Catching Up With ... former Bullet Don Ohl
Each Tuesday in The Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's happening in his/her life in a segment called, "Catching Up With ... " Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ... "
Every year during the NBA playoffs, Don Ohl’s eyes brighten, his step quickens and his heart beats a little faster -- but not dangerously so for Ohl, 73, a survivor of six-way bypass surgery.
The playoffs always brought out the best in the onetime star of the Baltimore Bullets. More than 40 years later, the man nicknamed "Waxie" for his crewcut still holds the Washington Wizards’ franchise record for highest postseason scoring average.
In 13 playoff appearances for Baltimore in 1965 and 1966, Ohl averaged 26.2 points per game, stellar work for a 6-foot-3 guard who practically carried those upstart Bullets on his back at crunch time.
"I always played best in big games," Ohl said from his hometown of Edwardsville, Ill. "But I was proudest of my defense against top guards like (Cincinnati’s) Oscar Robertson, (Los Angeles’) Jerry West and (Boston’s) Sam Jones."
He paused in thought.
"I wasn’t a terrible player, was I?"
In a 1965 game at the Civic Center, Bullets guard Don Ohl makes a shot over New York's Willis Reed. (Sun file photo by Paul Hutchins)
A 10-year pro, Ohl spent 3-1/2 seasons in Baltimore, arriving in 1964 by trade from Detroit. The city embraced the sure-handed Ohl, who cut his hair like Johnny Unitas, stepped up in the clutch and for two years averaged more than 20 points per game. He rallied fans with his 20-foot jump shot and offset the inside moves of musclemen Walt Bellamy and Gus Johnson.
His first year here – the Bullets’ second season in town – Ohl led them to the Western Division finals where they fell to L.A., 4 games to 2.
"We were good but we couldn’t stop West," he said. "I worked as hard as I could but, in one game, he scored 50 points. Well, I guaranteed that West wouldn’t get 50 the next game. He didn’t. He got 51."
A five-time All-Star, Ohl recalled arriving in San Francisco one year for that classic and spotting Philadelphia’s 7-foot-1 Wilt Chamberlain in the hotel lobby. How could one miss him?
"Wilt was dressed to the nines and checking in with one hand while holding the two biggest dogs I’ve ever seen, on leashes, with the other hand," he said.
"I thought the world of Wilt. Once, on a breakaway, he was the only player between me and the basket. When I got to the free throw line, I pulled up to take a jump shot and he came out to block it. I went up and let it go just over his outstretched hand."
The ball floated home.
"As I came down, Wilt growled, ‘What makes you so (bleeping) good?’ " Ohl said. "That was quite a compliment, coming from him."
Ohl earned $30,000 in his best year in Baltimore and had to hold out to get that. Finally, he said, owner Abe Pollin told him, "If you sign for $25,000, I’ll make up the difference."
Midway through the 1967-68 season, he was dealt to St. Louis. The Bullets were nuts over rookie guard Earl Monroe, who’d already panned out. Ohl played a couple more years with the Hawks, scored his 10,000th point and retired in 1970.
Eight years ago, he retired from a career in the bank insurance business to care for his wife, Judy, who was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Ohl has had both hips replaced and several knee operations, as well as bypass surgery. Still, he dotes daily over his mate of 49 years, dressing, bathing and feeding her.
"Sometimes, when I talk to her, there’s a little gleam in her eyes and I think, maybe she understands," he said. "Yes, she has changed – but she’s the soul of my life and I still love her deeply."