Jack Ramsay was a huge part of the chemistry that typified the Portland Trail Blazers' championship season.
Our quasi-personal, somewhat historical look at the Portland Trail Blazers continues today with a look at the '76-'77 and '77-'78 seasons during which the Blazers had a legitimate shot at the NBA title. We'll take the championship year first and follow up tomorrow with the following season.
Many people cite Portland's ascension in 1976 as proof that anything can happen in this league, arguing the case for heretofore dormant teams jumping on the scene and steamrolling their way to glory. While it's true the Blazers did capture their first and only NBA title in their first ever crack at the playoffs, the roster in the fall of '76 bore little resemblance to the spring prior. Lionel Hollins, Bob Gross, and Larry Steele were popular holdovers, but the rest of the rotation was re-made in a single off-season in a series of events unlikely to be duplicated ever again.
- Former #1 draft pick Bill Walton, a victim of injury during his rookie and sophomore seasons, was healthy enough to play 2000+ minutes for the only time in his career.
- An expansion draft from the now-defunct American Basketball Association netted the Blazers power forward Maurice Lucas who would be acclaimed the best power forward in the league during the coming season.
- Dave Twardzik joined the Blazers via the same draft and became Portland's starting point guard. Twardzik's talent was nowhere near that of Lucas but his basketball smarts were enough to earn him not only his rotation spot but much later entry into front offices around the league.
- In the standard NBA draft (5th pick of the second round) the Blazers picked up Johnny Davis who would become Portland's backup and take over major minutes from Twardzik as the playoffs progressed. Like Twardzik, Davis was sharp enough to enter management circles after his career, serving as both assistant and head coach.
- All of this was sewn together by the arrival of Jack Ramsay, formerly a coach in Buffalo and Philadelphia professionally. Ramsay literally wrote the book (OK, several books) on coaching and would later be named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and credited in 1996-97 as one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA History. Ramsay's emphasis on physical fitness, pressure basketball, spacing the floor, passing, and sound defensive principles would provide the canvass upon which the talented Blazers would paint their greatest masterpiece.
This lighting-in-a-bottle combination of health, talent influx, good drafting, and inspired coaching would immediately create a new buzz in Portland around the Blazers. Triple-digit scoring and a 20-8 start had tongues wagging by mid-December. Could this team hold it together? Was this real? How far could they get? This was heady stuff for a franchise that had never even seen the playoffs. TV ratings trended upwards and more and more Oregonians discovered the dulcet tones of Bill Schonely across the radio airwaves, making Walton and Lucas come alive in the living room or car.
Somewhere in the midst of this a young child walked into the family TV room and saw his dad watching something new on the set. "What is this?" he asked.
"Basketball" was the reply. "It's a game."
"How does it work?"
I sat down beside my dad captivated by all the running, transfixed by the ball going through the hoop from various distances and angles. He explained that a team got 2 points when the ball went through, only 1 point per shot if there was a foul. The players had to dribble. They couldn't just run with the ball. They could only take so many steps and they'd try to steal the ball from each other too. Most importantly of all he explained that the team in red and white was the one we wanted to win. When I asked why he said simply, "That's our city's team." That's when I got my first inkling that this team belonged to all of us. That's when I felt the first stirring of bonding with Portland and its people. That's when I understood that when the team won I wouldn't be the only one happy. My family would talk about it. My friends would talk about it. The whole city was starting to come alive.
Click through for a ride through the playoffs and how each series built on the next to reach a championship crescendo.
Even so, the true magnitude of the Blazers' potential was slow to take hold. It was not skepticism among the general populace as much as a lack of context. It's hard to dream about things you haven't experience and this kind of success was well beyond Portland's consciousness. A 29-25 finish to the season seemed to confirm the hesitancy. The Blazers were going to make the playoffs...a big deal to be sure. But nobody would have dared to dream what was about to happen.
Something of an extension of the regular season, hampered by the far eastern location and the shortened three-game series, Portland's initial tilt against the Chicago Bulls didn't revolutionize the public perception. Everyone enjoyed the victories at home. Everyone was glad the Blazers won, surviving HUGE center Artis Gilmore. What did it mean, though? The upcoming seven-game series against David Thompson, Dan Issel, and the Denver Nuggets was the real test. They were experienced. They could score. Portland was starting to crash the party of the Western Conference elite. Would they be country bumpkins, sent packing with a laugh?
The excitement started to boil when Portland eked out a 101-100 win in Denver in the first game of the series. Suddenly, by a whisker, homecourt advantage belonged to the Blazers. Losing the second game didn't dim the enthusiasm. If anything it strengthened the resolve. If homecourt meant something then Portland fans knew how to make sure the Blazers had the best homecourt in the league. After a pair of victories in Games 3 and 4 the town started to believe for real. Losing a 3-1 lead seemed impossible. The Blazers lost the 5th game in Denver in overtime then clinched it at home to start a tidal wave. The Blazers were going to the Conference Finals. They were going to play the Los Angeles Lakers. Now everybody was paying attention.
