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Bullets, Buses, and Basketball

Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson playing above the rim against the New York Knickerbockers

1963 was a big year in Baltimore sports. The Baltimore Bullets National Basketball Association (NBA) team returned to my hometown. They folded as a franchise in 1954, the same year the Orioles baseball club came back to Baltimore. In the old days they played in the 5th Regiment Armory which is where the name “Bullets” originated.

Now they would play in the Baltimore Civic Center.

They were led by Walt Belamy, Terry Dischinger, Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson, and Kevin Loughery.

Belamy was a native of New Bern, NC and went to college at Indiana University. He told an interviewer once that he had picked Indiana because “it was the closest school to the South that would accept African-Americans”. In his final college game, he set an Indiana and Big Ten Conference record that still stands with 33 rebounds in an 82-67 win over Michigan. He was the first Hoosier taken No. 1 in an NBA draft (1961).

Terry Dischinger was not your average professional basketball player. In his first year in the NBA, he was named Rookie of the Year and completed his degree in Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. His basketball career was interrupted by a two-year stint in the US Army and when he finished his playing days he went back to University of Tennessee Dental School, was valedictorian of his class, and became a dentist in Portland, Oregon.

Gus Johnson was the man who created and defined the position of power forward. At 6 foot, 6 inches and 230 pounds, his other-worldly jumping ability created the slam dunk and his creative behind the back passing was a joy to watch. He shattered records as well as three glass backboards in his career. Bill Russell called him one of the best ball players he had ever played against. Gus played for Idaho and the Corner Club Bar in Moscow, Idaho established the “Nail Challenge”. Anyone who from a standing position could touch a nail hammered 11 feet 6 inches from the floor would get free drinks. Johnson had marked the spot with a pen at the height of his best jump one night.

Kevin Michael Loughery was star shooting guard who played 10 years in the NBA. His mid-40% field goal percentage made him among the elite in the game and when he and Dischinger were “on”, they were a sight to behold. Loughery went on to coach in the NBA and was Michael Jordan’s first Chicago Bull’s coach. While he recognized Jordan’s talent and competitiveness, he later told an interviewer that he didn’t see him becoming one of the greatest of all times.

Also on that initial roster was Gene Shue, the old man of the squad and a sentimental favorite having played at the University of Maryland. He would go on to become the Bullet’s coach in 1966.

Prior to the 1964–65 season the Bullets pulled off a blockbuster trade, sending Dischinger, Rod Thorn and Don Kojis to the Detroit Pistons for Bailey Howell, Don Ohl, Bob Ferry and Wali Jones. The trade worked out well; Howell proved to be a hustler and a fundamentally sound player. He helped the Bullets reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. In the 1965 NBA playoffs, the Bullets stunned the St. Louis Hawks 3–1, and advanced to the Western Conference finals. In the finals, Baltimore managed to split the first four games with the Los Angeles Lakers before losing the series 4–2.

It was in the 1965-66 season that our parents thought we were old enough to get on the No. 8 bus from Catonsville, ride to the Civic Center, purchase $1.75 tickets for upper deck seats, cheer on the Bullets, and make it home safe and sound. Randy Blazer, Phil Bauer, Dave Walburn, and I made that trip multiple times. As long as we were together, I guess our folks figured we had a good chance of making it home alive. I turned 15 in the summer of 1965.

It was an innocent time in our lives. I don’t remember thinking for even one moment about crime or personal danger on the street, on the bus, or in the arena. Our idea of getting in trouble was shouting for the popcorn man and when he showed up asking him if he’d seen the Coca Cola guy. That was worthy of gales of laughter. Idiots.

And the most heinous crime imaginable to us was sneaking Harley Original Sandwiches onto the No. 8 bus for the ride home. Food was strictly prohibited on the bus and the rule was vigorously enforced by each driver who had to clean up his own bus at the end of the night.

Harley Sandwich Shops were an institution in Baltimore. They were founded by Harley Brinsfield, who was also the host of his own nightly jazz radio show on WBAL and later WFBR. He was a marketing genius. “Nighty, nightly, once over lightly, and ever so politely, the Harley Show, radio like radio used to be.” He spun the records and the stories and hawked his sandwich shops with his soothing Southern Maryland drawl.

