Robert Dandridge Sr., had just the remedy for his namesake’s mischief at Maggie Walker High School. He took his only son to work.
This was the early ’60s, and Dandridge supported his wife and their three children by holding two jobs. He hung wallpaper and painted houses during the day and manned the overnight shift at the RF&P Railroad station on Broad Street, loading 100-pound sacks of mail onto westbound and southbound trains.
All Bob Dandridge needed was one frigid winter night at his father’s side slinging those sacks.
“He reminded me that if I didn’t get an education, this was the type of work I was going to have to do,” Dandridge said. “After being out there for about two hours, I’m almost in tears.”
And that’s when Dandridge’s mom, Dorothy, arrived and escorted her scared-straight teenager back to the family home in the 1900 block of Parkwood Avenue.
Dandridge punctuates the story as he does most, with a deep, infectious laugh. But the lesson, like so many of his youth, was serious and enduring.
If Dandridge was going to move beyond Richmond’s West End, showcase his basketball gifts and avoid his father’s occupational plight, education would be paramount.
Coaches, mentors and teachers such as Russell Williams, George Johnson, James Bracey and Stretch Gardner reinforced that message, setting Dandridge on a passage from Maggie Walker to Norfolk State to the NBA to, finally, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Last Sunday’s announcement of Dandridge’s election to the Hall — the induction ceremonies in Springfield, Mass., are scheduled for September — came nearly 40 years after his playing days ended, a delay engrained in an effortless, understated game that often went unappreciated.
Indeed, while other Hall of Famers from Virginia — think Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning and Lefty Driesell — were commanding presences on and off the court, Dandridge was subtle and refined.
“If there was ever a guy who personified versatility, it was Bobby Dandridge,” says Kevin Grevey, a teammate of Dandridge’s on the Washington Bullets’ 1977-78 NBA champions. “…He was a true, two-way player who could guard multiple positions and do virtually anything.”
Visiting friends in Massachusetts shortly after his playing days, Dandridge went to the Hall of Fame for a cursory tour. He wondered if one day he might be deemed worthy, curiosity that intensified as teammates such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld were enshrined.
“It’s been a long wait,” Dandridge said. “Surely if it happened earlier, it would have been justified. But the wait has allowed that virtue of patience to set in and [the realization] that things happen in God’s time. During these years, I’ve been able to grow, in so many different ways, and it’s been rewarding.
Dandridge, 73, lives in Norfolk with his wife, Debra, and has remained active with the now-Washington Wizards and the franchise that drafted him, the Milwaukee Bucks. Through the NBA and its players union, he helped establish the rookie transition program and a top-100 summer camp for the nation’s best high school players.
Dandridge served as a Hampton University assistant coach for seven years and also used the game to mentor at-risk youth in Norfolk.
In short, he’s a basketball ambassador, not to mention father of three and grandfather of two.
“That’s the kind of person he is,” said Patricia Lewis, Dandridge’s sister and a lifetime Richmond resident. “He doesn’t forget people who have been kind to him and made an impact on his life. He’s dependable and humble. … We’ve wanted [the Hall of Fame] for him for years, and now that it’s happening, we’re just overjoyed.”
Similarly, those Dandridge has impacted don’t forget him. Lewis recalls a freshly minted high school graduate in Norfolk hugging Dandridge to thank him for guidance that led her to a diploma, the first in her family, and a basketball scholarship at Virginia State.
Dandridge returns often to Richmond to see Lewis and his other sister, Robinette Dandridge, and revels in reminiscing about his youth. Segregation and racial tensions were unavoidable, and the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue were awkward, but his was, overall, a happy childhood.
A tall, rail-thin athlete — Bullets teammates called him Pick, short for toothpick — Dandridge found his love of basketball through his mother, who played at Armstrong High during the 1940s. He honed his skills on the West End School outdoor court, alone or with friends, no matter the weather.
So relentless was Bob’s dribbling that his Aunt Juanita, who lived adjacent to the playground, would plead with him to go home just so she could have some peace and quiet.
Dandridge commandeered the family television whenever the NBA was featured and listened to Southern Conference games on the radio. His favorite player was Johnny Moates, the University of Richmond’s homegrown star from Benedictine High.
“He was an inspiration,” Dandridge said.
At 6-foot-3, the young Dandridge was tall enough to play forward, or even center, in those days. But Gardner, Maggie Walker’s coach, recognized Dandridge’s all-around talent and played him at guard, allowing Dandridge to polish his ball skills and extend his shooting range.
North Carolina A&T was Dandridge’s preferred college destination, but Aggies coaches deemed him, now at 6-6, as too skinny. That left Dandridge to choose among Virginia Union, Virginia State and Norfolk State.
When Spartans coach Ernie Fears told Dorothy Dandridge that he took his team to church every Sunday, she was sold.
“Always recruit the mom,” Dandridge said with that trademark laugh.
A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP
The internet age makes this difficult to fathom, but recruiting during the 1960s could be done quietly, and unknown to either player, Norfolk State was also pursuing Charles Bonaparte, Dandridge’s rival from Armstrong High. When they arrived on campus as freshmen, they discovered they were not only teammates but also roommates.
