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The History of the Portland Trail Blazers: The Transition Era

Blazer's Edge reminisces about the history of the Portland Trail Blazers. Next up: The mid-80s, and the end of the line for Coach Jack Ramsay

Christian Petersen

When we last left our story in the spring of 1984 Portland Trail Blazers fans were clamoring for change.  Following four first-round playoff exits in six years the team didn't have the same sparkle it once did.  Little did Blazers fans know that tumultuous change was just around the corner...weeks away in fact.

The first major move of the 1984 off-season came on June 7th when the Blazers traded high(-ish) scoring forward Calvin Natt, center Wayne Cooper, point guard Fat Lever, a 1985 first-round pick, and a 1984 second-round pick to Denver for one of the best shooters in the league, small forward Kiki Vandeweghe.  Any move the Blazers made still caused headlines, of course, but this kind of 5-for-1 deal sent shock waves throughout the area.  It looked like a major gamble based on bodies alone, let alone two of those bodies being big men.  It also went against the grain of traditional Portland culture, eschewing fancy stars in favor of a team concept.  The Blazers had darn near traded an entire team to Denver just to get Vandeweghe.

Reports said the move was made at the request of coach Jack Ramsay who desperately wanted shooting range and a major scorer to open up the floor.  In Vandeweghe, who shot 56% from the field and scored over 29 points per game that year, Ramsay got his wish.  Though the talent outflow seemed torrential, the move also made sense from a roster standpoint.  Natt had scored 20+ per game for the Blazers but had followed that up with 16.  Besides, the Blazers had Mychal Thompson on the roster to play power forward.  Fat Lever would become an All-Star for Denver--likely the most painful part of the deal for the Blazers--but to this point he had been platooning with Darnell Valentine who remained in Portland.  The draft picks were negligible given the kind of moves Portland was trying to make.  As for center Wayne Cooper...more on that in a minute.  The Blazers gave up talent but not at any position that left them naked or even undermanned.  As fans buzzed and clamored Portland's brain trust primed for their next move.

Due to an earlier trade with the Indiana Pacers the Blazers found themselves in possession of a guaranteed Top 2 pick in the 1984 draft.  In those days the team with the lowest win total in each conference would flip a coin to determine the #1 overall pick.  Indiana qualified in the East, Houston in the West.  The Blazers had the call and famously went with tails.  Flipping through the air the coin developed nerve damage in its feet and required extensive surgery on its knees, rendering its tail inoperative.  It came up heads.  Houston had the first pick.  Zero mystery surrounded their selection.  Akeem Olajuwon was a soon-to-be-dominating center from the University of Houston, Clyde Drexler's old teammate.  Everybody knew he was the target.

In retrospect it will surprise some to know that just as little mystery surrounded Portland's selection at #2.  Sports Talk Radio was in its infancy in '84.  Among the limited number of on-air pundits discussion revolved more around the slight possibility of Houston passing on Olajuwon than around names like Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley.  People knew of those smaller players but they weren't anywhere on Portland's radar.  Instead hosts, callers, and the casual fan on the street focused on 7'1" Kentucky center Sam Bowie.  Experts opined that the Blazers were lucky to be drafting in a year when two prime-time centers were available.

If you've read any of our previous historical retrospectives you'll immediately grasp how Bowie's selection sailed with the prevailing winds in the Rose City.  What were the two laments of Blazer fans at this exact moment?

  1. "We want change!"
  2. "If only we had a center we could contend!"

Bowie's selection appeared to address them both.

From a strictly basketball perspective the move made sense as well.  The Blazers had tried to get by for years with talented scorers like Natt and Thompson, Jim Paxson and Billy Ray Bates.  They were good enough to get the team into the playoffs but not near good enough to get them through once there.  The Blazers looked south and saw the emerging Lakers, winners of two championships since 1980 and challenging Boston for a third this very season.  While Magic Johnson was surely the star of the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still seen as the linchpin and title-deliverer for that squad.  How would the Blazers ever challenge the Lakers without a big man to battle Kareem?  And again, who had the Blazers ever challenged without a world-class center in tow?  Portland's championship aspirations broke apart at exactly the same time as Bill Walton's foot.  Bringing Bowie on board was a chance to reclaim those dreams.  Bowie made Wayne Cooper expendable in the Vandeweghe trade.  Bowie made the Blazers tall, young, and legit.  Bowie was the selection at #2.  Neither Jordan nor Barkley could have done for Portland what Bowie was able to do.  Or so it seemed, anyway.

As a footnote to the 1984 draft the Blazers also selected Longwood College grad Jerome Kersey with the 46th overall pick.  Kersey was an athlete, built like a walking brick.    His shot needed help but he never seemed to quit on a play.  Early in his career Portland's TV commentators would rave about his engine, warning people not to sleep on him as he could prove to be a steal.

Kersey's contributions were an afterthought in the fall of 1984, however.  The Blazers started the season with an amazing blend of old and new:

  • Darnell Valentine, the de facto winner of the point guard battle that had raged over the past couple seasons
  • Jim Paxson and young firecracker Clyde Drexler at shooting guard
  • Kiki Vandeweghe at small forward
  • Mychal Thompson at power forward, backed by Kenny Carr
  • Sam Bowie manning the middle, backed by the veteran Thompson

That lineup was talented, potent, and looked airtight.  That was only until the games began, though.  Once the ball went into the air for real it became apparent that this lineup was mired in mediocrity.  They were fine in the scoring department with Vandeweghe, Thompson, Paxson, and the newly-emergent Drexler all scoring 17+ per game.  In fact by the midpoint of the season they'd recognize an embarrassment of scoring riches, trying to figure out how to play Paxson and Drexler in the same backcourt to take advantage of the offensive firepower.  But the team couldn't defend and without being able to stop anyone they couldn't claw above 3-4 games over .500.  They managed only a 42-40 record in 1984-85, slinking into the playoffs.

