I REMEMBER WHEN THE NBA WAS WILD ABOUT HARRY AND THE NBA CHAMPION BULLETS!
Dancing Harry aka Marvin Cooper had all the dance moves to fire up Earl Monroe and the Baltimore Bullets in the late 60s and 70s. He placed a spell on the opposing team while The Pearl worked his black magic on the court.
The late Washington Bullets/Wizards’ owner Abe Polin and Wes Unsel share a hug during the teams first and only NBA Championship in 1978.
On the weekend of March 23, 2018 the Washington Wizards will celebrate their 40th anniversary of their 1978 NBA World Championship team and retire Phil Chenier’s number. I will remember the 50th anniversary of “Dancing Harry!”
You won’t find Marvin Cooper’s name on the NBA or ABA’s All-Pro team or in its hall of fames, he was a player for the leagues back in the day. Or, perhaps, playa would probably be the best way describe him, but according to Mark Montieth (Pacers.com) he came along before that particular bit of vernacular entered the lexicon. Let’s just say you won’t find the name of “Dancing Harry” as a participant for the NBA Baltimore Bullets, New York Knicks or the Indiana Pacers of the ABA in the archives of the two leagues.
His NBA career started in the Baltimore Civic Center in 1968 with an assist from Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe. Harry was a “Pioneer and Trail Blazer” in pro basketball when it comes to mascots as entertainment in the NBA–he was first.
Back in the ’70s, Dancing Harry would earn national notoriety and a couple hundred bucks by putting on a funky hat and a cape, or even just wear his street clothes, and come out of the stands to put a hex on the visiting team. Dancing Harry did exactly that during timeouts, he would stand near the opposing team’s huddle, turn sideways, spread his legs, jerk himself into a crouch, hold up his arms, point his fingers at the enemy players and shake his hands. He called it putting a “whammy” on them.
The Bullets , New York Knicks and Pacer’s fans went crazy, and the players enjoyed it. Dancing Harry first caught the eye of basketball fans in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland in the late 1960s. The Bullets were a promising team at the time, led by future hall of fame guard aka God, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and a supporting cast of future NBA Hall of Fame players, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson and Wes Unsel—it had the potential of being a dynasty aka Boston Celtics.
Earl and I wish our coach and mentor, Clarence Bighouse Gaines a happy birthday.
The team was occasionally seen on the NBA’s weekly telecast. Harry was a traveling salesman for Park Sausage, working up and down the East coast, and he supplemented his income as a singer in area nightclubs. He and Earl The Pearl Monroe a former NBA No. 1 pick out of HBCU Winston-Salem State became friends after he successfully hustled The Pearl in a Baltimore pool hall one day. Earl turned the hustle back into his favor, instead of paying Harry off in cash he gave him tickets for a Bullets home game. They struck up a friendship and Harry attended more games. The seats were close to the court, so he got into the spirit of the occasion and stood up to dance to the music during timeouts, some of the players noticed. Over time, one of them – he can’t remember which one – encouraged him to do something more than dance.
Harry graduated to putting hexes on referees during timeouts. He’d sneak up behind a referee and do his thing. The fans would laugh. The referee would turn around. Harry would play innocent and the fans would laugh some more. Eventually, he moved on to putting hexes on opposing players, and became a fixture at the games and a friend to several of the Bullets.
One day he was in New York with the team the morning after it had played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Bullets forward and future NBA Hall of Fame player, the great Gus Johnson told him he had just read an article in one of the New York newspapers that referred to him as “Dancing Harry”, it stuck.
In the meantime, Earl Monroe was named “Rookie of the Year” and revoluntionize guard play in the NBA with his dribbling and ball handling skills. His “now you see me and now you don’t magic with a basketball was the talk of the league and beyond. He was headed into the last year of his contract and he never forgot how he was tricked into signing his first contract his rookie year. He later described it to me as peanuts. He decided he wanted to cash in his chips in Baltimore and head to the Big Apple.
The Bullets were aware that he wanted his next team to be the Knicks. He got his wish early into the 1971-72 season. The trade send the Bullets into a decline. Earl was the catalyst of a roster of great and future hall of fame players that included, Wes Unsel, Gus Johnson, and Elvin Haynes. The rivary between the Bullets, the Celtics and the New York Knicks was NBA basketball at its best in the 70s.