Harley claimed to have developed the recipes for many of his favorite menu items while serving as a sailor in the Merchant Marines during WWII. His original sandwich was an orgy of cold cuts on a freshly baked sub roll with a tangy, addictive special sauce. All the ethnic tastes of Baltimore were trapped in that handful of heaven and the shops multiplied like modern-day Starbucks.

When I think back to the shenanigans (now THERE's an old word) we went through to get those sandwiches onto the late bus, I have to laugh. You could hide the sandwich, but you couldn’t hide the smell, so we sprinted to the back of the bus before opening our coats and pulling out our picnic. We'd crack open the windows and start the feast. After a night of popcorn and Cokes drove our blood sugar into the stratosphere, the 9pm munchies were intense, and those Harleys tasted so fine.

Among the things I remember most about those early Bullet years were the athleticism of Gus Johnson, the shot making of Dischinger and Loughery, and the loping gate of No. 8 Walt Bellamy. It was so much fun to be a part of the action and by the 3rd quarter we were usually able to sneak into downstairs seats. The games weren’t well attended in the early years, and we knew which ushers would look the other way.

Mel Counts was our 7-foot center, and a whiter, clumsier athlete was never born. I remember the night he tried to dribble and the two occasions when he just fell down for no apparent reason. The “Mel moments” were a source of much mirth for the Catonsville boys.

Post-game was exciting no matter the final score. We would position ourselves during the 4th quarter as close to the first-row steps down to the floor as possible. When the buzzer sounded, we would jump down into the runway where the Bullets and the visiting teams would head back to the locker rooms. Old fashioned arena design and a casual attitude toward player security really marked those years. The access doors to the locker rooms were a good 75 feet off the basketball floor and if you were fast you could get right into that transit space. Shaking hands with players and trying (usually unsuccessfully) to get autographs were our goals.

And when the Philadelphia 76ers came to town, we had another goal; just getting close to Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. At 7-foot 1 inch tall and with a massive muscular build he was a sight to behold. He was also on a level of stardom that in the day was like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James combined. His 100-point game in 1962 is still an iconic record in all sports history. So, the goal after each 76ers game was to get into that tunnel and watch him walk by.

We succeeded on one of our first tries. I clearly remember looking up at his biceps and thinking, those are way bigger than my thighs. The thought of him going up for a rebound against you would have been like fighting a skyscraper. I can still close my eyes and picture that moment almost 60 years ago. You don’t forget standing in the shadow of a giant.

In the late 1960s, the Bullets drafted two future Hall of Famers: Earl Monroe, in the 1967 draft, number two overall, and Wes Unseld, in the following year's draft, also number two overall. The team improved dramatically, from 36 wins the previous season to 57 in the 1968–69 season, and Unseld received both the rookie of the year and MVP awards.

At the beginning of 1968-69 we four amigos were off to college and other pursuits, but when Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays arrived, we were back on the bus to the Civic Center for Bullets basketball. And now, a new highlight for Catonsville boys had arrived. Skip Feldman, our high school basketball coach had been hired by the Bullets as their trainer and was sitting on the bench every night. He was a great source for tickets and put us in Civic Center seats that we used to sneak down to from the nosebleed section. It was pretty cool to walk past the bench before the game and have Skip say hello.

He became famous in his own right. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was a great shooting guard and the team headliner. Skip saved his career with an ingenious invention well ahead of its time. Monroe had a bad knee that today probably would have been a good candidate for arthroscopic surgery. Without that option, heat was the answer, but heat had not been an option on the court. Skip Feldman came up with a heated knee brace that was battery operated and had coils that stretched over the damaged parts of Monroe’s knee. It worked like a charm. Skip got both good press and well-deserved gratitude from Earl.

The last thing I remember about our love affair with the Bullets was their signature sound effect that rang out when they hit a big basket or made a clear steal for a fast-break layup. The organist on the stage (yes, we are talking the old days here) would hit a key on the organ that would make the sound of a loud bullet with a ricochet.

As the violent 60’s transitioned into the violent 70’s, that sound effect and the team’s name became obsolete. While they were the Capital Bullets when they were moved to Landover, MD, eventually owner Abe Pollin renamed them the Washington Wizards. They were Wes Unseld’s team. They were a perennial presence in the playoffs and finally won the NBA Championship in 1978.

The Wizards achieved success that we only dreamed of in the Baltimore years, but the memories are sweet. The Harley Sandwiches, the bus fumes, the continual laughter, and the occasional victory kept us coming back. “Hey popcorn, have you seen the Coke man?” The memories make me smile.


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