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Memoirs of Greatness

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.


Red Hot and Rollin' is published by Nestucca Spit Press.  (Their website also has a collection of Bill Schonely audio clips from the championship season which are a great listen.)

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?

The Portland Trail Blazer team of 1976-77 had a tremendous impact on me as a kid growing up in Oregon City in a way I didn't understand or even think about back then.  I was 13 when they won it all and I can still remember how the state went crazy after the last game against the 76ers. That was a great feeling and it must have stayed with me all these years into adulthood and planted a literary seed. Three years ago, I saw the extraordinary photograph of Bill Walton and then-Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt at the victory rally (it's on the cover of the book) and I knew I had to explore this subject as a writer. I knew nobody else would. Seeing that photo inspired me to start digging around the 77 story and read everything that had ever been written about the team. I started talking with older people and almost everyone had a 77 Blazer story: where they were when the team won it all, who was their favorite player, how much they partied, things like that. I couldn't believe how much people who now could care less about the team used to love the franchise. I also knew that the 30th anniversary of the 77 title was approaching and that it might be a great time to get a book out on the subject. I just felt there was a hunger for more stories from that magical era in Oregon history.

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?

In 1977 Oregon had come to an end of what some people call the Tom McCall Era, named for the legendary two-term governor (1967-75) who helped turn the state into a laboratory of progressive governing initiatives such as the Bottle Bill, Beach Bill, Bicycle Bill, decriminalization of marijuana, penal reform, land use planning, etc. Oregon was on the international map for promoting the concept of `livability,' a word that Tom McCall may have coined. The Blazers of 77 were a part of that era, as was Steve Prefontaine. I firmly believe this, although traditional historians probably would scoff at me making that kind of historical connection. In a way, our winning basketball team epitomized the values from that era: teamwork, selflessness, bipartisanship(!), looking at the big picture, earthy, and groovy if you will. There has never been a team in NBA history that has fit so incredibly well within its geographic and cultural region. I mean these guys were almost counterculture in the way they played and came across! Walton looked like a lumberjack! Walton lived in a communal house for god's sake and hung out with political revolutionaries! Lucas was a vegetarian! What a contrast to the 76ers from that era--all one on and one and flashy dunks and self importance.

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?

Blazermania was unique. No one promoted it. It just spontaneously erupted and the league had never seen anything like it. No one other team's fans went to the airport at 4 a.m. to meet the team! All those homemade banners, making cookies, and dressing in red and black. It was nuts and if you read the East Coast sportswriters from that era writing about the Blazer fans, they could not believe the civic passion. They thought Portland fans were naïve, immature, and frankly, weird. Doubtless, other cities go nuts for their winning teams, especially if they are sort of underdogs like the Warriors were this season. But Portland in 77 pioneered this kind of madness...and the team's front office had nothing to do with it.

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?

If the Blazers hadn't defeated the 76ers, Blazermania would have still taken off. I firmly believe that. Even in defeat they would have captured the hearts of the fans. There had been nothing like it in Oregon before and this novel relationship infected the people of the state. The way the team played, comported themselves, gave back to the community, self effaced, and related. That's what essentially brought on Blazermania.

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 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?

The NBA has changed since 1977. That's obvious. Bird and Magic changed everything. I can't see a team with the work ethic, the vibe, the politics, the sheer grooviness of the 77 team ever being part of the NBA, or any sports franchise for that matter. So it's no use pining for those days. But what would capture everyone's imagination, or at least make me a fan of pro sports again, is if there could be something different, something unscripted, something like a team like the 77 Blazers who bucked all conventional wisdom and won it all. And who had guys who didn't turn to the crowd after a routine uncontested dunk in the second quarter when their team was down by 20 and flex their tattooed biceps to the crowd.

Blazersedge:  What was the most enjoyable part of the project for you?  Any interesting anecdotes about putting this thing together?

Interviewing Lucas was a real highlight. We talked for hours and he gave me stuff that he never told a reporter before, especially about the Dawkins fight. Finding old Blazer photos was also exhilarating. I loved listening to Bill Schonely's radio calls off the old Blazermania album. I converted them to digital files and if the fans want to hear them, including the legendary Lucas and Dawkins fight, go to my web site ( Man, why did they ever let Schonely go? He hadn't lost a thing when they canned him.

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?

They jumped all over it. They thought the project was incredibly novel and writers often like that sort of thing. Once the word got out, I had to turn a few writers away.

Blazersedge:  What criteria did you use for including essays?

I wanted a range of viewpoints, not just the players. This is a sports book but also a cultural history. I wanted oral histories because I knew not everyone who had a Blazer story could write it up. I wanted excerpts from old articles. I wanted a documentary and person history approach. I wanted women, African Americans, sportswriters, players, coaches, kids, old timers, a whole range of thought. I got it.

Blazersedge:  Usually when you get close to something or someone you've been a fan of there's a certain amount of seeing the Wizard behind the curtain.  Did you have any of those moments on this project and if so, what were they?

I was disappointed that Walton wouldn't give me two hours of his time for an interview. I offered to meet him in any airport hotel in the country for a two-hour talk. He declined. `Too much on his plate,' he said. I was also shocked to discover that the team really has no historical archives that I could access. Nothing. No photo gallery, no clippings, no film or video. I also had a helluva' time getting my calls returned from the team. Sure, I am a small press, one guy, but I was working for nothing to help bring the Blazers back into the spotlight in a good way, the best way. I had to be persistent let me tell you. Actually relentless. Two times I just walked into the main office by the Rose Garden and asked to see someone. I was a like a full court press at times but that's how you get things done in the Oregon writing life.

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.

Getting this film as a DVD in the book was the toughest (and most expensive) professional endeavor of my life. I won't bore your readers with the Byzantine details about what it took to gain approval from the Oregon Historical Society to include the DVD. Let me just say this: any fan of professional basketball has got to see this film, which showed for one week in Portland in 1978 and then disappeared from public view for nearly 30 years. I learned of its existence from a footnote in an out of print book about the Blazers called Idol Time by Larry Colton. Once I read about it, I knew I had to see it.

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?

I have thought about this a lot. When people hear that I have a book out on the 77 team, naturally they ask me about the current Blazers. Here's what I think: the type of Blazermania that gripped the state can never return. It's over. But that's okay. Things have their time and then they go away. You cannot recreate the past, and it serves no purpose to live out nostalgia, but a different type of relationship with a successful team can be envisioned. The players have to be part of the community, the state. It's that simple. If that happens, watch out. The word will get out fast and the winning may or may not come, but Oregonians will love it. Here's an example of what I am talking about: I recently did a radio show at Portland State University (on the campus radio station) to promote the book. One of the current Blazers, Ime Udoka, is a former PSU player. The radio host, a student, told me he tried to get the organization to ask the player if he could come on the student's program, play some of his favorite music, talk about the team. The organization refused to help out. Are you kidding me? This is exactly what the organization needs to be doing ten fold!

--Dave (