By the way–the Bullets lead by The Pearl was “Show Time” long before Magic Johnson and the L. A. Lakers. An outlet pass from Wes to Earl started a fastbreak never seen before in the NBA. Elvin would be on one flank, Gus on the other and Earl in the middle. The end result would cause nightmares to opponents. The play would end with a behind the back pass from Earl to Gus or something similar. Gus would slam dunk the ball so violently the opposing players would be running to get out of the way. Earl’s trick bag was so deep he would have the fans screaming from the top of their lungs. It was must see basketball.
Dancing Harry also shifted his allegiance to New York, because of Earl and the salary cap the Bullets had put on paying him for his services–was zero. He asked for permission to continue his act in New York. The Knicks management said no, but the Knick players would later say yes.
“One night they were losing to Boston by 20 points and Willis Reed asked me why I wasn’t dancing,” Harry says. ‘I told him and he said, ‘The hell with management, we’re losing.’ I jumped down and got on the floor and the place went crazy and the Knicks came back and won that game. They didn’t bother me anymore.”
Earl and backcourt running mate Walt Frazier would take the Knicks to the finals in 1973 and they would win it all in 1974. The Bullets would not reach the finals until 1976 with K. C. Jones, but they would run into a red hot Golden State Warrior team losing in 4 straight games. K. C. would be fired the next year and Dick Motto was hired and the Bullets would win it all in 1978.
NBA Hall of famer and Bullets’ super-star Elvin Haynes host Nike after party at the Hilton Hotel in downtown DC. Nike NBA promotion rep John Phillips and I look on as Elvin gives the welcome speech. Elvin visits Nike store in Georgetown to get his just rewards.
Thanks to the great Red Auerbach all was well that ends well. Red hired K. C. and he became the only black non-player head coach to win multiple NBA Championships.
Bullets head coach K. C. Jones and assistant Bernie Bickerstaff pay tribute to local high school basketball on Inside Sports. Red, K. C. and I have lunch at Ed Murphy’s Supper Club on Georgia Avenue, NW in Washington, DC.
Harry continued performing as the Knicks reached the NBA finals in 1972, and became a fixture the following season on their way to an NBA championship. Walt Frazier took him to buy some clothes so he would look the part. He even got a few endorsements. It was a few hundred dollars here and a few hundred dollars there, but it was all adding up. So was his fame, nationally, because of all the air time on television.
He was a free agent, so he worked games for whatever team would have him (and pay him). It so happened that on April 16, 1975, he had just put down his bag upon arriving at his residence in Baltimore after working a game the previous night for the New York Nets when the phone rang. It was Sandy Knapp from the Pacers office, calling to ask him to fly to Indianapolis – that night – for a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs at Market Square Arena. His mother drove him to the airport, where he picked up his ticket and he flew off to the next gig, for a $200 fee, plus room and board.
The Pacers had finished the regular season with a 45-39 record, they upset San Antonio in the first round, and upset Denver in the second round. Dancing Harry’s performances brought fans to their feet, brought energy to the games and might even have intimidated some opponents – or at least distracted them.
The trip turned into a unforgettable 6 game series, it is still one of the most dramatic and emotional Pacer championship runs in franchise history. The San Antonio Spurs had finished six games ahead of Indiana in the regular season, but the Pacers won the first three games of the first-round series, including the first two in San Antonio. They lost Games 4 and 5, however, by which time bad blood was boiling between the two teams. Play was becoming increasingly physical, fans were becoming increasingly vocal and vulgar and Pacers coach Bob “Slick” Leonard had taken to threatening referees and Spurs coach Bob Bass in the newspapers.
The Spurs had won Game 4 by one point in Indianapolis before a rowdy crowd at Market Square Arena. Before Game 5 in San Antonio, the Spurs public address announcer “vilified the Indiana fans” according to the Indianapolis News and implored the Spurs fans to behave in a more civilized manner. They didn’t, and neither did the players. Spurs forward Rich Jones retaliated to an elbow from Pacers guard Kevin Joyce with a right fist to Joyce’s chin, and was kicked out of the game. The Spurs went on to win, 123-117, pulling within 3-2 in the series.
