The big draft prize in 1983 was a lanky University of Virgina center named Ralph Sampson. A 7'4", skilled, and incredibly mobile Sampson was all but guaranteed to transform the Houston Rockets, lucky holders of the #1 overall pick that year. Following Sampson in draft precedence came a raft of shooting guards and scoring forwards: Byron Scott, Dale Ellis, Jeff Malone, plus forward Thurl Bailey and point guard Derek Harper. All had been selected by the time the Portland Trail Blazers, eternally trapped in the "good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to succeed there" zone, got to exercise their #14 pick. Nobody could guess how much this middle of the road selection was going to transform the franchise's fortunes. With the #14 pick of the 1983 NBA Draft the Portland Trail Blazers selected Clyde Drexler from the University of Houston. Few guessed he would become the best of the entire bunch, Sampson included.
The initial reaction to the pick in Portland was about what you'd expect of a mid-round acquisition. The buzzword around Clyde was "athletic". Folks knew he could jump out of the gym. They were excited to see him throw down some dunks. The prevailing comparison in people's minds was the original Flash Dunkmeister, Billy Ray Bates. In 1983, though, Bates was a cautionary tale. His performances from 1980-82 had electrified Portland crowds. But opponents learned how to guard him and without the spectacular flushes his game wilted. The Blazers had waived him just a year prior.
The jigsaw-puzzle state of Portland's lineup added to the muted expectations for Clyde. The Blazers were already juggling Fat Lever and Darnell Valentine at point guard to mixed success. Kenny Carr, Calvin Natt, Mychal Thompson, and Wayne Cooper split minutes at the big man positions. All played well but platooning washed out their individual colors. Jim Paxson was Portland's clear All-Star. While Clyde could serve some minutes at small forward most projected him as a shooting guard, a position where his size and athleticism would tell. That was Paxson's spot. Another position battle? The Blazers needed more definition, not more jumble.
A couple of things became clear in Clyde's rookie year. The kid was explosive. Memorial Coliseum crowds weren't yet on their feet every time he touched the ball but their butts were tingling. They knew something was up. One of his drives was enough to prove it. But this wasn't going to be an easy fit. Positional problems and lack of touches kept Clyde's contributions low. Not getting along particularly well with Jack Ramsay, Portland's championship coach, didn't help matters. Excitement mixed with curiosity and a tinge of suspicion. Would this guy fit?
Tensions eased, but never quite departed, during the second and third years of Drexler's career. He gained the more prominent role he craved, averaging 17 points in 32 minutes his sophomore season, 18.5 in 34 the year after. But playing alongside Paxson and under Ramsay (who favored Paxson's motion-precision style of play) chafed. By 1986, though, the story had become clear. If Clyde didn't fit in with the system and the roster, you changed the system and the roster, not Clyde. The Blazers did just that, as Ramsay left that summer with a reduced-role-playing Paxson to follow a little more than a year later.
Portland's philosophy soon shifted to taking advantage of Clyde's, and by extension other players', physical gifts. Converted point guard Terry Porter and bruiser Jerome Kersey came into vogue. Clyde's production rose to 22 ppg in '86-'87 and would balloon to an amazing 27 ppg in each of the two seasons following. No doubt remained. This was Clyde's franchise.
The trust would prove well-placed in the 1990-92 seasons as Clyde led the team to two NBA Finals appearances and one year with the best regular season record, both in the league that season and in franchise history. His strength, athleticism, and scoring ability would become the hallmark of those early-90's teams, an attack feared by most everybody in the league. During this run Clyde established himself as the only player in the league worthy of mentioning in the same sentence as Michael Jordan, earning All-NBA honors, an Olympic Dream Team invitation, and Hall-of-Fame credentials. Most opponents looked like children lined up against him. He was that dominant. There was no other word for it.
Naturally Drexler captured the hearts and souls of Blazers fans as well. They had seen high scorers before but they had not seen anybody like this. Blazer fans had experienced the 1977 championship as a brief flash of lightning. The power was undeniable but the effect was momentary. Outside of that title, Portland knew no real success. Folks were wondering if the team would ever see lofty heights again barring another miraculous convergence of events. Drexler showed Blazer fans that a new era was possible and that new vistas waited around the corner. He was the guy who finally proved Portland could win without Bill Walton. He also introduced Portland to modern basketball, typified by speed, power, and individual prowess. The early 90's Blazers won in a manner that was nothing like the late 70's clubs. But that was good! Winning was winning. And those Drexler teams won a ton.
Portland's eventual descent from the mountain corresponded exactly with Drexler's injuries and subsequent departure from the team...no accident that. Clyde was the heart of all the goodness that happened during those years. Without him the team was once again ordinary.
As happened with Walton, Drexler's abilities made everyone else around him more famous and endearing than they otherwise would have been. Bob Gross and Lionel Hollins became legendary in the 70's. Kersey, Porter, Kevin Duckworth, and Buck Williams were the analogies for the 90's. Intervening players--Paxson, Thompson, Natt--may have had more talent but they didn't look nearly as good nor leave as enduring of an impression. That "superstar effect" of lifting teammates and defining eras has been evidenced by just two players in franchise history. If you're going to pick one player for one year you might be able to argue that one of Walton's two great seasons plus his all-around skill might qualify him as the best Blazer ever. But if you're looking at overall careers and sustained impact on the franchise there's no doubt that Clyde Drexler is the greatest player to ever wear Portland's uniform. That's why drafting him in 1983 made the #4 spot in our most pivotal Blazer moments list.