The 1976-77 world champion Portland Trail Blazers were a miracle, born, like Gaia, spontaneously, from nowhere, from utter chaos.
In their first six seasons in the National Basketball Association, the Blazers had not won so much as a toaster oven at a church raffle. They had never made the playoffs. They had never finished above .500. Their promising redheaded big man was a frustrating hippie with bum knees, their leading scorer was a me-first gunner and their head coach was a dead man walking.
At the end of their seventh season, the Trail Blazers miraculously hoisted the NBA championship trophy. Their Finals MVP center basked in the love of devoted fans. Their players were universally hailed as artists of the selfless passing game. And their new head coach was the toast of the basketball world.
The renaissance had begun with an offseason bloodletting, as head coach Lenny Wilkens was fired and seven players from the 1975-76 team, including starters Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie, were let loose. It continued with an infusion of seven players handpicked by new head man Jack Ramsay and general manager Stu Inman, including forwards Maurice Lucas and Lloyd Neal and guards Dave Twardzik and Johnny Davis.
"We were a completely different team almost overnight," Bill Walton remembers. "It felt like we had nothing to do with what had come before." For Walton it meant a chance to start his NBA career over, to shake off two seasons marred by injury and finally live up to expectations. For Ramsay it simply, but critically, meant a slow team, in the blink of an eye, had gotten quick.
He still remembers the first training-camp scrimmage; the squeak of shoes on the floor, the whiz of the passes in the air; guys bursting off of picks and popping into gaps; Walton and Lucas firing outlet passes, Twardzik, Davis, Bob Gross and Lionel Hollins pushing the ball and filling lanes. He'd dreamt of this team, this game, seen it in his mind's eye, drawn it up in his notes. Now here they were, flesh and bone, sweat and speed, bringing his vision to life, playing the game at a graceful fever pitch, the ball almost never touching the floor, the baskets coming easy and often. "I stopped practice at one point," Ramsay says. "I could barely keep from laughing, I was so happy with what I was seeing. I knew, even before we'd played a game, what we had. 'Listen,' I said. 'If we play like this, we can win!'"
If Dr. Jack had the vision, Mo Lucas had the will. Soon after arriving in Portland from St. Louis and the ABA, Lucas took Walton and guard Herm Gilliam to dinner at Jake's, a popular local seafood joint. Walton remembers an easy, far-ranging conversation and the spark of camaraderie, but what he remembers most of all is saying goodbye that night: "We were in the street, and Mo reached out his hand for mine, and grabbed on, and looked right at me, right into my soul, and said, 'We're going to win. This year. We're going to win a championship. Now.'"
Lucas remembers the handshake as a kind of oath. "I wanted him to know I was serious," he says. "I felt like we had to make a commitment."
A championship season manifests in wins and losses, but it begins as an idea, as an article of faith. It's something you let yourself imagine, a way you let yourself think, and over time, a thing you believe. "It sounds strange, but I think we were open to believing it because we'd never won anything," Twardzik says. "Some of us were coming over from the ABA, some of us were fresh from the draft, some of us had been injured, and almost all of us had something to prove."
They were bound by this feeling. It was an unspoken understanding, communicated in glances and nods of the head, expressed in resolve and energy brought to the floor every night. They felt connected. They understood themselves to be part of a team, contributing to a collective goal. Before the season began, Dr. Jack had met with each player individually. Lucas remembers the coach's car rolling up to a basketball camp in the Poconos where Lucas was running a clinic. "He came to us as a man and treated us like men," he says. "He sat down with each of us and talked about our roles. He told us all how we would be part of things." There were no games. No worries or suspicions. The players were at home, comfortable in their own skins.
From such connection and comfort flows sacrifice. The team had stars in Walton and Lucas, but it didn't revolve around them. Ball movement and balance were the coins of the realm. "Everything was about blending," Hollins recalls. "Give it up, get it back, give and go. It was basketball in its purest form. The guy who was open got the ball." There were egos, no doubt, but the squad was young (the youngest team to ever win an NBA title; Davis was just 21 years old, Hollins and Gross were 23, and Walton and Lucas were 24) and moldable -- "We were unselfish by nature, and we completely bought in to coach Ramsay's system and passing game," Davis says -- and they saw the rewards of their unselfish style almost instantly.