The teams flew commercial then, so the Pacers stayed overnight to fly out the next morning. That evening, Leonard called the Indianapolis Star’s Bill Benner and demanded to have a piece of his mind published in the next morning’s newspaper. “If that’s the way they want to be, then they’ve really asked for it. If they want to bad-mouth our team, our franchise and our city, then we are really going to go after them Wednesday night,” Leonard said. “I’ll take the microphone myself if I have to incite our fans. I want our crowd fired up and angry.
That’s the environment into which Dancing Harry was dropped into for Game 6. The Pacers’ front office members were pulling out all the stops, throwing a kitchen sink’s worth of symbolism at the Spurs. They passed out four-leaf clovers and rabbit’s feet to fans for good luck. They hung a ladder from the MSA ceiling over the aisle-way leading from the Spurs locker room to the court – forcing them to capitulate to the bad-luck omen by walking under it. They went to the workplace of media members and deputized them, and gave cowboy hats to the front office and stat crew members to wear at the game.
The finishing touch was Dancing Harry. His act didn’t exactly fit into a Wild West theme, but whatever. He was famous from his appearances on national television and certain to excite the fans. And he did.
The Pacers won Game 6 and the series, 115-100. George McGinnis, who shared league MVP honors with Julius Erving that season, finished with 32 points, 23 rebounds and 14 assists. Rookie Billy Knight scored 33 points on 14-of-22 shooting. Future Hall of Famer George Gervin led the Spurs with 34 points. It was just a first-round series, but it meant enough to Leonard that he had ordered champagne to be waiting on ice in the postgame locker room. The Pacers celebrated as if they had just won a championship.
“It was so invigorating,” Harry recalls. “When I came out (on the court), there was so much electricity in the air. Everybody was use to seeing me in New York. I had the fans in the palm of my hand. It was so annoying to San Antonio. George told me later, ‘Man, you brought the house down.'”
It was impossible to measure Dancing Harry’s impact, but who’s to say he didn’t help? The fans loved him, the players enjoyed the excitement and the Pacers had won. So, he was held over for the second-round series with Denver. Larry Brown had led his team to an ABA-best 65 wins that season, 20 more than the Pacers, and it had lost just two home games. The Pacers were going to need all the help they could get.
It was unclear from media accounts whether Dancing Harry was on hand for Game 1, but he was definitely there for Game 2. He had flown out on a private prop plane, separate from the players, with front office personnel. After losing the series opener, during which McGinnis bent a rim with a vicious slam-dunk, the Pacers won the second game, 131-124, to take homecourt advantage. Knight, left open for easy shots because Denver double-teamed McGinnis, scored 44 points on 18-of-22 shooting, and Billy Keller scored 21 in 23 minutes.
Harry’s fame was growing with each victory, and he was living up to it. He was taken to a clothing store at 38th and Illinois to acquire some more appropriate threads, which the Pacers paid for with a trade-out of tickets. He also got a theme song. Someone had suggested to Knapp the Leo Sayer song, “Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)” which had reached No. 9 on the U.S. charts in 1974, because it included lyrics about dancing. She agreed, and it caught on immediately with the fans.
“It was like Pavlov’s dog,” she said. “The crowd would practically salivate every time the song played. It became a conditioned response.”
For this round, the Pacers’ motto became “Hang ‘Em a Mile High,” Denver being the Mile High city and all. A mock funeral was held for the Nuggets before Game 3, and an effigy of one of the players, hanging from a noose, was lowered from the Market Square catwalk. The Pacemates packed toy pistols, wore white cowgirl hats and paraded wanted posters of some of the Nuggets players. Dancing Harry’s picture was on the cover of the game program. He wore a gold lame cape and gloves, a feathered cap trimmed with two rows of white fur, a gold turtleneck shirt and brown platform shoes.
The Pacers won, 118-112 to take a 2-1 lead. Late in the game, the victory assured, he grabbed the public address microphone and urged fans to buy tickets for Game 4. Afterward, he celebrated in the locker room with the players. He had become a virtual team member, a 32-year-old who had been around the NBA block a few times, with plenty of stories to tell shared them with the players.
“He was great,” Knight says. “Everybody loved him. He was a cool dude. He had fun with the whole thing. I didn’t think he took himself too seriously. He just enjoyed it and tried to entertain everybody.”
Even Leonard, an old-school veteran of the NBA, was caught up in the spirit.
“I think it’s great,” he told a Sports Illustrated reporter. “I know I’d hate to have Harry put his famous whammy on me.”
