Portland Trail Blazers fans might be surprised to learn that NBA history aficionados often view the 1970s as a “forgotten decade” for the league. Blazermaniacs remember the 1977 championship, Bill Walton’s MVP, and magical 50-10 start in 1978, but for fans outside of Portland the time between the Knicks’ title in 1973 and the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson era beginning in 1979 sparks few recollections.
In his book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete & the Birth of the Modern NBA, historian Adam Criblez endeavors to fill in readers’ memories by outlining the impact the 1970s had on the NBA.
Criblez reviews the entirety of the decade in great detail, highlighting both the on-court happenings around the league, as well as impactful off-court moments. His rundown of the 1977 season, for example, includes references to the referee strike as well as an explanation for why the league beginning marketing marquee matchups as “Star vs. Star” rather than “Team vs. Team.” Placing major moments, such as changes in marketing strategies, in the context of the 1970s on-court product helps prove to the reader that the overlooked ‘70s had major ripple effects that are still felt today.
The book is organized into 13 straightfoward chapters — one chapter for each season of play and three “Time-Outs” chronicling Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, and the ABA-NBA merger of 1976. The book’s greatest strength is how it distills each year into a highly readable summary. As a professional historian, Criblez is meticulous about mining for sources — at times it feels like he unearthed everything ever written about the NBA in the ‘70s. This attention to detail helps the reader feel confident that no major event was overlooked.
By nature (and by limitation of modern publishing constraints), it does take a survey view of the league, which may leave some readers wishing for more detail on particular topics. But that concern is mitigated by Criblez’s extensive footnoting. As I read, I often found myself making notes to look up the footnoted sources to find more details on particular topics, exposing me to many resources I would have never encountered otherwise. Overall, the book is one of the most comprehensive resources available for fans or history buffs looking for information about the NBA in the 1970s.
Criblez mentions the Blazers on many occasions, covering everything from the Sidney Wicks trade, to the infamous Kemper Open incident, to the impact that Walton’s injury had on the perception of the Bullets’ 1978 championship. Included below is an excerpt from his chapter on the 1976-77 season.
Even with West’s untimely retirement, the biggest transformation in the Pacific Division took place in Portland, not Los Angeles. A 27-55 record in the ’73-74 season and a coin flip that came up tails ‘earned’ the Blazers the first pick in the 1974 draft, used to select UCLA center Bill Walton. Even before Portland’s selection, there was a rush to sign Walton. The ABA struck first, desperately trying to lure the UCLA big man to their league. “Bill could have played for any ABA team he wanted,” ABA commissioner Mike Storen admitted. “There even was some talk of putting an ABA team in L.A. and calling them the L.A. Bruins or something and trying to get all the old UCLA stars together.” In the ABA, as one executive explained, “it isn’t who you draft. It’s who you sign. The draft is really just a formality.” Fortunately for Blazers fans, Walton decided he wanted to face the best big men in the business, turning down the ABA and singing with Rip City.[i]
Coaches and scouts unanimously agreed Walton was a once-in-a-generation talent. “I was with the Boston Celtics when Bill Russell came into the league,” Lakers’ Coach Bill Sharman recalled, “Walton is the same type of player.” Lenny Wilkens, the Blazers’ player-coach, also heaped praise on his redheaded center. “He reminds me of Oscar Robertson,” Wilkens said. “And in time, I think he may become what Oscar was – the most complete player in the game.” Even as a rookie, Walton possessed all the skills NBA scouts looked for. Listed at six-foot-eleven (Walton refused to be typecast as a seven-footer, even though he was probably seven-foot-two or -three), he towered over most opponents. He released his jump shot with a feathery soft touch and intimidated opponents with phenomenal timing to block countless shots. And perhaps most importantly, Walton was an excellent, and willing, passer, throwing long outlet passes rivaling those unleashed by Bullets’ center Wes Unseld. Walton flashed amazing potential in averaging twelve points, twelve rebounds, five assists, and three blocks per game as a rookie. Unfortunately, he also struggled with a litany of back and leg problems and, although fans expected Walton to walk away with the Rookie of the Year award, injuries kept him from walking much at all. Without Walton on the court, the Blazers had to rely on the combustible tandem of Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks. Wicks led the team in scoring and rebounding (earning a spot in the All-Star game) while Petrie chipped in eighteen points per game. Unbeknownst to Portland fans at the time, their team was on the cusp of greatness; unfortunately, Blazermaniacs had a few more years left of the Wicks-Petrie era before reaching the Promised Land.[ii]
