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The History of the Portland Trail Blazers: The Championship Era Part 2

Blazer's Edge reminisces about the history of the Portland Trail Blazers. Next up: 1978, as we bear witness to Bill Walton's fall, and the collapse of the greatest Blazer team in history.

They're still arguing over who was better.
They're still arguing over who was better.

The key thing to understand about '77-'78 is that aside from the long-time faithful, most Blazer fans didn't know the team in any other way than as champions.  Prior to the miraculous title run interest in the team had been tepid.  Legions of fans had come on board during the 1977 post-season, their first exposure to the team (and in many ways NBA basketball) coming with a title in tow.  The championship wasn't as much an event or achievement as an identity.  The Blazers were the only NBA champions the majority of Portland fans had known.  Success was their only experience.

The team did nothing but confirm that identity during the first part of the season.  They were all but unconquerable, compiling a 42-8 record in their first 50 games.  Portland's homecourt mystique continued throughout that run, as the Blazers lost no games at home during their first 50.  Scoring 6 points in 13 seconds to steal a game from the visiting Chicago Bulls on January 3rd, 1978 seemed to confirm what everybody suspected:  this team could not be beaten in Portland by talent, skill, luck, or any combination thereof.  They were fated to go down as one of the best teams of all time and repeat as champions.

Still a young child with a correspondingly early bedtime, I remember slinking off to sleep during the first half of many home games, disappointed not to be riding along with Bill Schonely as he painted the team's victories in vivid color.  I soon discovered that both our kitchen and living room had heating vents which connected to the one in my room.  By pressing my ear against the vent and listening hard I could hear the radio call through the conduits as my parents listened.  It became my practice to curl up on the floor with a blanket and follow until the games ended, trying not to let slip that I already knew the result the next morning.

Blazermania raged strong throughout the city as well.  The Blazers started and ended many conversations.  Kids took up basketball like never before.  Any art project or writing assignment was likely to turn Blazer-themed as at least 50% of the classroom wove the team into their work.  Everyone wanted to see, hear, touch, and BE the Blazers.  It's hard to imagine any astronaut, president, or celebrity receiving as much adulation as Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins, and the rest of the team did in those days.  Nothing was bigger.

Sadly, Portland fans were about to experience an unimaginable fall.  It would strike at the heart of the team and leave it changed for a generation or more.  The exit from Eden was nigh, the catalyst for thorns and hard times being Bill Walton's right foot.

Click through for a recounting of the end of the Trail Blazers' 1977-78 season and the enduring legacy of the Championship Era.

On February 28th, 1978 the Portland Trail Blazers dream season came to an end.  Sadly, twenty-two games remained on the official schedule.  Nobody knew it at the time, but an era was about to be ushered out.

A few minutes into a Tuesday night game against the Philadelphia 76'ers--holders of the second best record in the league behind Portland--Bill Walton would roll his ankle and exit the game.  The Blazers cruised to an easy victory that night even without their Big Man. Ironically it wasn't the ankle that sidelined Walton permanently but nerve damage in his right foot, on which he received an operation during his ankle-inspired down time.  Due to complications he would not return for the remainder of the regular season.  The Blazers were 50-10 when Walton went down.  They finished the season with an 8-14 record, still good enough to earn a bye during the first round of the playoffs but concerning nonetheless.

Despite this, optimism remained high.  The Blazers had earned the bye in the first round.  Walton had plenty of time to recover and was expected to play at some point in the Conference Semifinal series which turned out to be against the Seattle Supersonics.  The Blazers still had their fabled homecourt.  They had faced longer odds and lower expectations the year before and come out triumphant.  Why would this be any different?

Besides this, in the eyes of Portland fans the Blazers still had plenty of talent.  Maurice Lucas was still amazing.  Lionel Hollins was an All-Star.  Bobby Gross, Dave Twardzik, and Larry Steele were as well-known and popular in Portland as many legitimate home-team All-Stars were in other cities.  The Blazers even had a decent replacement for Walton in center Tom Owens.  Portland would come to be known as a town that knows its basketball, that appreciates a hard-fought rebound or well-set pick as much as a sweet swish.  Blazer fans as a whole had not yet reached that level of sophistication yet, though.  The effect of their fandom was similar but causality was inverted.  Blazer fans didn't yet fully appreciate the offensive rebound and thus root for their players because they provided them.  Rather Blazer fans rooted for their players and thus appreciated offensive rebounds because that's what some of their heroes did.  It was the best avenue to elevate and celebrate the lesser-known members of the team.  It also caused fans to overestimate the abilities of those lesser-known players...or rather the effect of their abilities on the game.   No matter the opponent, these Blazers could hold the fort until Walton came back and then all would be right with the world.

