Are you noticing a pattern here? I am. Today's Portland Trail Blazers pivotal moment once again involves a center and an injury. For anyone not familiar with Portland's history, it's clear that if the Blazers could keep a center healthy they'd have been a household name in this league. And none of the examples of that phenomenon is as prominent or definite as this one. Bowie and Oden hurt, but those are hypothetical situations. We have empirical evidence for this one. Bill Walton = Championships. The lack of Bill Walton means championships lost.
The 1976-77 Trail Blazers surprised the league by storming through the playoffs and handling the far-superior-on-paper Philadelphia 76'ers in the NBA Finals, capturing a title in just their seventh year as a franchise. The 1977-78 Trail Blazers surprised nobody. As happens with any popular underdog, victory cries were soon followed by, "How'd that happen?" and the inevitable "Fluke!" Everybody was out to prove they could topple the accidental champions.
Side Note: This is one of the things I love about a world title. Nobody gets to call "Fluke!" and be taken seriously. The trophy is its own argument...the only unanswerable retort in sports. Every derogatory statement made after rings go on fingers is just sour grapes.
Those who were looking to whup up on the scrappy young Blazers in the season following their improbable title run were in for a surprise. Now armed with confidence, the Blazers were better than they had been when they won the title...exponentially so. Gone were the little mistakes and doubts that had marked their original journey to glory. This was a basketball machine. Portland eclipsed its championship year win total in February of 1978, a 113-92 dismantling of those same 76'ers bringing the record to 50-10 as the month closed. A month and a half of season remained for the Blazers to push their victory total into the stratosphere, erasing all doubts of fitness. Life was good.
Portland's entire game, and all their dominance, revolved around Walton. Maurice Lucas was a great scorer and tough guy. Plenty of other guys had skill. But Walton allowed everybody else to perform at peak capacity, creating the seamless, beautiful basketball that old timers pine for to this day.
It's hard to find a proper modern analogy for anyone who didn't see Walton play. We've seen point guards orchestrate amazing teams but our idea of centers has been polluted by the hulking-but-skill-impoverished Shaquille O'Neal or agile, athletic dynamos like David Robinson and Jermaine O'Neal. Walton was definitely in the skinny and agile camp despite his 6'11" frame. He had enough bulk to get the job done but he was no Shaq or Ewing body-wise. You can get an idea of his game if you imagine the fundamentals of Tim Duncan combined with the court vision and passing ability of Arvydas Sabonis plus a little of the floor-running ability of The Admiral. Yup...I had to pull in two and a half of the greatest NBA big men of all time just to get at Walton's game.
After Walton vacuumed up a rebound he became the equivalent of an NFL quarterback. Most centers simply spin and look for the point guard waiting for the ball on the sideline. That was Walton's tight end safety valve play. If he saw a wing streaking up the court, though, it was time for the bomb. The guy could throw it the length of the court with unrivaled precision...and it happened quick. Once he got rid of the ball he would trail the break. Woe be unto you if you didn't pick him up, because those amazing hands could catch the ball as well as they threw it. You, sir, just got dunked on. For all that, he probably shone brightest when the Blazers set up in the halfcourt. He could dribble either way, drive, hit a jumper, sink the turn-around jumper, and he could pass beautifully to any player in any position on the court. Nowadays teams rely on the three-point line to spread the defense. Walton could spread it with a flick of his hand pass fake. Opponents literally couldn't guess what was coming. You could not double him. You could not leave him in single coverage. You just guessed and prayed. 50 times out of 60, you were done.
Bright and shining the Blazers rode through 1977-78, scattering everybody in their path. Bob Gross, Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins, Lucas, and Walton...Bill made everyone look great. And then his foot failed him.
His injury wasn't well-understood at the time. How can such a huge and talented man be brought down by a little foot thing? Few could grasp that when the foundation fails, the rest of the house falls too no matter how mighty the walls seem. That's exactly what happened to the Blazers too. Without Walton their great players became...pretty good. Portland had nothing to be ashamed of, but they were light years from the second championship that looked like their birthright in '77-'78.
Walton's foot never recovered, perhaps due to questionable practices by Portland doctors if he was to be believed. His divorce from the team, eventually departing for San Diego through free agency, was messy and public. He never played much for San Diego but he did return in the 80's, winning a title as a 6th man for the Boston Celtics. He was heavier, slower, only a shadow of his former self. Even an aged, broken Walton often looked like the smartest player on the court, and this was on a team full of heady NBA veterans. Watching his performances "what ifs" were impossible to avoid. Taking nothing away from the Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics--titles in hand being the ultimate retort--the Blazers would have decorated their cases with multiple trophies in the late 70's and early 80's had Bill Walton remained healthy...this in a pre-David-Stern era when repeats just didn't happen. Instead Portland drifted through first-round-exit mediocrity until the 90's brought a new era.
The late-70's Blazers had a taste of glory but one foot robbed them of the chance to drink deeply from its well. That lost opportunity is enough to earn the #5 spot on our list of pivotal events.