Bullets leave Baltimore with win Mavericks fall, 94-87

Washington a half-game behind in playoff chase

March 30, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It was an evening of remembering for Paul Bloom, and as he sat in his courtside seat at Baltimore Arena last night, he couldn't help but think back to the days of the old Baltimore Bullets when he was introduced to the magic of basketball by Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.

"Watching the Pearl and what he did on the court, that was my first real taste," Bloom said. "It turned me on to the game, watching the Bullets play in this building."

It's a building where banners honoring three Bullets greats -- Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Gus Johnson -- hang from the rafters recalling some great moments. But the association the Bullets have with Baltimore ended last night in the Washington Bullets' 94-87 win over the Dallas Mavericks before 11,269 at the Arena.

At least the final memory Baltimore fans will have of the Bullets here will be a pleasant one. In victory last night, the Bullets finished the month with an 11-4 record, the best March in franchise history. The Bullets also pulled within a half-game of the idle Cleveland Cavaliers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington won for the fourth straight time, and the eighth time in its past 10 games.

In improving to 36-35, the Bullets will enter the final month of the season with a record above .500 for the first time since 1983 (Washington was 37-36 that year).

"Everybody's finding their niche and knowing what their contribution is to this team," guard Calbert Cheaney said of the successful March. "We are doing what we are supposed to do out there, and that's making us all successful."

While this wasn't as easy as Friday's victory over Toronto at USAir Arena, the Bullets again did a good job of turning up their defensive intensity when they had to. The Bullets led by as many as 14 points late in the third quarter, only to have Dallas tie the game at 78 on a layup by Derek Harper with 6: 23 left.

But Bullets scored the next eight points, opening up some breathing room. And Harper, who had 18 points, did not score again after tying the game. The Mavericks never got closer than five.

"Our defense down the stretch was great," said Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "We made the plays defensively, and we knocked balls loose. The execution was good, especially for back-to-back games."

Offensively, the "share the ball" philosophy of Bickerstaff is getting contagious. The Bullets had five players score in double figures, led by Rod Strickland's 21 points (with 13 assists) and Juwan Howard's 20 points. Chris Webber had 17 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, helping Washington to a huge 54-33 edge on the boards.

Washington had a 71-65 lead going into the final quarter and the Mavericks, to their credit, kept scrapping until the final minute.

The Bullets played maybe their most impressive game of the year Friday against Toronto, but it was clear from the start last night that the Mavericks would provide more of a challenge. At one point in the second quarter, the Bullets trailed by nine points, although they did come back to take a 48-45 halftime lead.

Both Gheorghe Muresan (10 points) and Webber (11 points, eight rebounds) had strong scoring halves and Strickland (six assists, nine points) did a nice job running the offense.

Thus ended an era for the Bullets, a name that originated when the Chicago Zephyrs became the Baltimore Bullets in 1963. The team moved from Baltimore to Landover in 1973, becoming what's now the Washington Bullets.

That name will change to the Wizards next season, coinciding with the team's move to downtown Washington -- a move that means no more regular-season games in Baltimore (although there are talks to have preseason games here).

There was no ceremony to mark the Bullets' final game in Baltimore. No acknowledgment of the great players -- Monroe, Unseld, Hayes, Johnson -- who wore the Baltimore uniform.

Aside from the sign held by one fan (Bye Bye Bullets/Welcome Wizards/Abe, Don't Shut Out Balto.) and the playing of the song "Never can say goodbye" as the team walked off the court, the moment passed quietly.

"The uniqueness of this place is Baltimore isn't an NBA city, and when the fans do see basketball they really express themselves," Webber said. "They always supported us. I enjoyed playing here."

Perhaps one day when the Wizards are no longer a hot ticket in Washington, the decision will be made to play regular-season games here again. But aside from the banners that hang, the Bullets are now just a memory in Baltimore.

"I'm going to miss this building," Bloom said. "This place used to rock and roll, it was magic. The atmosphere here was great and it's something I'll never forget."

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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