Harry and his whammy didn’t guarantee anything, of course, and too much celebration tends to bring bad karma. The Pacers were trounced in Game 4, 126-109, sending the series back to Denver. Harry went, too. He had, according to Knapp, a “phone fetish,” and could hardly pass one without calling someone. It so happened there was a telephone on the plane, so he called radio station WIBC and went live on the air. He also recorded a promo that was played throughout the playoffs. He called his mother, too, but she refused to believe anyone could make a phone call from an airplane, and told him he must have been drinking.
To Harry’s credit, he quickly spawned imitators. If a mascot could help a team win playoff games, the Nuggets weren’t going to pass up the opportunity. They trotted out Robota, “The Wicked Witch of the West,” to put a hex on the Pacers. Dressed in black, with long blonde hair, she stood nearby, seriously and silently, holding a broom, as they warmed up before the game. She also stuck pins in a life-sized cutout of McGinnis while standing next to a smoking cauldron at midcourt, and later stood silently behind the Pacers’ bench during the game.
It didn’t work. A sellout crowd of 7,483 in tiny Auditorium Arena watched the Pacers outscore the Nuggets 30-13 in the fourth quarter on their way to a 109-90 victory to go up 3-2. McGinnis scored six consecutive field goals in the period, two of them 3-pointers, and he and Knight combined for 55 points. By the end, the Denver fans were booing their team.
The Indianapolis fans, meanwhile, were wild about Harry. Before Game 6, a closeout game for the Pacers, both newspapers were in full Harry mode, featuring him in cartoons, photos and headlines. The Indianapolis News preview for the April 30 game carried the following awkward headline: Do Any Nuggets Care Even–
For One Last Whirl With the Pacers? The first letter of each word in the first line was bold-faced, spelling out “DANCE.”
The story began:
“Dancing. There’ll be plenty of it tonight at Market Square Arena.
“It will begin with Dancing Harry. He’ll boogie to the rockin’, stompin’ beat of Leo Sayer’s “Long Tall Glasses” a pop-rock tune that has become the unofficial theme song of the Indiana Pacers.”
Lyrics from the song were interspersed throughout the story. But just as in Denver, the home team’s buildup backfired. The Pacers lost, 104-99, before a record crowd of 17,421 at MSA.
Leonard didn’t blame Harry, though. Taking note of the Nuggets’ 31 foul shot attempts and the Pacers’ 13, he declared the game to be “the stinkingest job of officiating I’ve ever seen.”
“All you ask for is a fair chance,” Leonard added. “Well, we sure as hell didn’t get it tonight. Every call went against us. We didn’t get a blow all night. Let’s let ’em call ’em the same way Saturday night in front of their fans and we’ll see what kind of guts they have.”
Lost in the hysteria was that McGinnis had turned in what’s likely the only quadruple-double in pro basketball history, although not a desired one: He had 26 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and 12 turnovers
So it was back to Denver for the deciding Game 7. Harry went along once again, this time with a lucky stone given to him by Pacers’ president Tom Binford, who claimed it had belonged to the Apache Indian warrior, Cochise. When it was brought up to Harry that Cochise probably hadn’t been the luckiest of men, he responded, “Hey, Cochise never lost in Denver.”
The Pacers didn’t either, this time. Harry performed his whammies while the Denver fans booed and tossed coins. One even threw a whiskey bottle that landed at his feet. Harry’s impact on the Nuggets can’t be proven, but the play of some of the Pacers can. McGinnis finished with 40 points, 23 rebounds and eight assists, and Keller scored 23 points – 19 in the first half – as the Pacers held on for a 104-96 victory for the Western Division championship that set off another wild celebration. There was champagne in their locker room, champagne on their flight home and champagne (and other lubricants) at Leonard’s Carmel restaurant, where the party continued after the team’s arrival the next day, when hundreds of cheering fans greeted the team at the airport.
The season wasn’t over, but Leonard was calling it his most enjoyable with the Pacers because of the team’s “cohesion,” surpassing that of even his three ABA championship teams. They were moving on to the league finals against Kentucky, which had won 58 games during the regular season in the Eastern Division.
They were going to have to be patient, however. The Colonels’ arena, Freedom Hall, was booked and not available until May 13, meaning the Pacers would have a 10-day break between series. Kentucky would have an even longer wait, having been off since April 28. Two of the Colonels, Louie Dampier and Artis Gilmore, had driven to Indianapolis to watch and scout Game 6 against Denver, when the Pacers were trying to close out the series.
