HoopsHype.com Articles

A straight shooter
by David Friedman / September 4, 2006

Winning a championship is the ultimate goal for most NBA players, but for Phil Chenier the Washington Bullets’ 1978 title was bittersweet.

“It was certainly great for the organization, but I have mixed feelings about that because I was hurt during that time," Chenier recalls. "I had back problems and was unable to play for the rest of the year. So I missed out on that experience.”

Chenier had established himself as one of the top guards in the NBA, making the All-Star team in three of the previous four seasons (1974-75, 1977), so not being able to actively participate in the championship run was extremely frustrating.

Chenier has been with the Bullets/Wizards organization for more than three decades – first as a player and currently as a broadcaster – but he was born, raised and attended college in California. Growing up he admired Jerry West.

“When I watched him on TV he looked lean like me,” Chenier says. “I wasn’t as thick as Oscar Robertson and some of the other guards that played in the league. Plus, West was in L.A. and I got to see him a little bit more being on the West Coast.”

Chenier averaged 16.8 ppg in his junior season at California in 1971, earning 1st Team All-Pac 8 honors. After that season, he became one of the first early entry players, which at the time was known as going hardship; Spencer Haywood’s Supreme Court case had just paved the way for players to enter the NBA draft before their college classes graduated.

Chenier was selected by the Baltimore Bullets and averaged 12.3 ppg to earn a spot on the All-Rookie Team. The New York Knicks bounced the Bullets out of the playoffs in six games.

Before the 1972-73 season, Baltimore acquired Elvin Hayes from the Houston Rockets in exchange for Jack Marin and future considerations.

“It was just absolutely amazing sometimes to watch him hit that turnaround jump shot and dominate games with his shot blocking and rebounding and scoring,” Chenier says of Hayes. “I don’t think that there is any denying or disagreeing with the fact that he is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – power forwards of all time.”

Hayes teamed with center Wes Unseld to form a powerful frontcourt duo and the Bullets won their third straight Central Division title.

“Wes was there for my whole career with the Bullets – a very stable player, very team oriented and he set a lot of picks to get me open,” Chenier says. “He was a player who instilled confidence in his teammates in a very quiet way. You always knew that he supported you. He never fussed at his players. He was always encouraging and that’s what I liked most about Wes.”

Chenier averaged 19.7 ppg, second on the team. He scored a career-high 53 points versus Portland on December 6, 1972, the best single-game scoring effort in the NBA that season. He still holds the franchise record for most points in a non-overtime game. The Bullets again lost to the Knicks in the playoffs, this time by a 4-1 tally. New York went on to win the championship.

The Bullets moved to Washington DC for the 1973-74 season and were renamed the Capital Bullets. Chenier earned his first All-Star selection by leading the Bullets in scoring (21.9 ppg, 13th in the NBA) and steals (2.04 spg, sixth in the NBA in the first year that this was an official statistic). The Bullets again won the Central Division title and again lost to the Knicks in the playoffs, this time falling 91-81 in the seventh game in Madison Square Garden.

Chenier’s versatility – in 1973-74 he averaged 5.1 rpg, 3.1 apg and blocked 67 shots, second on the team to Hayes and more than any other guard in the league – led some to compare Chenier to Walt Frazier, the best all-around guard in the NBA at the time.

“He was thicker and stronger than I was and I think that I was quicker than he was,” Chenier notes (Frazier was listed at 6-4, 205, while Chenier was listed at 6-3, 180). “He was very methodical in everything that he did. He would just wear you down, boom, boom. When you made a mistake he was right in position and always on balance to capitalize on it. He wasn’t a David Thompson kind of jumper. He very rarely used his left hand, but he could. He was just very basic and fundamentally sound.”

Chenier modestly suggests that, while they shared superficial similarities in physical appearance – height, skin color and eyes – their games were different.

“I just think that we looked a lot alike,” he concludes with a laugh. “He certainly had a much livelier career than I did.”

The Bullets tied with the Boston Celtics for the best record in the NBA in 1974-75 (60-22). Chenier ranked 11th in scoring (21.8 ppg) and sixth in steals (2.29 spg). In addition to making the All-Star team for the second consecutive year, Chenier earned All-NBA 2nd Team honors and finished eighth in MVP voting; Hayes placed third and Unseld was ninth.

When the Bullets downed the Celtics 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, it seemed like the NBA Finals versus Golden State would just be a formality. Rick Barry led the Warriors to the best record in the Western Conference (48-34) but on paper they seemed to be no match for the Bullets.

Washington had home-court advantage for the Finals, but it would not be possible to use the normal 2-2-1-1-1 format due to scheduling conflicts with the Warriors’ arena, so the NBA presented two options to Bullets’ coach KC Jones: play Game 1 on the road and the next three at home or play game one at home and then the next two on the road. Jones did not want his team to fall behind early, so he chose to have Game 1 at home. This backfired when the Warriors beat the Bullets in Washington, 101-95. Barry scored 36 points to lead Golden State to a 92-91 victory in Game 2 at the Cow Palace.

