The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 24 | Billy Ray Bates
Games Played with Blazers: 168 Regular Season, 6 Postseason
*PTS: 12.3 | AST: 2.0 | REB: 1.8 | FG%: 47.4%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: February 1980, signed as a free agent
Departed Club: September 1982, waived
Place in History: By the early 1980’s the Trail Blazers’ formerly-bright championship aspirations were long past them. Still, they were accustomed to...certain things. Head Coach Jack Ramsay coached a particular style of basketball. It involved five players, ball movement, unselfishness. It was almost dignified.
Then, in the winter of 1980, came Billy Ray Bates. Like Kevin Bacon haughtily dancing in front of the local preacher, like Robin Williams tearing up poetry books with a mighty YAWP, like Jack Black teaching a band class to rock, Bates took Portland by storm. He didn’t pass; he shot. He didn’t cut; he charged. He didn’t just hit the open cutter; he was the open cutter, hitting the rim with a meteoric dunk. Billy Ray Bates was a one-man fireworks show at the opera, and the town loved him for it.
As a midseason, 10-day-contract signing, Bates barely got playing time his first few weeks in Portland. On March 14th, 1980, he scored 14 on the Milwaukee Bucks in 15 minutes. People said, “Hmmm.” The next game he put 26 on the Chicago Bulls in 20 minutes. People said, “HMMMMMM!!!!!”
Yeah, Billy was staying.
Bates would average 16 points for the remainder of the season, then score 29, 20, and 26 in three playoffs games against the Seattle Supersonics that spring. Playing on national TV, he put up 26 points per game, shooting 52.5%, against the current World Champions.
People went, “WUBBAWUBBAWUBBAWUBBA WHOOOGAAAH WHAT???!?!?!?” The legend of Billy Ray was born.
Bates did not score his points quietly either. He took as many dribbles in one possession as the entire team did in a quarter. He soared so high and glided so far that people didn’t care that Skylab might be falling, they were too busy watching the meteor burn behind Billy Ray.
As loudly as fans cheered, as many shot attempts as he got, nobody believed in Billy Ray Bates more than Billy Ray Bates. The coins in his pocket said, “In my jumper, I trust.” He would launch it anytime, against anyone. It wasn’t complex. If he was open, he’d shoot. If he wasn’t open, he’d take a couple hard power dribbles, elevate, and then he was open to shoot. Any space he couldn’t clear laterally, he’d create vertically, with the leap. It ain’t rocket science.
The video below shows Bates’ performance in the Sonics series. Seattle started Dennis Johnson at shooting guard. That’s ring-bearing Dennis Johnson. All-Defensive First-Team five years straight Dennis Johnson. Later-to-be-with-the-Boston-Celtics Dennis Johnson. 2010 Hall-of-Famer Dennis Johnson. He might as well have not been there when Bates had the ball.
When the interviewer Brent Musburger asks, “Billy, don’t you know who Dennis Johnson is?” Bates responds, “Yes. I’ve heard of him.” There’s not a drip of sarcasm in his voice. There’s no awe either. It’s, “People keep saying that name. Please tell me how this is supposed to affect me?”
Though the Blazers fell to the Sonics, Billy Ray was locked and loaded for 1980-81. He still wasn’t a full-time player. He became Portland’s not-so-secret weapon, administered in 20-minute doses each night. His scoring average of 13.8 per game that year seems modest until you consider that he did it on 49% shooting and that his production works out to—PARDON ME—24.5 points per 36 minutes.
Once again, Bates ramped up on the way to the 1981 playoffs. On March 15th he pasted 35 on the Dallas Mavericks with 12-16 shooting. On the 29th he scored 40 against the San Diego Clippers on 16-23 shooting. All totaled, Bates had 7 outings of 25 or more points that year. He only reached 30 minutes in two of them.
Bates did even better in the 1981 playoffs than he had in 1980. He posted 26.6 per game on 56.5% shooting with 4 assists in three outings against the Kansas City Kings. Hardly anybody in team history has even approached the numbers Bates put up in his two playoffs runs. Nobody has exceeded them.
The official line on Billy Ray was that the league eventually caught up to him, that defenders learned his tendencies and shut him down. His stats don’t indicate that. He got fewer minutes per game in his third season than in his previous two, but he still shot 47% and averaged the same points per minute. As he, himself, later confessed, he was struggling to cope with money and fame, sinking into alcohol abuse. This would continue after the Blazers released him at the end of 1982 (having not made the playoffs), through brief stops with the Bullets and Lakers, and then in the Philippines where he became a major star.
Following his playing career, Bates was sentenced to seven years for robbing a gas station at knifepoint. He was released, violated parole for drug use, and has since undergone rehab. He was inducted into the Philippine Basketball Association’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
Bates’ legacy in Portland is one of excitement, a story of hope fulfilled, but only temporarily. He came out of nowhere, hit like a meteor, then disappeared into relative obscurity. His three seasons in Portland whetted the appetite for Clyde Drexler, who would arrive the very next year, and set the table for the style of play that would become popular in the late 1980’s through the 90’s.
Nobody in team history has ever produced so much in so little actual time on the floor as Billy Ray Bates did. The minutes may have been brief, but he certainly poured everything into them. For that, and for the incomparable thrills he gave along the way, Bates gets the 24th spot in our list of Top 100 Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Share your memories and thoughts of Billy Ray Bates here, and stick with us as we continue the countdown towards #1.