In many ways Portland fans cut their teeth on that 1977 Lakers series. CBS was in town giving the city national coverage. The storyline of Walton versus Kareem Abdul Jabbar elevated the Blazers to near-equals with the famous team from the south. This was the Big Time. Nobody was going to miss it. It was also scary. The Lakers were household names to even the basketball ignorant. If the Denver series was crashing the elite party, a series against L.A. was like walking onto the stage at Carnegie Hall. Some tuned in with hope, others to see if there was a chance in heck the Blazers could pull it off.
That chance in heck became "In your face!" when the Blazers stunned the Lakers in their own building in the first game, 121-109. This was starting to look like a repeat of the Denver series that Portland had just won. Celebration turned to stunned belief (disbelief now being out of the question) when the Blazers also won the second game. Up 2-0 and coming home the team was going to get a reception it would never forget. The Blazers couldn't lose those next two games at home. It would be a betrayal of everything they and their city stood for. A loss would be inconceivable. And the Blazers didn't lose. The games were tighter in Portland but the Blazers managed to preserve the homecourt and finish off the Lakers in a sweep. Star-studded Philadelphia 76'ers be damned, NOBODY though the Blazers were destined for anything but the championship at that point. In 13 playoff games the Blazers had established a passion and completely unreasonable belief that endures and propels their fans more than three decades later.
I'm not sure what other people were thinking when Portland lost the opening two games of the 1977 NBA Finals in Philadelphia. As a young child I knew it didn't matter. The Blazers couldn't lose at home. They'd win all three games in Portland because they were invincible there. They only had to take one of two on the road to win it all. The idea that the Blazers might lose the series never crossed my mind. That didn't mean it was easy, though. Doctor J was scary in the same way Darth Vader was scary. He was amazing, seemingly unconquerable in a given moment. But these were the Blazers. Bill Walton was better, at least in my childhood mind. Nothing was going to stop them even though I cringed every time Erving rolled to the hoop or pulled up for a jumper. And indeed, as badly as Philly had spanked the Blazers back East, Portland spanked them worse in Memorial Coliseum. Fans had seemingly followed the team from the airport tarmac to the arena, gathering strength and volume every step of the way. And it was LOUD. The cacophony didn't end there either. The streets of Portland may have been silent but everyone I knew was watching the games. You could hear neighbors shout. People would emerge from their houses after the contests and chat across front porches. It was all we kids talked about. Everything everywhere was Blazers. Even the most casual, non-caring among us wanted to see what would happen. So we all watched as the Blazers took Games 3 and 4 and held our collective breath heading back to Philadelphia. And when the Blazers won Game 5 110-104 we knew. It was coming. They were coming back home for one game and they only needed one win.
That Game 6 was as tension-filled and heart-rending as any experience I've had before or since. The Blazers looked good but Philadelphia wouldn't go away. It seemed like Darth Vader had his grip around Portland's neck. Could we escape? (By then I don't think there was anyone who didn't think of the Blazers as "we".) This is Portland. The Blazers never lose here. This is Portland. This is magic. This is Portland. But this game is awfully tight! An inbounds play, a missed shot, a failed tip, Davis is dribbling the ball...the horn sounds. What was the score? That's really the score, right? We're not dreaming? 109-107. The Portland Trail Blazers are the champions of the world!
Everything nowadays happens on camera. I have more photographs of my three year old son than exist of me in my entire lifetime. I wish that somebody back in the day could have snapped a picture of my face at that moment. I don't believe I'll ever show a purer, more innocent, more wholly joyful smile. In a guarded childhood, in a complex life this was a moment of clarity, a singular event that united children and adults, friends and neighbors...an event which broke down barriers and elevated a city. In that moment all of us across Portland and Oregon became World Champions. From Baker City to Medford and everywhere in between we knew it. We had been watching. We saw it with our own eyes. Dreams come true. Anything is possible.
Through this process the Blazers themselves created a culture not just of success but of belief. Number of games Portland lost at home during the 1977 playoffs? Zero. In many circumstances that's considered a sign of a weak team dependent on the friendly confines to win. In this case it became a sign of strength, not of the team but of their fanbase. People believed they made a difference and acted accordingly. The signs, the dancing, the hundreds of thousands at the victory parade, the ear-splitting yells, right down to this day and Blazersedge being the most visited and participated-in blog per capita in this network and one of the biggest single-team oriented sites in the world...all of these are peculiar to a fandom born in the joyous crucible of 1977. Neither the team nor the town nor any of us have been the same since. Blazer fandom isn't an investment in a franchise as much as a relationship in which both sides believe they have something to give. Portland fans don't wait to be entertained, they wait for their next opportunity to make a difference.
From pre-season buzz to post-season euphoria the 1976-77 season has become immortal. In this age of instant communication and jaded fandom it's hard to imagine it ever being duplicated. No, I'll go farther than that. That series of events and their resulting transformation will never be duplicated again, at least not in American sports. The environment of innocence, the ladder to halting belief, the mystical transport to surety...these things just don't exist in the same way anymore. But I'm pretty sure you'll find an echo of that movement in the eyes of children in Dallas this year, as you could have with our friends in Houston when Hakeem won his first. The child in all of us gets touched by these events. You'll just never find a group of people so willing and happy to be children as you had in Portland in 1977.
It was amazing.
I am keeping this a personal history specifically so you'll feel free to share your own memories of the championship season in the comment section. What significant events and turning points do you remember? What were you doing at the time and how did Portland's rise affect you? Let us hear and relive the glory.