Good news Blazer fans! There's a new book coming out about the 1977 championship team entitled Red Hot and Rollin': A Retrospection of the Portland Trailblazers' 1976-77 Championship Season. It's a compilation of essays edited by local author Matt Love. He has solicited contributions from many credentialed authors, each offering their perspective on the team and what that year meant to Portland and Blazermania. Essayists include Maurice Lucas (via interview), Dwight Jaynes, former Oregonian Blazer beat writers Bob Robinson and Jeff Baker, and several community leaders, business entrepreneurs, and activists. Matt was good enough to send me an advance copy to look at and it's going on the recommended reading list for all Blazer fans.
Here's my best attempt at a review:
When I first got the book I noticed it only totaled 136 pages, which seems skinny for such a glorious subject. But the style and direction of the work make that an ideal length. This is not a Halberstam-esque narrative leading you to ideal pastures and milking the story for you. This is a series of well-considered, tightly-written reflections on what the championship team meant to its time and what the time meant to the authors' lives. There's very little filter between you and the writers' thoughts. But neither is this a wistful, squishy recounting of "remember when" tales. The authors have taken their tasks seriously, relating as much about the culture of Oregon (and Oregon fandom) as they do about the team. The result is a quasi-historical, quasi-sociological manuscript that will likely bring back memories for those who lived through that time and enlighten those who didn't about our roots as fans and how much a championship can mean. (Did you know that 96% of Oregon households with televisions were tuned into Game 6 of the championship series? That had never happened before and will never happen again.)
The problems with the book were few, at least from my point of view. It's inherent in such a work that the writing is going to be uneven in pacing and style from essay to essay. That actually adds to the charm and authenticity of the book but some may find it jarring. Some of the pieces cross the line from evocative reminiscence into self-indulgence. An essay by a too-informed-for-his-own-good fly fisherman and the editor's own introductory piece were egregious offenders. However these are more than compensated for by sublime revels from the owner of Geneva's night club (where much of the team went to unwind), from a woman who went the wrong direction with her camera and was ordered to sit on the baseline courtside with the other camera people (and continued doing it the whole season), from a then-college-kid who had a season's worth of standing room only tickets, and from the editor himself relating his young adolescence spent listening to the team. The project never quite reaches the academic depth it aspires to but the quasi-academic tenor inhibits the intimacy usually associated with reminiscing about such a pleasant subject. Some stories are over-written. The whole falls in a vague middle ground between a symposium and sitting down with your friends over a beer. But that doesn't change the fact that the tales are informative and a ton of fun to read. Somewhere in the litany of differences between then and now--different jobs, different marriages, different houses, different priorities, different society, different team, different lives--you start to get the picture that "Blazermania" (whatever the definition) is still ongoing and still matters to a whole lot of people. Reading is an absolute MUST if you take Blazer history or Blazer fandom seriously.
The book includes some amazing pictures, a list of stats from the season, and an absolutely indispensable bibliography of books written about the Blazers of that era which would be almost worth the price alone. And we haven't even gotten to the best part yet! Also included with the book is a DVD copy of the movie Fast Break by Portland filmmaker Don Zavin. This documentary was filmed during and right after the championship run. It was screened in Portland for about a week and then buried in Zavin's collection, only to be unearthed by Mr. Love these thirty years later in the vaults of the Oregon Historical Society after he discovered a clue to its existence in one of the books he was reading for research. The documentary is very seventies, very Oregon, and is hands down the most amazing look I've gotten at the players from that championship team. You take in Bill Walton's grace on the court and then follow him on a massive coast bike ride. You see Dave Twardzik teaching five year olds to make a layup, watch Herm Gilliam and Corky Calhoun play backgammon, see Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis go one-on-one, and hear more from Bob Gross than you ever have in your life. There's plenty of game and practice footage accompanied by Bill Schonely's calls. And the crowd scenes, both in the Memorial Coliseum and on the victory parade route, will send shivers...up...your...spine. This, also, would be well worth the price of the book.
The kick-off date for the book is June 5th. They're having a special party at 7:30 p.m. at Powell's. You can also purchase directly from Powell's online here. The cost is $20. Considering you get a heretofore impossible-to-obtain two hour movie along with the book that's pretty reasonable.
Since all of the other books in the Blazer bibliography are long out of print, Red Hot and Rollin' and Fast Break are going to be our first Blazersedge book/movie club discussion subjects later this summer. The difference between fandom now and then will make for a fertile discussion all on its own.
Editor Matt Love was kind enough to do an interview with us, the transcript of which follows.
Blazersedge: What prompted you to write/edit this project? Where did the idea come from?