The Seattle Supersonics announced different intentions by defeating the Blazers handily in Game 1, Portland's first home playoff loss ever.  Worry started to creep into Portland's consciousness.  This was not according to the plan.  The Blazers were supposed to steal games from their opponents, not the other way around.  And the air rushing out of the homecourt balloon was audible.  Nevertheless there were still six games left.  Portland would win Game 2 but lose Games 3 and 4 in Seattle, the latter by only 2 points.  Again this looked like an inversion of the year prior when close games nearly always went to Portland.  The Blazers pulled out Game 5 at home, crawling back to a 2-3 deficit.  They had to win one in Seattle to force a Game 7, a game which the Portland faithful had no doubt their team would win.  They never got the chance.  Portland couldn't come close in Seattle, falling 105-94 to the triumphant Sonics.  Bill Walton had played in just two games and had little effect.  The road to glory had ended abruptly at a cliff.

I remember the final moments ticking down in that game.  My clearest memory is the sick feeling of knowing that a comeback was impossible with the amount of time left, watching the clock spell unimaginable doom.  It wasn't so much sadness as disbelief.  There was a hole the size of Crater Lake in my stomach when the final horn sounded.  I left the room stunned and walked around in a daze for at least a couple days afterwards.  As an adult looking back I now know that the reaction was similar to that one experiences after a death.  I am not in any way equating the seriousness of those disparate events.  Looking back on my reaction I understand that as a child the way I responded to the Blazers losing was the same way I would have responded to a death in the family:  silence, confusion, knowing that something inevitable and bad had happened that I was powerless to stop and couldn't understand fully, let alone process.  I say this because I believe that most Blazer fans felt something similar in those moments.  The reaction wasn't anger or sadness as much as shock, disbelief, and wondering what just happened and why.

The fallout of that what and why would not be felt fully until the next season began, properly the start of a new era as the Blazers' championship hopes ended here.  (Though faithful fans would be slow to realize it.)  That story belongs in the next installment.  But before we leave the Championship Years a couple of reflections:

First, the extended high and brief, crashing low of this era was as intense and glorious as anything you'll find in sports.  Even searching back through memories and retelling parts of the story I'm taken back to the amazing life and tragic end of those teams.  I can still feel the emotion, filtered now through analogous experiences outside of the field of sports:  births an deaths, marriages and divorces, wonderful vacations and difficult illnesses.  Those early Blazer emotions became the building blocks for me to understand the beauty and tragedy of life.  Even for those who were older and more jaded I can't help but think that these events touched deep in the well of emotion, proving almost archetypal.  We were so innocent and so open when the title came.  We were just as open and defenseless when the dagger plunged the next year.  We didn't understand fully what had been given us before it was taken away.  We proudly adopted the identity of Champion and lost it within a year, sent on a long search for another identity just as good to replace it...a search which has yet to succeed fully to this day.

Second, it's amazing how many building blocks of Blazer fandom were formed in this brief period.  How basic tenets now inherent in the culture took root during this time?

  • The belief that anything can happen.  Lightning in a bottle is a real phenomenon and pathological optimism is the best welcome for it.
  • The sense that great fans make a difference, actually affecting the outcome of home games.
  • Enmity for the Lakers.
  • Enmity in a slightly lesser sense for the Sonics.
  • Belief in the contibutions of lesser-known players, sometimes to the point of over-valuing them.
  • Belief in the power of coaching.
  • Trust in, and celebration of, a team more than a given star, sometimes to the point of suspicion towards flashy scorers.
  • The identity as small-town underdog, capable of grabbing the brass ring but always frustrated, sometimes preferring that identity to that of perpetual "winners" like the Lakers.
  • A chronic fear of the injury bug, particularly as pertains to centers.

Other than the conviction that referees have it in for the team, we've listed just about every touchstone of Blazer Belief in those bullet points.  The legacy of 1976-1978 has not left Portland fans for good or ill.

As always we invite you to share your reflections of, and experiences from, the 1977-78 season in the comment section.  Fill in the gaps and enhance the narrative with your own stories!

Tomorrow: The Post-Championship Era

--Dave (