They blended beautifully, as friends and athletes, Bonaparte at guard, Dandridge at small forward. In their final two seasons, the Spartans won 45 of 51 games, earned two NCAA Division II tournament bids and averaged more than 105 points.
As seniors in 1968-69, Dandridge and Bonaparte averaged 32.3 and 25.1 points, respectively, and as juniors they led Norfolk State to a 134-132, triple-overtime victory over North Carolina A&T in the championship game of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
While Bonaparte returned to Armstrong as a teacher and coach after graduation — he died in 1996 — Dandridge headed to the NBA, a fourth-round draft choice with no assurance of making the fledgling Milwaukee Bucks’ roster. But Dandridge didn’t just make the team.
He became an instant starter.
“When I went to Milwaukee, what they saw was a complete player,” Dandridge said. “And they hadn’t envisioned that. They had just envisioned a kid that could score. … Milwaukee just saw something special in me.”
The Bucks secured other special players.
An expansion franchise in 1968-69, Milwaukee owned the ’69 draft’s No. 1 overall pick and used it on the already iconic Abdul-Jabbar, an All-America UCLA center then known as Lew Alcindor. After more than doubling their regular-season win total, from 27 to 56, in Alcindor and Dandridge’s rookie season, the Bucks acquired Robertson from the Cincinnati Royals.
With Alcindor (31.7), Robertson (19.4) and Dandridge (18.4) teaming for nearly 70 points per game, Milwaukee went 66-16 in the regular season and 12-2 in the playoffs, sweeping the Baltimore Bullets four games to none in the NBA Finals.
“Oscar was still the most dominant guard in the league,” Dandridge said. “He coached us on the court. He just led us. When you get to play with a guy like the Big O — I’m going to do whatever he wants me to.”
The fundamentals that Dandridge traces back to Richmond served the Bucks well as he fed Alcindor in the low post with creative entry passes from the wing.
“It was fun basketball,” Dandridge said, “and it was fun being in a city like Milwaukee that really appreciated this young team.”
The Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, and the Celtics of John Havlicek and Dave Cowens foiled subsequent Bucks playoff runs — talk about a gilded era of basketball — but Dandridge wasn’t done winning titles.
'JUST GIVE BOBBY THE BALL'
In the summer of 1977, after a ninth consecutive playoff disappointment, the Bullets signed him as a free agent to team on the front line with Unseld and Hayes.
“If we were going to get by the Philadelphia 76ers, somebody had to guard Dr. J, and that was the motivation for [general manager] Bob Ferry to get Dandridge,” said Grevey, a second-year guard in 1977-78. “We had a hell of a team but just weren’t good enough. Bobby made everyone around him better. He was everything we had hoped he would be — and then some.
“He became such a clutch player. … We had to have somebody who could create off bounce or make that big defensive stop. You just knew Wes Unseld was going to be a man in the middle, and Elvin was going to put up the stats. But when things were really cloudy, just give Bobby the ball. Let him make a play.”
Washington encountered San Antonio in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and for five games, the Spurs’ George Gervin torched the Bullets, averaging 35.2 points, including a 46-point eruption in Game 2. Prior to Game 6, coach Dick Motta assigned Dandridge to defend Gervin.
Dandridge helped limit Gervin to 23 points, and Washington closed out San Antonio to reach the conference finals against the aforementioned Julius Erving and Philadelphia. With Dandridge outscoring Erving in the series, including 28-22 in the clinching Game 6, the Bullets advanced to the NBA Finals for the third time in eight seasons.
Washington was 0-8 in previous Finals games but defeated the Seattle SuperSonics for the franchise’s first, and only, championship. Dandridge’s dunk sealed the Bullets’ 105-99 victory in Game 7, and his defense helped harass Sonics guard Dennis Johnson, a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee, into 0-for-14 shooting.
Dandridge spent most of his career in Milwaukee and appreciates the team, city and coach (Larry Costello) that first embraced him as a pro. But he is “forever grateful” to Washington for allowing him to display the full breadth of his talents.
“Every player wants to have his own team,” Dandridge said, “one reliant on his talent and leadership every night. … They had never really won big playoff games. That’s why they brought me there as free agent.”
Dandridge never averaged more than 21.5 points, but for 10 consecutive seasons he was remarkably consistent, his averages ranging from 17.4 to 21.5 points, 5.5 to 8 rebounds, and 2.8 to 4 assists.
In Dandridge’s 13 NBA seasons, his teams won 13 of 19 playoff series. He won two championships, reached two other Finals and averaged more points in the playoffs (20.1) than in the regular season (18.5). He played in four All-Star Games.
Traveling back to Springfield for last weekend’s Hall of Fame announcement, Dandridge allowed himself to bask in the game’s history, view the Hall’s exhibits and reflect on his contributions, indulgences he declined during his previous visit to the shrine.
The Hall of Fame was never going to define Dandridge, and he was content without it. But he welcomes the opportunity to celebrate his career and West End roots with family, teammates and friends.
“There’s still plenty of work in the master plan for me to do,” Dandridge said. “Going into the Hall is great. I love it. I’m excited about it. But I think being a true Hall of Famer now, through my experiences, means just giving not only in the basketball arena, but just giving to others.”