Harry stayed in Indianapolis during the break, but not at the Pacers’ expense. He had been put up in a hotel originally, but later met a woman who worked for AUL who offered him a place in her home. More than a room, actually. She became his girlfriend, although he was married and had an estranged wife back in Baltimore. He felt at home by now. He socialized with a few of the players, was a favored guest at parties hosted by the socially elite, was taken to the Speedway to meet the racers, and just generally reveled in Hoosier Hospitality.
“The whole city was open to me,” he recalls.
It was going to take more than a popular mascot to overcome the Colonels, though, who had clearly superior talent. Harry did his best, performing at home and road games alike. Leonard’s wife, Nancy, drove him to the games in Louisville in a borrowed RV, imagining what a police officer who saw them might think.
Just like Denver, Kentucky felt compelled to come up with its own mascot: Superfly. He was a 13-year-old boy, Michael J. Tolliver, who donned a white suit, hat, gloves, shoes and cape, carried a cane, and danced and tumbled to the delight of the fans. According to a Sports Illustrated article, he made Harry look “shabby” by comparison. The Pacers looked a little worn-out, too, as Kentucky won the series 4-1 for its first and only ABA title.
It would be McGinnis’ last game with the Pacers before he jumped to the NBA. It was the beginning of the end for Harry, too, at least in Indianapolis. He was brought back occasionally the following season, but without McGinnis the Pacers were a rebuilding team beyond the help of any mascot.
You won’t hear Marvin Cooper on the tips of many tongues of longtime Pacers fans, either. Harry conjured up an idea for an act and, all too briefly, made a name and a little money for himself before disappearing back into the fog of real world drudgery and difficulties.
Now he stands as a relic from a simpler time, when professional basketball was either more fun or more ridiculous than today, depending on your point of view.
NBA fans today are accustomed to non-stop professional-grade entertainment at games played at Capitol One arena in Washington, DC. On any game night you may find Young men jumping off trampolines, doing somersault and dunking basketballs between quarters. Halftimes bring everything from dogs tracking down and catching Frisbees to a woman riding a unicycle and flipping plates from her feet to the top of her head.
Dancing Harry would go on to take his act wherever it was welcome. McGinnis lined him up to work some games the following season for his new team in Philadelphia. He also worked that season for the New York Nets, the final one of the ABA’s nine-year history.
He became close friends with Julius Dr. J Erving, and was among those tossed into the shower when the Nets won their championship. He made an appearance for the Indiana Loves in the ill-fated World Team Tennis association at the Convention Center, too, annoying Ilie Nastase to the point Nastase chased after him with a tennis racket. He also accepted a few hundred dollars to perform for Dallas in a Monday Night Football game against Buffalo in November of 1976.
Dancing Harry’s star gradually faded, as the games became more serious and his act too familiar. Eventually, he was going to have to be Marvin Cooper again. It might have been for the best, anyway, because he was getting caught up in the fast-lane lifestyle of professional sports. He had quit his job with the sausage company before joining the Pacers to devote more time to being Harry, and to try to parlay his fame into a nightclub singing career. He was having fun, but he wasn’t getting anywhere.
“I thought it was going to last forever,” he says. “I was (written about) in Sports Illustrated three times, and in Time Magazine. I rode in limousines. I stayed in some of the best hotels. Got to meet a lot of people. I met so many people … the actors from (the television show) Good Times, Ed McMahon, Lou Rawls … John McEnroe loved me.”
Most likely, he’ll have to settle for appreciating his memories of a career that could never happen again.
The Wizards’ weekend celebration will bring members of the 1978 team from the North, South, West, East and parts unknown to honor teammates, front office staff and fans who remembered. I will remember WHUR Radio sports talk show host Ron Sutton. I am the last man standing in sports media from that era, but instead of looking back I am looking forward.
Ron Sutton and I hold down the Washington Bullets’ press table at Capitol Centre in 1974.
This story brings me full cycle back to Dancing Harry’s 1968 debut in Baltimore and to the Bullets move from Baltimore in 1973 to Capital Centre in Landover and from Landover in 1997 to downtown Washington, DC. I remember when pro basketball was wild about Harry.
Thanks to Mark Monieth (Pacer.com) and the N. Y. Daily News