The secret weapon of the Portland Trail Blazers is 6 feet 9 inches, weighs 250 pounds and is about as subtle as an earthquake. Some call him Audie Norris, but those who know him best say that when Norris is unleashed, he becomes something else.
Then, he is the Atomic Dog.
Kids love him, other teams hate to see him, rival coaches would like to see him stuffed, and at times, his coach doesn’t know when he’ll see him at all.
That has put Norris in the atomic doghouse for several spells this season. On one occasion, Portland Coach Jack Ramsay had to send police over to Norris’ house to wake him up.
Since the Atomic Dog received his wake-up knock at 7:30 p.m., this could not be regarded as a cat nap.
“I should have given the Atomic Dog an atomic alarm clock,” said teammate Mychal Thompson, who is responsible for giving Norris his nickname.
Thompson named Norris after the title of a dance tune, although not because of the lyrics.
“The funky, funky beat,” Thompson said.
Well, of course. There is definitely something funky about Norris’ beat, all right. Those who have played against the Atomic Dog, or just plain Dog to his friends, claim that this Dog’s bite is worse than his bark.
His reputation is that of a bruiser, a pusher and a shover.
“Sure, he’s a brute,” Thompson said. “That’s his game, pushing people around. He’s Charles Barkley west. But that’s not all. We’re talking about a guy who has the body of a refrigerator and the grace of a swan.”
That is quite a combination, but Norris is a fully equipped Audie. He says he is actually a fine offensive player loaded with finesse who just happens to be trapped inside the body of a mugger.
If push comes to shove, or even when it doesn’t, the Atomic Dog can beat you in ways that don’t leave bruises.
When the Trail Blazers eliminated Dallas in the fifth playoff game, Norris was the one who sank the winning basket in the final seconds.
“The Atomic Dog dropped the atomic bomb,” Thompson said.
So it happens that the Trail Blazers are face to face with the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers will try to go 2-0 in the best-of-seven series tonight at the Forum, where once again the focus is on the big men, generally regarded as the key to the series.
If that’s true, then the Atomic Dog might really have his day. Norris thinks so.
“I’m the secret weapon in this series,” he said. “I usually have a good game against the Lakers, if I get the chance to play some minutes. A lot of players don’t expect me to come in and do what I can do.”
Norris is a third-year pro from Jackson State, where he used to refine his jump shot in pickup games with the Short brothers, Purvis and Eugene. In college, Norris was a scorer as well as a rebounder. He averaged 16.1 points and 10.6 rebounds at Jackson State, but he also led the team in assists as a junior.
Ramsay, however, doesn’t need Norris as a scorer, so he has put Norris into the rebounder-defender role that Kurt Rambis plays with the Lakers.
Norris plays only about 14 minutes a game on the average, but this season he averaged a career-high 5.1 points with 3.3 rebounds. He also fouled out more times than anyone on the team except Sam Bowie, who played about 1,000 more minutes.
The Atomic Dog has one year left on his four-year contract that earned for him $110,000 this season. Although none of the years are guaranteed, there is one thing of which you can be sure when Norris is around.
“People say the Trail Blazers are not physical,” Norris said. “Well, not everybody is like that. Take the Lakers. This team doesn’t like to be bumped, but I love that type of ball.
“I think other teams would rather see me sitting on the bench than on the court,” he said.
Abdul-Jabbar would rather not see Norris at all, given the choice. He has had disagreements with Norris before about--how do you say it?--the lack of subtlety in the Atomic Dog’s game.
Norris, however, said Abdul-Jabbar really respects his style, probably somewhere way down deep.
“I don’t play a game where I try to strong-arm him or nothing,” Norris said. “I just play hard defense.
“This series is a very good chance for people to get to know Audie Norris,” he said. “In the playing time I’ll be getting, I’ll try to be as physical as I can. If I do, a lot of people will pay more attention to Audie Norris and his style of basketball.”
There is certainly more to his style than what is visible on the basketball court. When the Trail Blazers visit children’s hospitals, Norris is the most popular attraction. Fans send Norris all sorts of stuffed dogs, which he says have nearly filled his house.
Thompson, whose locker is next to Norris’, claims that off-the-court, the Atomic Dog is something you might not expect him to be.
“A real pussycat,” Thompson said. “It’s a good thing, too. If Dog wanted to take out scores of human beings with his bare hands, he could.”
When he sits on the bench, Norris said he plays the game in his head. He sees himself scoring points and getting rebounds and blocking some shots. Then he remembers he’s still sitting down.
“Nobody wants to be chained to the bench,” Norris said.
That’s no way to treat your Atomic Dog.
Laker Notes Tipoff for Game 2 will be 7:30 p.m. at the Forum, where the Lakers have won 20 consecutive games, including playoffs. The last time the Lakers lost at home was Jan. 30 to Houston. . . . The Lakers have won 10 straight games, four of them in the playoffs, and they have also beaten Portland 10 consecutive times in the Forum, dating back to the 1983 playoffs. . . . No team has come within 16 points of the Lakers in the playoffs. . . . The Lakers have outscored Phoenix and Portland by an average of 21 points a game and are shooting 56.8%. . . . Portland’s Kiki Vandeweghe, held to 18 points in Game 1, leads the Trail Blazers in scoring with a 24.2 average. . . . Clyde Drexler leads Portland with 41 assists in five playoff games, and Magic Johnson has 54 in four playoff games. . . . Laker Coach Pat Riley has 38 playoff victories; Portland’s Jack Ramsay has 41. Riley’s playoff winning percentage of .704 (38-16) is the highest in NBA history.