In the sixth game of the 1977 season, they faced the Philadelphia 76ers at home. The Sixers were a Who's Who squad, stacked with name talent like Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Lloyd (later, World B.) Free and Darryl Dawkins. "They were on television every Sunday," Davis says. "Everything was 76ers." They scored in bunches. They intimidated opponents. They were odds-on favorites to win the NBA title, and they were precisely the sort of team the Portland Trail Blazers of old did not beat. But things were different with this team; this team had a philosophy, and talent, and speed to burn.
"We beat them by 42," Ramsay remembers. "Their heads were on swivels. They couldn't figure out who to guard and they couldn't keep up." There's a sort of bliss in such a night, a moment when what you do bleeds into who you are. When your movements feel unconscious and impossibly synchronized. Rowers talk about achieving an intense, rare sort of parallelism in which the boat seems to rise up out of the water and fly, on its own, across the surface. The Blazers' game at its best, the bigs grabbing and kicking to the guards, wings moving into free space, the ball glancing off the glass and into the net again and again, felt like such a flight, like something happening automatically, inevitably, almost supernaturally.
"We cut folks up, backdoored 'em, ran 'em, fundamentaled 'em to death," Davis says. Thirty years after the fact, the players still feel tingles of the buzz. "I can't describe it," Hollins says. "When we got going it was exhilarating. We felt powerful. We felt we could run forever. The hair on my neck stands up just thinking about it."
The Blazers rode such highs to a 49-33 regular-season record and a second-place finish in the Pacific Division, but they came into the playoffs unheralded. (The Lakers in the West and the 76ers in the East dominated the landscape.) Part of that was their unimpressive history, and part of it was their location. Portland was off the radar, tucked under cloud cover in the Pacific Northwest.
"Nobody was thinking about us," Walton says. "We were nobodies. But we knew we could play." And the locals knew it too. As the season rolled on and the wins piled up, Blazermania took hold of the city. Fans would line the streets leading away from Walton's house on game nights to cheer him on as he rode his bicycle to the arena. They baked the players cookies, left them flowers, and, as the team got deeper into the playoffs, began to gather at the airport to welcome them home after games on the road.
"The newspaper used to publish our flight schedule," Walton recalls. "Crowds would meet us in the middle of the night, hundreds of people." It's hard to say what the real value of fan support is to a team. It's hard to know for sure whether the heat of a crowd translates into anything at all. But to a man, the '77 Trail Blazers will tell you something special took place between them and their fans that season. It was palpable, they'll tell you. It hit them like a burst of adrenaline when they took the floor, they'll say. It pushed them, they'll swear, to ask more of themselves. "The only word I have for it is 'love,'" Ramsay says. "Just a tremendous mutual affection unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced since."
Maybe it was the us-against-the-world love affair that gave them their edge in the postseason. Maybe neglect and disrespect from the rest of the country, and often their opponents, fueled their resolve ("The Sixers were talking sweep, they gave us no respect," Lucas says). Whatever it was, down 0-2 to the 76ers in the Finals, the Blazers didn't flinch. "Dr. Jack called a meeting," Walton recalls. "He said we had nothing to worry about, that we hadn't played anywhere near where we could. He said he wasn't changing a thing. He just wanted us to be who we were and to remember what we do and why. Run, attack, fast break." And so they turned up the volume at home, with the Maniacs doing their thing in the stands, and the passing game and pressure defense doing its thing on the floor. And that was all it took.
As they'd done back in November, they took it to the headliners, left them standing still and all twisted in knots, winning the next four games by an average of 15-plus points (including a 32-point win in Game 4). Walton was dominant in the clinching Game 6, going for 20 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight blocked shots.
You hear words like euphoria and magic tossed around too casually in sports. We have a tendency to glorify moments for the sake of glory itself, to dress things up. But if you look back at images from the Trail Blazers' celebration -- Walton with his jersey off striding through the delirious crowd, some 200,000 turned out in the streets of Portland for the championship victory parade, Ramsay and his players hugging in the locker room under a shower of champagne -- you see something genuine, some pure bit of joy and surprise, some magical euphoria, frankly.