Barry had 38 points in the next contest as the Warriors took a 3-0 lead. Undersized rookie forward Jamaal Wilkes (6-6, 190) held Hayes to 29 points in the first three games. Golden State completed the sweep with a 96-95 win, producing one of the most improbable upsets in sports history. Chenier played marvelously throughout the postseason, averaging 24.2 ppg and ranking first in the playoffs in free throws made.

He says that, despite losing, playing in the 1975 NBA Finals is the most memorable moment from his NBA career: “That is where I am from, the Bay Area, so my family and friends got to see me play in the Finals, even though it wasn’t a happy result.”

Washington slipped to 48-34 in 1975-76 and failed to win the division title for the first time in Chenier’s career. He ranked 16th in the NBA scoring (19.9 ppg, .1 ppg better than Hayes) and seventh in steals (1.98 spg). The Cleveland Cavaliers edged out the Bullets by one game for the Central Division title and they beat Washington by one basket in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a contest forever known in Northeastern Ohio as the “Miracle of Richfield.” Chenier’s jumper tied the game with 24 seconds left, but Dick Snyder’s runner put the Cavaliers up 87-85 and Chenier’s final shot missed at the buzzer.

In many ways, the Bullets’ 1976-77 season was a rerun of the previous campaign: they went 48-34, lost the division title by one game (this time to the Houston Rockets) and were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Central Division champion. Chenier fell out of the top 20 in scoring for the first time since 1972-73 despite increasing his average slightly to 20.2 ppg.

Some people blamed Hayes for the Bullets’ inability to win a title and thought that he should be traded. But instead of subtracting Hayes, general manager Bob Ferry added free agent forward Bob Dandridge, who played an important role on the Milwaukee Bucks’ 1971 championship team. Dandridge proved to be the perfect frontcourt complement to Hayes and Unseld.

“Bobby was the glue that put it all together in the end,” Chenier recalls. “When he came to Washington, he had to guard Julius (Erving) in one series and he had to guard George Gervin in another one.”

Chenier missed the preseason because of a back injury. His back flared up again during the season and instead of traveling with the team for a West Coast road trip he was hospitalized on January 19. He had a ruptured L5-S1 disk that required surgery.

“Actually, I also had a problem on the other side of the vertebrae at L4-L5 but what they said was if they went in and saw a lot of damage (at L5-S1) then they’d take that as being the cause of my problem,” Chenier explains. “The next year the other side went out and I had to have a second surgery. So that was pretty tough to take.”

Chenier was replaced by Charles Johnson, who had been cut by the Warriors earlier in the month. The Bullets suffered so many injuries that at one point they only had seven healthy players but, through all of the adversity, coach Dick Motta kept repeating a simple mantra: “The opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.”

The Bullets limped to their worst record since Chenier’s rookie season (44-38) but defeated Atlanta and San Antonio to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. They faced the Philadelphia 76ers, the number one seed and defending Eastern Conference champions. Unseld’s late putback layup in Game 6 sent the Bullets back to the NBA Finals.

In an odd repeat of what happened in 1975, the Bullets once again had to deal with an unusual playoff format. A previously scheduled mobile-home show forced the NBA to use a 1-2-2-1-1 schedule. Just like in 1975, the Bullets squandered home-court advantage. This time they blew a 19 point lead in Game 1 and lost 106-102. Seattle’s “Downtown” Freddie Brown exploded for 16 points in the last nine minutes of the fourth quarter. The teams traded wins after that. Game 7 was a nightmare for Seattle’s star guard Dennis Johnson, who shot 0-14 from the field as the Bullets won 105-99 to claim the franchise’s first and only title.

Washington and Seattle faced each other again in the 1979 NBA Finals, but the second back surgery limited Chenier’s role severely; he averaged 5.8 ppg in 27 regular season games and 2.8 ppg while appearing in just nine of the Bullets’ 19 playoff games. Dennis Johnson ultimately avenged his seventh game disaster from 1978 by leading Seattle to the championship in five games and winning the 1979 Finals MVP.

Chenier was never the same player after his back surgeries. He played three more seasons, but never appeared in more than 43 games or averaged more than 7.6 ppg.

“This is what I tell people: when you have guys who are out for six, seven months or for a whole season, it’s not so much physically that you can’t get back but mentally,” Chenier explains. “You don’t have that same mental edge that you had when you were playing with all the guys and going through practice and the routine of working out. I think that mentally as well as physically I just wasn’t the same person.”

He retired in 1981 with 9,931 points and a career scoring average of 17.2 ppg. Chenier has been a color commentator for the Wizards organization since 1986.

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com