The Two Towers That Weren't

For a brief and dazzling period, the Washington Bullets employed both Manute Bol and George Muresan. It wasn't nearly long enough.
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There is an air of weary dignity and a certain seen-it-all visage that lifer NBA coaches can take on. It’s not exactly wisdom, although it’s not exactly not; it is exhaustion, but not only exhaustion. At any rate, it was how Jim Lynam—he of the 328-392 career record as a NBA head coach—looked when he screamed some of the wisest words about professional sports I’ve ever heard. The setting was a basketball game during the ’95-96 season between the Washington Bullets and Seattle SuperSonics. The game was the high point of the season for the Bullets, as it resulted in a shocking victory over a Sonics team then at the peak of its Payton-and-Kemp renaissance, and which would end up winning the Western Conference. Basketball Reference tells me the game was on March 6, 1996.

Late in the game, with the Bullets fully pulled away, things devolved into an endless and nearly unwatchable foul fest. After the 90th or 900th whistle, Lynam yelled to the refs, loud enough for the local D.C. announcers to repeat it on TV, “HEY, THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE ENTERTAINING.” This is a simple thing that gets forgotten with shocking frequency.

Lynam’s employers did not necessarily deliver entertaining teams to their fans, but just a few years before Lynam’s cry, they hit on a bit of Bill Veeck-ian genius, if only for a few glorious days. Twenty years ago, this month, the Bullets had both 7’7 Manute Bol and 7’7 Gheorghe Muresan on their roster at the same time.

***

It’s difficult to explain just how inept the Bullets franchise was in the early 1990’s. Being awful is one thing; the Bullets were certainly awful, but at some deeper level they only barely existed. During the Golden Age of the NBA—from the years of Magic and Bird well into The Jordan Administration—the Bullets played in a dark, dank and dark—it’s worth mentioning again; the most dire filter Instagram could ever design would be “Capital Centre Gloom”—arena in the bleakish exurb of Landover, Maryland.

They played there without stars, unless you count a brief visit from an aging Moses Malone, which we probably should. They endured terrible luck in the lottery, unless you count Calbert Cheaney, which you definitely shouldn’t. A decade and more passed without a notable or even memorable on-court moment. By the early '90’s, the franchise's NBA Finalists and champions of the late '70’s seemed like something from the Cretaceous period. A more impotent pro-sports franchise has never existed. The early '90’s Washington Bullets make the present day Milwaukee Bucks look like the 1960’s Celtics combined with 1970’s Led Zeppelin.

The '93-94 Bullets season was the epitome of franchise sad sackery. Things started promisingly—again, it's a sliding scale—with a 6-6 record. I was at the game where the Bullets got to .500, which counted as one of the more exciting moments in maybe a decade of Bullets basketball. That win came in a victory over the Magic; a rookie Muresan dunked on Shaq, the stadium actually got loud, and for a brief moment I locked eyes with Washington Postcolumnist Tony Kornheiser. Our mutual gaze said, OH YES, finally, the future is upon us!Or mine said that, and his said "please stop staring at me, kid."

Either way, the glorious and long-imagined future wasn’t upon us; the Bullets lost their next 10 games and fell into a death spiral. A Rex Chapman injury was debilitating to their fortunes, which gives a sense of where the franchise was. Something had to be done, or at the very least roster spots had to be filled. The Bullets, for once, acted swiftly and decisively. They signed Manute Bol.

Allegedly, there were basketball reasons for this move—something about needing help inside, the usual. But more than anything this would give Bullet fans, and NBA fans in general, a show. These two towering, likable big men could be on the court at the same time! That means one of them would be the tallest and skinniest power forward in history! All involved likely knew that this would not help the team win. But it was, like the coach said, supposed to be entertaining.

***

The Bullets’ front office was always trying stuff like this. They drafted Muggsy Bogues, and then gave up on him too early. They drafted Muresan very early in the second round, and it worked out better than generally remembered; Muresan had his moments and remains one of the most beloved players in franchise history, and the only two players drafted after Gheorghe in that draft to have better NBA careers were Nick Van Exel and Bryon Russell. For the most part, though, if only because of how abject the Bullets were, all these moved scanned as stunts.