"Things felt so perfect," Walton says. "It was the best feeling I ever had in my life." It wasn't just what they'd done, but how they'd done it. They had come from nowhere to stand at the top of the heap. They had come together to accomplish something no one had thought possible. "That's the look you see on our faces," Davis says. "Satisfaction. Pride. We had an opportunity to do something special -- we knew that from very early on in the season -- and we did it. I can't tell you what that feels like. It's just so ... sweet."
The good feeling continued into the 1977-78 season. Boosted by confidence and even better chemistry, the Trail Blazers got off to a scorching 50-10 start. "We were very good in '77 but we were truly dominant the next season," Lucas says. "People looked scared facing us." The team was so young and talented, and having been tested at the highest level, they felt certain they would roll on to a second, maybe a third and fourth championship. Ramsay, a student of the game and someone who has earned the very highest respect of his peers, will utter the D-word when he thinks back on the team: "Yes, I think we could have been a dynasty."
But it didn't go like that. The wheels came off. Walton fractured his foot late in the '78 season and took a painkiller shot to try to come back in the playoffs, breaking the foot again. He was never the same. Bob Gross and Lionel Hollins went down with injuries, as well, and suddenly the team and the dream were dead in the water. "I'm holding the basket and there's not enough fruit in it," Lucas remembers. The unraveling continued. Walton and ownership got in a nasty fight over how his injuries were treated, and he demanded a trade. Lucas and others feuded with ownership over salary. "The owner, Larry Weinberg, wouldn't change any of the contracts and our guys for the most part were underpaid," Ramsay says. "It was damaging to team morale."
The decline of the team is, of course, well-chronicled in David Halberstam's brilliant "Breaks of the Game." For Halberstam, the late-'70s Blazers represent the dawning of the modern, commercialized game, when business concerns affect and often overwhelm almost everything related to basketball on the court. If the Blazers are indeed a watershed team, their 1977 incarnation was the last gasp of NBA innocence, a kind of fairy-tale club reveling in the game for the game's sake.
"We loved to play," Hollins says. "Our practices were as intense as our games. We just loved to go at it. The game was all we thought about." When such innocence dies, it dies hard, in a storm of bitterness. Players were angry at the way things went down, angry at Weinberg, angry at the fates. Something had been ripped from them. Potential, the future, had felt like a promise, like a ring on the table waiting to be snatched up and worn proudly, and then it was gone. "You never get over the loss of something so perfect, so close," Walton confesses. "You try to learn in life never to look back, and to remember that forgiveness will set you free, but that team, the way it ended, that's the hardest one for me."
It's 30 years ago now, and time has done what time does: Put things in perspective, soften the blows, heighten the high points. Every June 5, on the anniversary of their Game 6 win over the 76ers, Lloyd Neal calls his teammates to reminisce and celebrate. "It was a gray day when we went into the arena," he remembers. "But the sun was shining, bright blue sky, when we came out. Beautiful, beautiful day." Frustrated dreams of a dynasty derailed notwithstanding, the championship season means more to the players now than ever. "You don't know how precious it is at the time," Twardzik says. "You're young, you're on a high, you think there'll be more opportunities. But every year that passes I'm more grateful for having been a part of that team and that time."
At a reunion at this year's NBA All-Star game festivities in Las Vegas, it was clear the heart of the feeling, for all the players, was not the rings, was not even what Lucas called the rush of "knowing for one moment, for one season, that you are the very best at something," but rather the sense of connection between the men who claimed the title. They gathered as friends. They hugged and told stories, laughed and took pictures. Their time together 30 years ago was too brief, perhaps, but it was intense, and the relationships even now are charged with the excitement of it. "These guys are my family," Ramsay says, his arm around Lucas. "We will always be together."
"Together" is of course the key to what they were. Not a team dominated by a superstar center or high-power forward. Not a team trying to take you one-on-one. But a team built on the blend, on the old, maybe timeless (if you look at today's Spurs and Pistons) notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When they reflect these next couple of weeks, as some new champion is crowned, the thing they'll envy, the thing they'll understand as only few can, is that sensation.
"We had a good team. We were cohesive. But lots of teams are good and lots of teams stick together," Neal says. "What happened to us, and I can't shake it and I don't want to, is we came together into something more. That's all I can tell you. It was more."
Photos provided by: The Blazers, Bill Zavin, Paul Knauls, Gerry Lewin and Carla Perry
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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