Blazersedge: This book is ostensibly about the Blazers but it is also part of a trilogy covering various aspects of Oregon life. (Part One covers the struggle over publicly-owned beach conservation in Oregon. Part Two recounts Vortex I, the first and only state sanctioned and sponsored free rock festival in American history. Details here.) You don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface to see that it's not just a story of how Oregon married itself to a basketball team, but also the story of how a basketball team married itself to Oregon. What aspects of the Oregon culture did that team touch so deeply and how did they manage that?
It is also important to note that Walton was offered more money by the ABA when he was drafted number one by Portland in 1974. He chose Oregon because, and I am quoting him, "Of the quality of life there." He liked to hike, camp, etc and Oregon was all about that.
Blazersedge: You see echoes of Blazermania in other teams' fan bases, the recent swath of "We Believe" t-shirts in Golden State being one example. Is Blazermania unique or is it simply good old fan passion translated into a regional dialect and "dialed up to 11"? If it is unique, what makes it so?
Blazersedge: What role did winning the championship play in creating Blazermania? Could Blazermania have risen as strongly had that team been a very good team that never quite won it all (much like the 90's Drexler teams)? Is winning a championship a distinction of degree or is it an ontological difference?
Blazersedge: Do you think true Blazermania is tied to one time and one team (the 70's and the Walton-era Blazers) or can it resurge in successive eras? Is it just a product of winning in a Portland uniform...is it a relationship/emotion that we all carry with us, just waiting for an excuse to be let out...or is it an artifact accessible now only through corporate-driven copies and the misty lens of nostalgia?
Blazersedge: What was the most enjoyable part of the project for you? Any interesting anecdotes about putting this thing together?
I also loved seeing the legendary Walton dunk over Jabbar in game three of the Western Conference Finals. He just took a pass at the top of the key and roared down the lane and threw it down over Kareem with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter. How this was not one of ESPN's greatest dunks is beyond me. I doubt Kareem had ever been dunked on like this before in his life.
Blazersedge: How did people react when you asked them to write essays about the championship Blazers?
Blazersedge: What criteria did you use for including essays?
Blazersedge: Usually when you get close to something or someone you've been a fan of there's a certain amount of disillusionment...like seeing the Wizard behind the curtain. Did you have any of those moments on this project and if so, what were they?
I will tell you something though, I could be disappointed in the future. At the April 18 event in downtown Portland, (which I attended) where the organization honored the 30th anniversary team, and I use the term `honored' loosely because the event hardly honored the team, I gave a book to Kevin Pritchard. I introduced myself. I told him about the book. I urged him to read it since he was the new man in charge and it behooved him to know this franchise history inside and out. What the team could be doing with this book is incredible. I say this not so I can sell some books, but because I want the franchise to think about its roots and give the cool Oregon history its proper due. Why not? It's not going to hurt them. They want to win, but there's a lot more at stake to the franchise in the city than just winning.
Blazersedge: The book includes a DVD copy of the impossibly-hard-to-find documentary Fast Break, an independent production of now-deceased local filmmaker Don Zavin. The film is incredible but also incredibly obscure. Walk us through your journey of discovering it and what you had to do to include it with the book.
Then, after a two-year odyssey, I traced the film to a pallet in a warehouse in Gresham. I got a chance to view a rough cut. Incredible. I simply could not believe what I was seeing. The movie, Fast Break, is, in my opinion, the greatest film documentary ever on Oregon in the McCall Era and professional team sports. Even if you don't read a word of Red Hot and Rollin', you have to get the book to see the movie.
Where to begin? The film follows the team during the Fast Break opens with a psychedelic animated dedication to a member of the film crew who drowned in the Warm Springs River while on location in Central Oregon making the movie. From there, Fast Break embarks on one hour and fifty-seven- minute trip, and I mean trip, that cuts back and forth between the playoffs, Walton's summer vacation, and the beginning of next season.
Space constraints here limit a full review of the sheer far out scenes that comprise Fast Break. Let me tease out a few scenes: Fast Break captures in almost operatic fashion Walton's legendary jam over Kareem Abdul-Jabber in the Western Conference Finals, Walton dousing the Championship Trophy with beer, Walton biking down the Oregon Coast, Maurice Lucas visiting inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary, and an apparently intoxicated Walton receiving ceremonial chieftain honors from a Warm Springs Indian...around a bonfire!
Watch the movie and you will wonder what happened to us as a culture since 1977. It took everything I had to get this DVD in the book, but it was all worth it.
Blazersedge: It isn't a major part of the book but you are clearly critical of the recent vintage Trailblazers whose image--on the court and as an organization--stands in strong counterpoint to that of the championship era team. Do you see any hope in the new wave of optimism (in terms of basketball and culture) that has accompanied the rise of Kevin Pritchard? Might we see the love affair between the team and its fans renewed?