Spurs memory No. 10: Controversial officiating blamed for Spurs ’79 series loss

Date: Friday, May 19, 1979
Place: Capital Centre, Landover, Md.
Score: Washington Bullets 107, San Antonio Spurs 105.

Veteran Spurs fans still have nightmares when they hear the names of former NBA referees John Vanak and Paul Mihalik.

That officiating crew was involved in the Spurs’ devastating Game 7 loss to Washington in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals that still reverberates in the annals of Spurs Nation. The Bullets’ 107-105 victory ended the Spurs’ best hopes to win an NBA championship in the early era of their franchise.  

Bobby Dandridge scored 37 points to lead Washington on a 10-2 run in the final 1:52 to spark the wild comeback victory. The late rally enabled the Bullets to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to advance to the NBA Finals.

Dandridge’s game-winning 16-footer with eight seconds left came over three Spurs defenders, capping the late charge.

After the game, San Antonio coach Doug Moe had some pointed comments about the officiating late in the game. In the final 3:39, nine fouls were called with seven against the Spurs. Washington went 11 for 15 from the foul line in the final quarter while the Spurs made three of four.

“The refs stole it,” Moe told reporters after the game. “John Vanak and Paul Mihalik wouldn’t make a call for us at the end. It was a great refereed game and then they stole it at the end.

“It makes you wonder if it was on purpose. They should be set before the firing squad. They (Washington) stole their way into the finals. Vanak just takes over and puts it to you. Who knows if it’s personal?”

Twenty-six years later, Jeff Van Gundy made similar complaints about officiating in a Game 7 loss to Dallas while  coaching Houston. It earned him a $100,000 fine from the league – and a two-year contract extension from the Rockets’ management. 

Moe’ was fined $5,000 by the league for his tirade after the Game 7 loss. Listeners at KTSA collected 500,000 pennies to pay for it.

San Antonio blew a 94-87 lead with 5:41 left in a game that could have sent them to their first NBA Finals with a victory.

Washington coach Dick Motta told reporters after the game that on his final possession, he didn’t really call a set play for Dandridge. He instead merely told him to improvise, which Dandridge did.

“I was just trying to run the clock to five seconds,” Dandridge told reporters after the game. “(Tom) Henderson was supposed to tell me how much time was left. The crowd started hollering and I just went for the best shot I could. I wasn’t fully conscious that there were eight seconds left.”

The Spurs had one chance to tie the game on their last possession. Elvin Hayes blocked James Silas’ late shot into the hands of Larry Kenon.  

Unfortunately for the Spurs, Dandridge was there again to slap the ball away from Kenon. Greg Ballard finally picked up the ball for Washington and held on until the buzzer  to finish the Bullets’ improbable comeback.

Moe wasn’t the only San Antonio complainer in the locker room.

“We couldn’t handle Washington and the referees,” Silas told the San Antonio Light after the game.“The game was stolen from us. There isn’t much more that can be said. We dominated things all through the second half, worked hard and then had it taken away.”

However it happened, it sent delirious Washington fans into frenzy unusual for a victory in the playoffs before the finals. The victory even prompted a rare 1A cover story about fan reaction the following day in the staid Washington Post.

George Gervin was magnificent in the loss, scoring 42 points including 24 in the second half. His big game provided the underdog Spurs a chance to claim an unexpected victory against the defending NBA champions.

But the Spurs had no answer for a tactical decision by Motta to play Dandridge at guard in the fourth quarter with Ballard at forward.

The unconventional ploy enabled Washington finish on a 22-9 blitz, with Dandridge accounting for nine points and Ballard with seven during that stretch.

And despite their complaints about officiating, the Spurs helped contribute to the collapse. They wilted with only one field goal in the final 3 minutes of the game and made only four field goals in their final 14 attempts. Gervin went cold late in the game with no points in the final 3:49 of the game.

Washington never led in the second half until the final two possessions of the game.

“What hurt is we dominated the game. I feel like we should’ve been in the finals,” Spurs center Billy Paultz told the Express-News after the game.

“We can’t blame the refs. We have to blame ourselves. That’s why they’re the World Champions and we’re not.”

With the Spurs nursing a 103-99 lead in the final two minutes, two critical fouls turned the game around.

Kenon, who scored 21 points in the first 26 minutes of the game, missed on a jumper. Paultz was called for fouling Wes Unseld on the rebound, leading to two foul shots by the Washington center that pulled them within 103-101 with 1:36 left.

The series turned on the next call. Paultz tried to set a pick on Henderson, who was guarding Silas. But Vanak whistled Paultz for an illegal screen as Henderson emphasized the contract by making an exaggerated tumble to the floor.

Dandridge then converted a basket on the next possession to tie the game with 1:24 left, setting the stage for his game-winning hoop.

