Since the Portland Trail Blazers were founded in 1970, the franchise has been through plenty of ups and downs. This week we’re looking back at Blazers history, decade by decade, recounting and ranking each ten-year span. Today we look at the 1970’s, wherein the Blazers captured the only championship in franchise history, giving birth to the sweeping movement known as “Blazermania”.
Seasons: 1970-71 through 1979-80
Key Players: Geoff Petrie, Sidney Wicks, Larry Steele, Lloyd Neal, Bill Walton, Bob Gross, Lionel Hollins, Maurice Lucas
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Victories: 4
Best Record: 58-24 (1977-78)
Worst Record: 18-64 (1971-72)
The year 1970 saw a new phenomenon entering the consciousness of Portland, Oregon: NBA Basketball. Owner Larry Weinberg and top executive Harry Glickman had secured Portland’s place in the professional basketball world, bringing the Trail Blazers to down, putting the city on the map with cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Well...almost.
As is true of every new franchise, the early years of the Blazers’ tenure didn’t feature a lot of winning. They had to settle for 20-point games from sharpshooting draft pick Geoff Petrie—Portland’s first-ever draft pick and Rookie of the Year in 1970—and Sidney Wicks, who also won the Rookie award in 1972. Around Petrie and Wicks, the Blazers fielded plucky players, among them future head coach Rick Adelman. But Wicks and Petrie never gelled and the talent around them wasn’t plentiful. The Blazers did not reach .500 in any of their first six seasons.
Six losing years left the Blazers plenty of choice draft picks, however. Glickman and Director of Player Personnel Stu Inman spent that half-decade assembling one of the strongest young teams in NBA history. The Blazers snagged UCLA center Bill Walton with the first overall pick in 1974, Arizona State scoring guard Lionel Hollins with the 6th pick in 1975, then picked up bruising power forward Maurice Lucas in the 1976 dispersal draft after the American Basketball Association folded. Sifting deeper through the wreckage of the ABA, Portland acquired future Hall-of-Fame center Moses Malone by way of Atlanta, and point guard Dave Twardzik who would start for them most of the season. (After an appearance at training camp, Malone was moved to Buffalo for a pick and cash. Ouch.)
The final key addition in the summer of 1976 was Head Coach Jack Ramsay, a veteran campaigner who preached physical fitness, teamwork, and speed...approaches which fit his personnel like a glove.
Walton only appeared in half of Portland’s games his first two seasons, but in 1976-77 he was able to put in a solid 65. That was enough to propel Portland to the third best record in the West, at 49-33. The Blazers rolled through the first three rounds of the postseason, sweeping Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Considered underdogs against a Philadelphia 76ers squad led by Julius “Dr. J” Erving in the NBA Finals, Portland clawed back from a 2-0 series deficit to win four straight and capture the league crown. Game 6 of the 1977 NBA Finals, and the unforgettable call by radio broadcaster Bill Schonely, will remain etched in the minds of anyone who experienced them.
When the buzzer went off in that final contest, when the Portland Trail Blazers were champions of the world, a wave of hysteria swept the region whose echoes can be faintly felt even today. Every public rally and playoff run that followed has kindled the old flame.
No other team in NBA history had ever won a championship in their first playoff appearance, nor have any since. Portland’s “losing to laurels” journey remains unprecedented.
The Blazers’ red-hot play continued into the following season; they started out with a league-best 50-10 record. But disaster struck in February when Walton—who would be named MVP that season, the only time a Blazer has won the award—broke his foot. Injuries to other key players soon followed. The once-mighty team lost 14 of their last 22 games. They still finished with the best record in the West, earning a first-round bye, but lost in the conference semifinals to the Seattle SuperSonics in six games, a quiet end to a phenomenal season and, as it turned out, the championship era. Continued injuries would precipitate them to ground just as suddenly as they had skyrocketed.
The 1979-80 Blazers season was chronicled by David Halberstam in The Breaks of the Game. The book (thoroughly depressing for Blazers fans), examines the demise and the break-up of the championship team, which included severe infighting between Walton and Portland’s medical staff. The All-World center would sign as a free agent with the San Diego Clippers in May, 1979, slamming Portland’s championship window shut and nailing it to the sill.
While the decade ended on a sour note, it’s remembered with great fondness by Blazer fans, and for good reason. The championship banner that hangs in the Moda Center to this day is the crown jewel of the franchise. Between the birth of the team, Blazermania, and the NBA title, one could make the case that this was the best decade ever in Trail Blazers history. The short run of success and the acrimonious ending leave room for a final decade to edge it out. We’ll cover that tomorrow.
Timeline of Key Events
February 1970: Portland is granted a franchise by the NBA’s board of governors.
March 1970: The newly minted “Trail Blazers” draft Geoff Petrie with the 9th overall pick, making him the first player in franchise history.
October 1970: First regular season game in team history, a 115-112 win over fellow expansion team the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Spring 1971: Petrie named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
Spring 1972: Sidney Wicks named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, the second straight year a Blazer won the award.
April 1972: Blazers draft LaRue Martin first overall.
May 1974: Blazers draft Bill Walton first overall.
1975: Larry Weinberg becomes sole owner of team, buying out former partner Herm Sarkowsky.
June 1976: Jack Ramsay hired as Head Coach.
August 1976: Blazers select Maurice Lucas and Moses Malone in ABA Dispersal Draft.
June 5, 1977: Blazers win NBA championship, defeating Philadelphia 76ers in six games.
June 6, 1977: 150,000+ people jam downtown Portland for the celebratory parade, roughly half the population of the entire city.
February 1978: Walton breaks right foot with team standing at 50-10 through first 60 games.
Spring 1978: Walton named league MVP.
June 1978: Blazers draft Mychal Thompson first overall.
May 1979: Bill Walton signs with San Diego Clippers after sitting out a season in protest of Blazers medical staff.
What else do you remember about the 1970’s Trail Blazers? Do you agree with the ranking or should it have been first? Check in tomorrow to hear about the best decade in Blazer history!