The Dozen Most Influential Trail Blazers: 1st-5th

A couple days ago we began a list of the dozen most influential Trail Blazers in franchise history, covering the 6th-12th spots. Today that list concludes with players 1-5. We start with one of the most fondly-remembered power forwards in a history littered with them...

#5 Buck Williams

Buck didn't carve out the archetypal Portland power forward role. The way was paved before him. But he sure embodied it completely. When he joined the team in 1989 he took a group of exciting offensive players--Porter, Drexler, Kersey, Duckworth--and turned them into a defensive juggernaut. He didn't just bring character to the team, he changed the character of the team. He also gave a whole new generation of fans, many of whom were too young to remember championship glory, a look at winning basketball. Buck never scored more than 14 ppg with the Blazers and spent most of his time below 12. But he became unquestionably the most influential non-star in franchise history, providing the backbone for the Clyde Drexler-led Finals teams.

Which players are in spots 4 through 1? Click through to see.

#4 J.R. Rider

The trade of franchise great Clyde Drexler to Houston in 1995 marked, perforce, the start of a new era. After a season coasting behind forward Cliff Robinson and the newly-arrived Arvydas Sabonis, the Blazers planted their new flag, bringing on board Minnesota sensation Isaiah "J.R." Rider. Portland acquired Rider for a song, three ultimately non-significant players. He was all primed to be the new Drexler. Clyde could jam like a spring-loaded demon. J.R. could too. Clyde could score huge. J.R. could too. Clyde was a sculpted masterpiece of an athlete. J.R. was too. Rider was only 25, a dunk champion, a 20 ppg guy...what could go wrong? Only that Rider was the headcase of all headcases. His off-court issues included drugs and altercations with the women in his life. His on-court issues included selfishness and the propensity to disappear entirely, to the point of refusing to touch the ball for entire quarters, when things didn't go his way. When he was on, he was brilliant. When he wasn't, he was a pure, unadulterated disaster. It got to the point where he was winning one game for the Blazers, losing another, and being a complete non-factor in the third. Whatever happened, it was all about J.R.

This wouldn't be so significant but for the litany of similar stories which followed. The lines are not this clear, to be sure, but one could argue that J.R. begat 'Sheed and Bonzi, 'Sheed and Bonzi begat Miles and Randolph. It would be a full decade after Rider's acquisition that anything resembling a positive attitude returned to the team. The hell experienced by Blazers fans during that decade needs no rehearsal. Many formerly ardent fans would come to loathe the team and its players. The guy who first taught them that was possible, the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Blazers universe, was Rider.

#3 Rasheed Wallace

Never was there such a tantalizing mix of talent wrapped up in such a polarizing figure as Rasheed Wallace. Without Wallace at the center of the melee there would have been no near-greatness in 1999 and 2000. Say what you want about Bob Whitsitt's "traveling All-Star team" concept, Wallace was the hub of every one of the collection. He was uniquely suited to that role. He played an all-around game, excelled on both ends, had unstoppable moves, but was also completely unselfish almost to the point of being unconcerned. At times it seemed he was more interested in making the right pass, the right basketball play, than taking over the game. Unfortunately as the Blazers challenged in the upper echelons of the league they needed someone to take over. When that spotlight shone, 'Sheed kept being 'Sheed. He was more precise in the playoffs but he was no more of a leader or #1 option in clutch time. This, plus his propensity for collecting technical fouls, would cause consternation among national media types and eventually Portland fans.

'Sheed being 'Sheed would continue through his final days with the Blazers when, sick of the scenery and wanting a change, he all but forced himself out of town by refusing to interact with the media, making acerbic and inflammatory comments on the occasions he did speak, and all but shutting down on the court. That final six months remains his most memorable legacy in Portland, eclipsing much of the good he accomplished, leaving behind a feeling of ruefulness and a host of "what ifs". Sheed's final stanza also helped continue the pattern of careless individualism trumping higher goals that would afflict the Blazers in years to come. The Blazers had been hoping for another franchise-defining, generational leader. They got exactly that, just not in the way they expected.

#2 Clyde Drexler

The on-court part of Clyde's glory is so obvious as to not need much explanation. Drexler brought back the hope of championships after the post-1978 valley and years of futility for the Blazers' playoff drives. Yes, his teams were talented. That's a requirement for making the NBA Finals. But Clyde is the quintessential example of being able to score 20+ and still make everybody else around you better. The attention that defenses had to pay him paved the way for everybody else to shine. Go back to Portland tapes of the era and you're going to see a lot of open shots for Porter and Duckworth. They hit them, which made them great. But the setup to that greatness was the awe of Drexler. He bent everything towards him...one of a small handful of Blazers ever with that ability.

Beyond that, though, Drexler introduced modern basketball to Portland. Blazer fans had always welcomed all comers. Put on the uniform and you're family. But before Clyde, Portland's perception of basketball was almost...prudish. It was a team game. High scorers were welcome but they'd better play within the system. Above the rim stuff was decoration, something to cheer but not to live off of. Billy Ray Bates tried to provide the exception in the early 80's. When the league solved him soon after, he only proved the rule.

When Drexler's rise--and inability to fit within the system--led to the departure of championship coach Jack Ramsay, people were actually uneasy. Contrast that with today when any coach who kept Kevin Durant in check would find an exit after two games and get barbecued for it in blogs from here to eternity.

That all went out the window when Clyde exploded to national prominence behind an array of vicious dunks and 27 points per game. Fans In opposing arenas were known to take their feet when Drexler got on the runway for a breakaway jam. Portland fans couldn't help but lose their hearts and minds in the presence of soaring greatness. Clyde Drexler changed the way this city viewed basketball, dragging Portland into the 90's and delirium. There won't be another like him.

#1 Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas

Yes, they're two people so this is technically cheating. But they accomplished their most amazing feats in tandem and they belong arm in arm at the very top of this list.

Walton earns this spot through peerless talent, a style of play that made his teammates shine, and the championship ring he drove his team to. He was the center of Blazermania in both senses of the word. With him the Blazers won the title that sparked a cultural revolution. Without him they were first-round playoff fodder no matter who else put on the uniform. It's as simple as that. If Bill Walton weren't the player he was this team's following would be smaller and poorer. The honor of best overall player probably belongs to Clyde, for the sake of longevity if nothing else. But Walton is the single most irreplaceable Blazer in team history. No Walton, no Blazers as we know them.

Lucas wasn't just a second banana to Walton. He was the championship team's scoring leader, its heart and soul. Not only that, but Lucas set the pattern for what a Portland power forward should be. All of the things Blazer fans later went bonkers over in Buck Williams and Brian Grant (and still lament as lacking in LaMarcus Aldridge) were taught by Luke first. The archetypal Blazer power forward is tough, mean, takes no guff, rebounds, hustles, defends, throws his body, does the little things. If they score, so much the better. That Lucas did made him the ultimate example. But Blazer fans revere him more for punching Darryl Dawkins than for averaging 20 in '76-'77. Those hulking power forward characteristics are so embedded in Portland's DNA that they'll probably never come out.

In 40 years of franchise history nobody has ever had the success these two players had. No wave of fandom in any generation has approached the abandon that they gave rise to either. Every moment of communal passion surrounding this team traces its roots to what they accomplished. For that they carry the label of most influential Trail Blazers ever...together.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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