The market for big men at this time wasn’t exactly bountiful— it was so barren, in fact, that the Magic would later get Tree Rollins to move from assistant coach to player—but Bullets GM John Nash must have realized he was continuing the Bullets tradition of wacky/slapstick roster-construction with this signing.

So Bullets faithful knew what was up when Manute was signed, and they largely didn’t approve. These were jaded people, in jaded times. A reminder of what the world was like at that moment: almost a fifth of the electorate voted for Ross Perot, MTV had Temple of the Dog videos in heavy rotation and the superhero movies were directed by Tim Burton. Bol had been a productive player for the Bullets in the 1980s, and was one of the most endearingly weird players of his era, but Bullets fans simply couldn't welcome him back. Looking back my refusal to embrace the Bol-Muresan pairing is my second biggest decade regret from this period, ranking right after buying Michael Crichton’s Disclosurein hard cover.  

Michael Wilbon, voice of the city and its sports-grumps, called the move P.T. Barnum-like. The Bullets realized this, and perhaps realized that the franchise was at some type of juncture—they could continue down the path of inept but well-intentioned goofiness, promoting visits from out-of-town superstars and following an organizational philosophy pitched somewhere between the Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. Or they could attempt to become a legitimate NBA franchise. For better or worse, they chose the latter.

This, perhaps, was a decisive moment, but it is retrospectively a huge bummer. Bol and Muresan never played together, and Bol only played six total minutes over two games. The closest they came to playing with each other was when Manute replaced Gheorghe with 5:17 left in a 129-98 loss to the Heat. Enough was apparently enough.

The following season, the Bullets traded for Chris Webber, which was decidedly not a stunt. A few years later, the nickname was changed and the team moved into D.C. proper; eventually, a handful of playoff appearances came. They're not much better now than they were back in the 90’s, but at least they have nice throwback uniforms, a downtown location, John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Bullets somehow became a legitimate NBA team. Not a very good one, but a team nonetheless. If Bol and Muresan had ever played together—if the Bullets had decided to embrace their Bullets-ness at its moment of apotheosis—could any of that have happened?

***

Two decades later, one has to consider the road not taken. We know it would’ve been absurd; we know this signing wasn’t going to help the Bullets win any games. But the thought of Bol and Muresan playing side by side and doing whatever they would do together is tantalizing—set screens, frighten any guard from driving into the paint, jointly converge on rebounds and drop tons of passes and most importantly, score some points, whether via a Manute 3-pointer or one of those Gheorghe Dunks in which he barely left his feet and just brought his giant arm smashing into the rim. I saw both Bol and Mursean play live, probably far too many times, and there was something exciting every time they were involved in a play. It was based not only on both of them being genial to a fault, but on realizing This is unique, this shouldn’t be happening, people are mostly not like this.

This is the unique thrill that can be provided only by big men who don't belong, doing things they are not quite supposed to do. Witness, from this season, Miles Plumlee’s insignificant and inexplicable and totally wonderful block on DeMarcus Cousins. Watch it again – do you see how far the ball bounces off the backboard? Now do a close up on Plumlee’s face right before the block, and see that he has the same glassy, murderous gaze of the CGI sharks in Sharknado. When I first saw it on a Sportscenter Top 10 I jumped out of my Saturday morning stupor in joy; I have a picture of it on my phone. Here was every bit of brilliant nonsense that makes watching sports worthwhile, and it meant nothing.

Who knows what was passed up when Bol and Muresan didn’t play together. It’s actually almost impossible to picture, although the same can be said of that Plumlee block, right up until it happened.

Twenty years ago, the Washington Bullets stood on the precipice of a great and goofy moment in sports nonsense, stared over that cartoon precipice, and stepped away. They re-branded and retooled and shed their joker label, which is what sports teams do, then as now. It's a sensible choice, in a lot of ways. That doesn't mean we have to like it.


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