that hasn’t been done in 26 years: it was 1953 when any team without Bill Russell won back-to-back NBA championships. A hell of a season, this one.
It was. And then? Wilderness. The Bullets won 54 games that season. The franchise hasn’t won more than 46 since — a total the Wizards reached on Wednesday morning with eight games left.
Before this season started, their record since that division title was 1,259-1,727. That was 27th of 30 franchises over that span. They’ve finished second in their changing divisions seven times. They’ve been third four times. They’ve been fourth or sore 26 times. They’ve never been first, until now.
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“The next goal is to get 50 wins,” Bradley Beal said in the wee hours. “There’s a bunch of things that we’re trying to accomplish. We know the fans, that’s something that they want and that’s something that they deserve. They’ve been looking forward to a good team in the city for a long time. We’ve put that together. Now we owe it to them.”
I’m not going on another one of my “appreciate the regular season” screeds. In a weakened Eastern Conference, with the absurd good health they’ve enjoyed and their strong bench reinforcements, no one will be happy if the Wizards don’t win at least two playoff series. No one will say “yeah, but at least we won the Southeast.” No one will point to the banner with second-round pride.
The Wizards haven’t entered the postseason with expectations like this in — well, probably in 38 years. I’m not exactly sure what a division title means, and whether it’s worthy of celebration. But it seems worthy of appreciation, anyhow. Maybe Wall and Beal, Brooks and Porter, Gortat and Morris have started the foundation for something that’s been missing for most of 40 years: “consistently excellent teams.”
“So many years of cheering for the Wizards and never getting a pregame accomplishment worth a damn,” longtime Wiz fan Luke Russert wrote. “No division crowns, MVPs, scoring titles, defensive player of the year. I look forward to [Ted Leonsis] hoisting that Southeast Division banner, and it sitting up there next to Wes Unseld’s jersey.”
It would take an awful long drought for anyone to look forward to their favorite team raising a division banner. That’s not something people dream about. It’s been 38 years, though. This one probably merits at least a satisfied smile.
Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog and is a columnist for Sports.
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