Click through to hear one of the most amazing playoff stories in Portland's history, the fateful tale of the 1985-86 season, and the end of one of the greatest tenures in team history.

The '84-'85 post-season saw one of the more improbable events in Portland playoff history.  The Blazers faced the then-baby Dallas Mavericks, a team full of 1st-3rd year players who would later become big names: Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Dale Ellis, Derek Harper, and Sam Perkins among them.  Both teams looked dangerous and the series promised to be good.  Portland's expectations were muted by their regular season performance but Vandeweghe and Drexler pushed them to a narrow double-overtime loss in Dallas in the first game and an overtime win on the road in the second.  Portland easily handled the Mavericks at home in Game 3.  The Blazers needed a win to avoid a fifth game in Texas.  Both teams played tight in the fourth contest, which came down to a 113-all tie with seconds on the clock and the Blazers coming out of a timeout with the ball.  Keeping in mind the offensively gifted players on the roster, jaws could not have dropped farther when the ball ended up in the hands of sparsely-used power forward Audie Norris on the baseline facing the basket with hardly a tick remaining.  Dallas had opted to leave Norris less-guarded, knowing he was only in to provide an offensive rebounding threat and that both facing the basket and shooting from more than two feet away were well beyond him.  Nevertheless Norris found himself holding the rock and completely out of options...much like that nightmare where you have to take your chemistry test but you're stuck running around in your underwear instead.  Norris' nightmare turned into the Blazers' dream when his completely improbable jumper went through the net, providing a 115-113 victory and a 3-1 series win, etching his name forever in Portland lore.

Next up was Portland's old nemesis, the Los Angeles Lakers.  They had bounced the Blazers from their only other second-round appearance since '78, a 4-1 trouncing in 1982-83.  But that was before Vandeweghe and Drexler.  That was before Bowie.  That...that...that all didn't matter a bit.  The Lakers ran the Blazers 4-1 again.  The Lakers would get their championship that year.  The Blazers went back to the drawing board.

The Blazers didn't have their own pick in the 1985 draft, having traded it to Denver in the monster trade the year before.  They did have one leftover from an earlier trade sending point guard Kelvin Ransey to the Mavericks.   The now-departed Wayne Cooper was the immediate benefit of that trade.  The Blazers also got the Mavs' selection in the '85 draft, which turned out to be the 24th and final pick.  Expectations weren't stellar for the pick, being low, but popular opinion was that the Blazers needed frontcourt help.  Bowie hadn't exactly revolutionized the team and he had no legitimate backup.  Thompson and Carr were fine at power forward but more bigs couldn't hurt.  A collective groan went up when the Blazers chose a 6'3" guard from Wisconsin-Stevens Point.  Didn't the team have enough little guys with Valentine, Drexler, Paxson, and Vandeweghe?  How many more could they fit?  Plus the guy hadn't even played much guard for the small school.  At one point he was a center!  Nobody expected miracles with the pick but come on!  There were plenty of legit-sized centers still on the board!

The guard's name, of course, was Terry Porter.  Like Kersey he would go on to become one of the prime building blocks of Portland's next great era.

But before that the Blazers had 1985-86 to look forward to.  Aside from Porter's addition the lineup went largely unchanged.  The Blazers had made the second round--however improbably--and hopes were reasonably high that with Bowie's development alongside that potent offensive lineup the Blazers could spring forward even more.  Alas, those dreams would fall apart early.

The biggest event of the season was the loss of Bowie, victim of a broken leg.  Portland's Next Great Center played only 38 games.  In his absence the team faced an utter void in the middle.  Though Vandeweghe's scoring soared and Drexler continued to produce, the production of Thompson and Paxson slipped, in Paxson's case precipitously.  The '85-'86 season made quite clear that he and Drexler were not destined to work together.

Worse, in Bowie's absence Portland's already-shaky defense hit rock bottom.  Portland scored an impressive 115 points per game but allowed 114, barely breaking even.  Guarding only two players instead of four, opponent found the Blazers easy to stop in critical situations.  Portland seldom returned the favor.

The end result was a 40-42 record, even worse than the disappointing finish of the year before.  Though they limped into the playoffs even with the losing record, this year the Blazers found no Audie Norris finish.  The Denver Nuggets punted them from the first round 3-1, adding yet another name to the Suns, Kings, Sonics, and Lakers in the list of teams that Portland found themselves unable to beat in the post-season.  At this point it seemed like everybody was lining up to take their turn ousting the Blazers.  The team had talent but apparently no real chemistry and even less lasting success.

The 40-win season and playoff loss marked the end of the line for Jack Ramsay as Portland's head coach, severing the last on-court link between the team and its '77 title.  Through all the ups and downs of the post-championship years Ramsay had been the one constant.  But the failure to deliver after the massive Vandeweghe trade and growing tension with the suddenly-prominent Drexler (plus the natural tendency to look to the coach first when chemistry appears to be an issue) made Ramsay the obvious target.  During his tenure the Blazers won 453 games and one World Championship.  Now they'd step out of their comfort zone and head in a new direction.  It was a sad goodbye and the outlook ahead was uncertain.  Almost nobody guessed that the Blazers were actually on the cusp of their next great success.

Tomorrow: The Drexler Era

As always, feel free to share your memories of this time period in the comment section below.

--Dave (