The Los Angeles Lakers have traditionally evoked bitter and heartbreaking reactions from Portland Trail Blazers fans. Name one NBA franchise that Portland would like to beat over and over, and L.A. would top the list. But the bright lights of Hollywood shouldn’t obscure one of the team’s other famous rivalries over the years. Before the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, the Blazers and Sonics were separated by a mere 174 miles, leading to a natural competition between the clubs, and their respective fanbases, that lasted nearly four decades.
There were a number of memorable moments between the two I-5 adversaries over that time, so let’s take a walk down memory lane and remember the good (and bad) times.
The Late 1970s
1977-79 was unquestionably the zenith of professional basketball in the Pacific Northwest. After the Blazers won the championship in 1977, they looked poised to repeat after an incredible start to the 1978 season. Portland won 50 of their first 60 games before disaster struck. All-NBA center Bill Walton hurt his his foot, and subsequent injuries to Lloyd Neal and Bobby Gross saw the Blazers limp into the playoffs.
The upstart Sonics, featuring the likes of Gus Williams, “Downtown” Freddie Brown, and Jack Sikma, were able to take advantage. After the Blazers earned a first-round bye, Walton made a comeback in the team’s second round matchup against Seattle. He re-injured his foot in Game 2, ultimately his final game in Portland’s uniform. The Sonics would win the series in six games and go on to make it to the NBA Finals, losing to the Washington Bullets, before exacting revenge the following season for the only championship in franchise history.
Here’s a look back at Game 6 of the 1978 Blazers/Sonics series, complete with vengeful Seattleites relentlessly booing Dave Twardzik every time he touched the ball, the result of an altercation between he and Sonics guard Dennis Johnson in the previous game:
The Early 1990s
Though the Blazers and Sonics faced each other in two more playoff series in the 1980s, things wouldn’t really heat up again until the 1990-91 season. Early that year, the Blazers would overcome a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Sonics in triple overtime. This would become a precursor for an exciting playoffs series the coming spring:
In the 1991 Playoffs, the top-seeded Blazers, who finished the regular season with a franchise record 63 wins,faced the eighth-seed Sonics. Seattle featured a very young Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. The Blazers took the first two games at the Memorial Coliseum, but the Sonics won both games in Seattle to force a decisive fifth game, which the Blazers won 119-107. That year Portland went on to lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Here’s a look back at the highlights from the Blazers/Sonics 1991 first round matchup:
The 2007 NBA Draft Lottery
The era that was supposed to become the next chapter in the exciting rivalry never materialized. With the Blazers and Sonics securing the top two spots in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Pacific Northwest was once again the center of the professional basketball universe. The reign proved brief, as the draft became the last real moment of the rivalry. Portland selected center Greg Oden out of Ohio State with the first overall pick, allowing Seattle to snag Texas forward Kevin Durant with the second. Injuries derailed Oden’s career before it began. After Durant’s rookie season in Seattle, the team departed to Oklahoma City.
Though the Blazers and Sonics didn’t have the fiercest of rivalries, their memorable showdowns became a compelling chapter in the history of both franchises. If professional basketball returns to the Emerald City in the near future, we could very well see a rekindling of a competition between the fond old foes soon enough.
What are your favorite memories of the I-5 Rivalry? How badly do you want a team back in Seattle? Let us know in the comments!