McGinnis bombed, Free shot under 30% from the field and scored less than half his regular season total, and Portland fans became increasingly excited about the possibility of the city’s first major sports title. Although Blazermania was evident even before Game One (a Sixers win), a fight that broke out during Game Two set the tone for the rest of the series. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Sixers up by twenty, Blazers’ guard Herm Gilliam drove the lane and took a short shot, which huge Philly center Darryl Dawkins contested. Gilliam missed and Dawkins aggressively went after the rebound, pulling Portland’s Bobby Gross, along with the ball, to the floor in the process. Gross popped up and began pointing at Dawkins, cursing at the much taller man. Several Sixers grabbed Gross and held him back and the situation looked under control. But then, inexplicably, Dawkins charged at Gross and took a wild swing, connecting, instead, with his teammate Doug Collins, who required four stitches after the game to close the cut. Dawkins back-peddled away from the action…right into Maurice Lucas, who stunned the 250-pound “Chocolate Thunder” with a forearm strike to the back of his neck that would have made pro wrestler Chief Jay Strongbow proud. Dawkins stumbled and then whipped around, leading to an unintentionally hilarious moment in which both muscle-bound enforcers put up their dukes as if bareknuckle boxing. Dawkins juked and jived, doing his best Muhammad Ali impression, before Lucas threw three quick jabs in succession, none of which connected. Both benches cleared, fans spilled onto the court, and Julius Erving sat down on the floor, apparently disinterested in the whole affair. It took several minutes for Philly’s finest to clear fans and players off the court and restore order. The referees (real ones, not the replacement refs relegated to the opening rounds) tossed both Dawkins and Lucas and the game ended a few minutes later: Sixers 107, Blazers 89. In his rage, Dawkins destroyed the home locker room, caving in a toilet stall and smashing a wall fan. NBA officials levied $2,500 fines to Dawkins and Lucas, although neither was suspended. Looking back, the fight was a turning point in the series; the time the Blazers, considered the “softer” of the teams, stood up for themselves.[iii]
Before tip-off in Game Three, Lucas walked over to the Philadelphia bench and shook hands with Dawkins, letting fans and players from both teams know there were no hard feelings: it was time to focus on basketball. The Blazers demolished the Sixers in Games Three and Four in Portland, with Bobby Gross blanketing Julius Erving as Walton, Lucas, and Hollins provided the offensive fireworks to tie the series at two games apiece. Game Five, in Philadelphia, also went to Portland (Blazers 110, Sixers 104) as Gross scored a team-high 25 points to send the series back to Oregon where the Blazers hoped to finish off the Sixers at home.
Bedlam reigned in Portland before Game Six. Businesses closed early and fans crowded around TV sets to watch a potentially series-clinching win. Television ratings showed that ninety-six percent – yes, ninety-six percent – of Oregonians watching TV that night tuned in to Game Six. The streets of Portland also flooded with fans, even before the Blazers survived with a 109-107 win. As George McGinnis’ last-second game-tying shot went awry, radio listeners could barely hear Bill Schonley scream “the game is over! The game is over!” above the roar of the crowd. While CBS immediately switched to coverage of the Kemper Open golf tournament, deliriously happy Portland fans celebrated long into the night, honking their car horns to the staccato beat of “we’re number one.”
Portland’s mayor declared the day after the Game Six win “Trail Blazer Day” and hosted a celebration for the team, drawing upwards of 250,000 fans downtown – the largest public gathering in the state’s history. A parade stretched along the city streets and, as one Blazermaniac remembered, “the people were reaching out to touch and grab the conquering heroes as if they were gods.” The tallest of the gods, Bill Walton, rode his bicycle to the festivities, only to have it stolen. So when Walton took his turn on the microphone to address the crowd at the victory celebration, he asked if “whoever took my bike [could] please bring it back. It’s the only one I have,” adding that “if anyone out there has any more beer, please pass it up here.” Supplied with a cold brew, though still lacking his bike, Walton poured part of the beer on Portland’s mayor. No one cared. Blazermania was in full bloom.[iv]
[i] Terry Pluto, Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 223; Jim O’Brien, “ABA Draft Reveals Pickers’ Lack of Homework,” The Sporting News, 4 May 1974, 45.
[ii] Neil Andersen, “What Bill Walton Means to the Trail Blazers,” Basketball Digest, Feb. 1975, p. 22, 24.
[iii] Bob Robinson, “The Turning Point,” in Matt Love, ed. Red Hot, 79.
[iv] Colton, Idol Time, 41; Love, “A Vortex of Past Blazer Time,” 113.
Tall Tales and Short Shorts was published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of their “Sports Icons and Issues in Popular Culture” series. The book is available on Amazon and through other retailers (holiday shopping for NBA fans, made easy!).
Adam Criblez can be found on Twitter (@adamcriblez) regularly interacting with other NBA history aficionados.