The loss was a devastating ending for the Spurs, who led 82-76 heading into the fourth quarter and dropped the final three games of the series by a combined 14 points.

Washington, the defending NBA champion, was outplayed most of the game and hit only 41 percent from the field.

The game was enlivened by a near brawl late in the third quarter when Larry Wright drove on a fast break. Spurs forward Mark Olberding fouled him and Wilson bounced up and instigate the rumble. Olberding then pushed Wright and the benches emptied. Silas said that Hayes threw a punch in the melee and should have been ejected.

Hayes produced a monster game inside with 25 points, 15 rebounds, seven blocked shots and three steals. Kenon finished with 22 points and a team-high 11 rebounds.

The game also became infamous in Spurs history because of a 15-minute power failure earlier in the third quarter when San Antonio had snatched the game’s momentum. Spurs vice president of basketball operations Danny Ferry, then the 12-year-old son of Washington general manager Bob Ferry, joked to Gervin that he had pulled the switch that sent the building into darkness.  

Ferry later denied to the Express-News he had been involved.

“It wasn’t me,” Ferry said. “And if my dad had anything to do with it, he’s still not saying.”

They said it, part I: “While the rest of you focus on the Spurs’ effort to defrock the Pistons and win their third NBA title I’ll never ever get over how they got jobbed in Game 7 of the 1979 Eastern Conference finals against the Bullets. Accordingly, the Spurs were immobilized from beating up on the Sonics for the championship that should’ve been theirs to have and to hold to this day forward, so help me God,” New York Post columnist Peter Vescey, describing the game 26 years after  it happened.

They said it, part II: “While everyone else is locked into the 2005 Finals, I’m dead stuck on the notion if Vanak didn’t make that counterfeit call, the Spurs wouldn’t have had to wait until 1999 to become the first ABA team to win an NBA title; it would have happened three years after the (NBA/ABA) consolidation,” Vescey on the late calls.

They said it, part III: “With four minutes left and a seven-point lead, I was already thinking about the Seattle series. I was thinking about championship rings,” Spurs owner Angelo Drossos, describing his emotions before the late collapse.

They said it, part IV: “Thank you guys for your coverage and I’ll see you in the fall.  Go talk to the winners. It’s summertime for me. It’s all over now,” Gervin’s comments to reporters after the crushing loss.

They said it, part V: “It was the same play we use, the forward comes out and sets a pick for the guard. I saw the play develop. I felt if I could get to that side, I could block it. I timed it just right,” Hayes, to the Washington Post on his game-clinching block. 

They said it, part VI: “We knew they’d go either to Silas or Gervin. We wanted to force them to the middle and let Gervin play the shooter,” Motta, to reporters after the game, on his team’s late defensive strategy. 

They said it, part VII: “I dreamed last night that we’d win by 16 or 18 points. This game ended the toughest two weeks of my life. But when we were down 3-1, I thought in the back of my mind we could come back and win it,” Motta to the Post about his team’s resiliency in winning the series.

They said it, part VIII: “It was strictly bull. I just told Bobby to go out and score two points,” Motta on the strategy of his game-winning play.

They said it, part IX: “He got me pretty good. But I went down to make it look better,” Henderson, to the Washington Post about drawing the foul on Paultz.

THE UPSHOT: Washington became only the third team at the time to overcome a 3-1 deficit and still win a seven-game series. But the Bullets were unable to defend their NBA championship, losing in five  games to Seattle … The Spurs would not advance to the NBA Finals until 1999 … The Washington loss was the last game that legendary Spurs broadcaster Terry Stembridge would  call for the franchise. He retired after the season to enter the oil business … Moe would leave the franchise after a disappointing 33-33 start in the following season. Paultz would be traded to Houston midway through the next season … The loss dropped the Spurs’ record at the Capital Centre to 1-12.

Previous Spurs most memorable moments:

No. 11: Duncan’s decision to remain .

No. 12: seals 1994 scoring title.   

No. 13: makes history.

No. 14: to wrap up 1978 scoring title.

No. 15: Strickland’s critical turnover .

No. 16: Spurs join NBA .

No. 17: Ice becomes the .  

No. 18: Kerr’s unexpected barrage .

No. 19: Rodman’s final Spurs incident .

No. 20:after injury-riddled 3-15 1996 start.

No. 21: Spurs for David Greenwood.

No. 22: Spurswith bubbly.

No. 23: Horry-Nash , may have sparked title run.

No. 24: Ice’s clandestine arrival .

No. 25: Barkleywith series-clinching shot.

No. 26: Silas becomes first Spur.

No. 27: Robinson makes history with .

No. 28: after crucial 1999 victory at Houston.

No. 29: on Halloween night.

No. 30: Torrid San Diego shooting

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