June 5th, 1977, Memorial Coliseum, Game 6 of the NBA Finals. "Five seconds to go. Free will inbound. Here we go! The inbound to McGinnis...he drives, stops, pumps, shoots...short! NO GOOD! And the game is over! The game is over!!!"
That Bill Schonely call announced that an irrevocable transformation was upon Portland Trail Blazer fans. A 109-107 victory over the star-studded, point-pouring Philadelphia 76'ers gave Portland claim to a trophy and banner proclaiming them the best basketball team in the known universe. Blazermania was born.
The ripple effect of this single event on the Portland fanbase and franchise is immeasurable. Prior to 1977 Portland fans had been a casual bunch. Every city has its diehards, but in the '70's most folks thought of the Blazers as another of the city's many quirky distractions...if they thought of them at all. We have a rose garden, a zoo, you should see OMSI, and there's the Blazers. The Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade got far more attention each year than anything the basketball team did.
When Portland began rolling through the '77 playoffs folks started to notice them more, and not just in Portland. Keep in mind that the national perception of Oregon in the 1970's included healthy doses of lumberjacks, bears, and perhaps outdoor plumbing. Portlanders needed an avenue to show the cosmopolitan nature of their cool little city. Folks downstate would have been glad to have anybody know they existed. Riding the suddenly-ascending reputation of a professional basketball team in a league whose most famous examples were New York, Los Angeles, and Boston fit the bill. This was like beating the big cats at their own game, standing up and saying, "We matter! And we're good! Better than you, even! (Oops! Did we say that? I guess we did!)"
The farther the Blazers progressed through the post-season the more adherents they gathered. These were the days of three major television stations and face-to-face conversations. Everybody began watching. Everybody began talking. Those "everybodys" aren't hyperbole either. This isn't, "Hey look! 500k out of 10 million Twitter users follow me." This is, "90% of the people in this state saw that game last night and are talking about it today."
No matter how casually a viewer entered the relationship--and a fair amount of folks came in saying, "Let's see what's going on here, what the fuss is about"--the beauty of the contest and the excitement of the attendant social currency were enough to cement the bond. Thousands upon thousands of life-long fans were born overnight, game by game. When Portland made the NBA Finals and the road to ultimate basketball fame became clear and straight everybody hopped on board. When the Finals teased out classic literary refrains--the underdog making good, dramatic comebacks after public burial, the feisty forward turning the battle's tide with a mighty blow of his fist--the lure became irresistible. When the Blazers actually won the trophy an obsession was born. The relationship between this state and basketball would never be the same again.
That title had a huge effect on the reputations of the men who won it. Anybody old enough to be semi-conscious during those years can name them by heart: Walton, Lucas, Hollins, Gross, Twardzik, Davis, and so on. To this day their names evoke distinct, passion-freighted tales. These were Portland's pantheon of gods. "And Zeus descended in the form of a bull and mated with the shepherdess, leaving her with child" is not far different than "And Walton descended like a thunderbolt and dunked on Jabbar, leaving him speechless". The experience provided Blazers fans with a deep well of archetypes through which their basketball experience could be interpreted: loving the tough power forward, praising the unsung bench players, valuing team basketball over individual superstardom, believing in the impossible, and most of all considering every player a Favored Son and Community Hero. The river of excitement left a gorge of idealized expectations, a national park of basketball dreams for Portland fans to visit at will. Even in 2011 Portland fans have a hard time accepting offerings from the Blazers--good or bad--that stray off of that course. It feels like drawing from a stranger's well.
The title ushered in a two-decade parade of 814 consecutive sellouts in Portland, a feat all-but unheard of in professional sports. Like a Masters winner, the Blazers earned lifetime admission to the hearts of Portland fans no matter how they played in a given year. A bigger arena interrupted the streak in 1995. The emotional train derailed in the mid-2000's when the former Masters champion went crazy and started beating the gallery with his clubs. But once the dust settled and the clubs went back in the bag the people returned. No momentary blip--even a blip that lasted six years--could kill the relationship. Half a decade is an eternity in most sports leagues. A team can gain and lose multiple waves of fans during that time. In Portland that's the blink of an eye. We're not like the ocean, drifting in and out. We're arrayed geologically, the layers of sediment on our hearts showing how long we've been at this. You can play paleontologist in this city. "That guy's an Oden-era fan. That guy is Wallace vintage. Those dudes are from the Drexler years, that one is from the Championship era, and those geezers over there are original opening-night ticket guys. But don't call them geezers to their faces because they can school you on most every basketball-related matter imaginable." The 1977 title cemented all that into place.
Being the best in the world is a responsibility Blazer fans took seriously. Babes in the woods in '77 became the basketball gurus of the '80's and beyond. The value of the offensive rebound, the danger of the skip pass, the problems with the sweet shooter who can't defend...Portland fans can lecture on all of them. Stop and ask yourself this: how many of the best internet analysts and bloggers in this modern age either came from Portland or stopped through Portland on their way up the hill? Other fan bases might be larger in number, more free with the insults and trolling, have more swagger or strut. Blazer fans will school you, though. Nobody wants to see them coming. They'll talk your ear off and analyze your game to death, expecting that they're right. That championship pedigree still shows.
Even if you're the newest of Blazer fans you have breathed in all of this from the atmosphere surrounding you. Expectations and interpretations have been passed from generation to generation, now embedded deeply in Portland's basketball DNA. The way you see this team, the way you talk about this team, the fact that you even follow this team at all and the feelings your fandom brings up in you...these things trace their roots back to the massive seismic shift of that victory in 1977. It happened almost 35 years ago and there's still no way around it. Not a bit of it would have happened had the Trail Blazers ended up in second place.
"The Portland Trail Blazers, at about 2 minutes and 18 seconds past the hour of two o'clock have won the World Championship. They are #1!"
And they always will be. The world will never be the same because of it. That's why this is the most pivotal moment in Portland Trail Blazers history.
The rest of our list:
#6: The 1984 draft
Hope you've enjoyed the series. We'll poke our head out of our comfy den tomorrow to see if our shadow indicates six more weeks of lockout. If so, we'll find more stuff to talk about.