Fanpost Contest—1977 Trailblazers: A Soldier's Story

I come from a line of patriots. Both my grandfathers were soldiers in World War I. My father was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II.

Dad instilled in my brothers and me the costly yet worthy price of freedom. He encouraged us to find ways to serve our countryto find an honorable expression of our gratitude for living in a nation of freedom and safety.

It was natural for us to respond to that call through military service during the turbulent days of the late 1960's. In spite of the self-serving politics and divisive energy of those times, we were (and still are) convinced that freedom is not merely an American ideal, but is attainable for any people yearning to be free...

I returned from Vietnam in 1970. I knew there would be no parade. I was told to expect a few insults and was encouraged to wear civilian clothing while off duty, in public.

Even with that warning, nothing prepared me for what I experienced as I stepped off the bus in my little southern Oregon hometown. I guess it was the hollow, thousand-yard stare which gave me away as another fresh returnee from the combat zone.

My very entrance into a coffee shop or pizza parlor prompted abrupt silence and/or stares of contempt. Patrons would part like the Dead Sea as I made my way to a table. They either hated me for what I had done or feared me for what I might do.

What had become of my homeland?

Only the unconditional acceptance of my family and closest friends got me through those first days of my return.

Rejection and betrayal cut my soul more deeply and healed much more slowly than any wounds to my body. I began to withdraw from society.

With an ever-increasing heaviness my countenance became darker and more downcast. I let my hair and beard grow in an attempt to hide the person even I was now beginning to hate.

My return to "the world" held a few more surprises: I discovered we had landed a man on the moon and Portland had a new professional basketball team.

As a former athlete, I instinctively responded with interest to the latter. They were the Portland Trailblazers and I began to follow their games on the radio. As the first real professional sports franchise in Oregon, they quickly became "my team".

In the years that followed, though they were perennial losers, I looked forward to the winter months when I could tune in to hear my Trailblazer games. In a way, we shared a similar path: bottom-feeders, with little respect, seemingly going nowhere.

Then, in 1974 the Blazers acquired through the draft, the three-time college MVP from UCLA, Bill Walton. He was a shy, tall redhead (like me) with an independent counter-culture streak.

With his red ponytail and paisley headdress, he became my hero.

It took Walton a couple NBA seasons to really come into his own. With the addition of rookie Lionel Hollins in 1975, the team began to show signs of a better future. Those two foundational pieces joined the likes of Lloyd Neal, Bobby Gross and Larry Steele. I became immersed in the Trailblazers and, in a vicarious way, began to ride with them into that bright future.

As I developed a healthy infatuation for such a positive force, the talons of my personal demons began to loosen their grip.

In 1976, Maurice Lucas and "Pinball" Dave Twardzik came to Portland in the ABA dispersal draft. Under the direction of new coach Jack Ramsey, the team improved dramatically. They recorded their first winning season at 49-33 and...and...made the playoffs!

I crept out of the shadows and began to notice other Trailblazer fans around town. The Vietnam War had officially ended in 1975 and though it's echoes had not faded for me, it seemed the town-folk - indeed the nation - was ready to heal.

No one really expected the Blazers to go far in the playoffs. But they quickly dispatched the Chicago Bulls in a short, three-game series.

The next round featured the former ABA Denver Nuggets. Surprisingly, Portland prevailed.

A fevered frenzy was developing in the Northwest as the underdog Trailblazers faced the mighty Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his Lakers in the conference finals.

In my parallel world, that fever/frenzy was like a healing balm.

The Laker series was over in four games - and it wasn't the Blazers who whimpered home with their tail between their legs.

All over Oregon (and parts of Washington and California) Trailblazer fans were coming out of the woodworkand I was coming out of my shell. The infectious outbreak of what was now being called Blazermania was the best sickness I had ever succumbed to. It seemed that with each escalating level of success the Trailblazers enjoyed, I was able to peel off another layer of confining darkness.

This was new, uncharted territory for the aptly named Trailblazers. Having never been to the playoffs before this year, they literally did not know how to act in the NBA finals. They faced the power from the East, Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers.

Dr. J and crew quickly put Portland in a 2-0 hole on their home court. That sinking feeling hit meand all of Blazer fandom. Old doubts and feelings of inferiority pressed against me. It didn't matter that the Blazers had come so close to the ultimate victory. Old voices taunted me from a place across the ocean, "We won't allow you to win. You're a loser".

An eerie silence fell over Blazer Nation. It was almost as if we'd forgotten Blazermania...

Until game day in the City of Roses. Oh, yeah...

It was two games, two blowouts. The series was tied.

It was crazy madness in the Coliseumand in front of every TV and radio in the state!

Historians tell us the fans won those two home games, but it was the team itself who fought for and earned the victory in game five in Philly.

I can't tell you what it meant for me personally, as my alter-ego won that game on foreign soil. Not only was it a tremendous symbolic victory for me - it set up the possibility of winning the championship at home.

As every true Trail Blazer fan knows, the rest is history. Portland won the World Championship on that hot, June day in 1977. The bedlam poured out of Memorial Coliseum and into the streets of every city in Oregon.

In my little town, we all became one that day. The jagged, tense edges of our differences didn't seem to matter anymore. I decided, in the glow of victory, if I could lay down my pain on this day, then why not tomorrow, and the next day...?

It was a catalytic spark which started the chain reaction to my eventual healing.

A rush of emotion overwhelmed me. It broke through the logjam of poison I had crammed inside all those years. A torrent of release brought tears I thought would never end.

In an indirect, yet very real way, this was my homecoming.

As a fan, I have never been more proud of a rag-tag bunch of misfits who played and won as a team—seemingly just for me.

(originally written November, 2008)