The words, “the fat lady sings,” are inscribed on the only championship ring earned by the Washington Wizards franchise. They are the second half of a quote that became attached to the 1978 Washington Bullets as they made their way to the title.
The full quote is, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” Over the years it has been incorrectly attributed to Bullets coach Dick Motta. In fact, Motta did utter those words in ’78, but he was quoting a San Antonio television sportscaster named Dan Cook.
In those days, the Bullets and Spurs played in the same division, even though they reside in different time zones. With the merger of the ABA and NBA two years earlier, they didn’t have a place to put San Antonio, so they stuck them in what was called the “Central Division” with Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans, where the Jazz played before moving to Utah.
The Spurs won the division, and the Bullets finished second. That meant their playoff matchup began in San Antonio. The Spurs won the series opener, but the Bullets took the next three. For game five, they returned to San Antonio in time for Motta to watch in his hotel room as Cook delivered his six o’clock sportscast the day before the game. Though the Spurs trailed three games to one, Cook offered some hometown hope by saying, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” meaning there was still time for the Spurs to turn things around.
The next day after the morning shootaround, Motta was asked how good it felt to be just a game away from taking the series. Motta responded by quoting Cook, turning around the meaning to caution against overconfidence. Lost in translation however, was the attribution. By the time it hit the papers, Motta got the credit for saying it.
San Antonio won game five, but the Bullets wrapped up the series in six at home a few days later. They then upset the defending Eastern Conference champion 76ers before coming from 3-2 down to beat Seattle in seven games for the championship. “Fat lady” t-shirts sold like crazy and 37-years later the saying endures.
The 2015 Wizards are a long ways from matching the ’78 Bullets. They still must finish the series they’re in with the Hawks and win two more best of seven series before earning rings of their own. But if that can magically happen, will, “I called GAME” become rallying cry of this season?
The quote comes from one of the emerging folk heroes of D.C. sports history. Paul Pierce, in the last stages of a great career, accomplished in Boston, trash talked the talk and walked the walk the walk in a first round sweep of Toronto. And in a mystical Saturday early evening, Pierce hit the shot at the buzzer to stem Atlanta’s 20-point fourth quarter comeback and give the Wizards a 103-101 win and a 2-1 lead in the series.
With three defenders on him, Pierce had banked in the shot. In an immediate post game interview, Pierce was asked tongue-in-cheek by ESPN sideline reporter Chris Broussard if he’d called “bank” on the shot.
“No,” said Pierce, “I called GAME.”
Incredibly the game-winner came just minutes after another magical ending a few Metro green line stops away. After the Nats had blown a 6-1 lead against Atlanta’s baseball team, Bryce Harper, who’d homered five times in his previous two games, delivered a walk-off homer for an 8-6 win. Both Pierce and Harper wear number 34, leaving Caps fans wondering if they can quickly issue that number as they pursue their first-ever Stanley Cup.
If you’re looking for a sign, maybe there’s this. On June 7, 1978, the day the Bullets became the last team in NBA history to win the 7th game of the finals on the road, a 17-year-old with shoulder-length hair pitched Aberdeen High School to the Maryland state baseball championship. He wore number 7. And like Harper more than likely will do, and these 2015 Wizards may do with Paul Pierce, he would go on to accomplish great things. His name is Cal Ripken Junior.