CAN IT EVER BE THE SAME? : Injuries to 7-Foot-1 Center Sam Bowie and Others Have Somewhat Cooled Spark in Portland Called Blazermania

Times Staff Writer

It's been popular to believe that this is the little team that could, except that, ever since 1977, when it last won a National Basketball Assn. championship, it's been the team that never does.

Bad break (left leg) after bad break (right leg) after bad break (oh, them bones), not to mention the odd playoff swoon, have cooled Blazermania all the way down to a sizzle.

Oh, sure, they still sell out the Coliseum--462 straight as of today, believed to be a record for pro sports--but that is not quite the trick it might be somewhere else. There is not, as they say, a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar.

"Only game in town," shrugs Maurice Lucas, returned to the Trail Blazers this season to remind patient locals of the glory year.

With that in mind, Lucas is properly skeptical of this apparent loyalty, so-called Blazermania. He senses, in fact, an impending consumer backlash as ticket prices go up and the Blazers keep, uh, not going up.

"They've tasted the waters at the end of the river," he explained, employing a metaphor that is all too appropriate for this moistness. "They relished it and enjoyed it. And . . . "

They're thirsty again?

It's been more than a decade since Portland last had use of the ol' metaphorical dipper.

In that time, Lucas has gone and come. An entire team--five players, anyway--was once traded for a player who simply could shoot from beyond 10 feet. A franchise player, the calcium-low center who was supposed to be able to post up Mt. Hood, will have averaged little more than 25 games a season over four years.

And the Lakers keep leading their division. Every year.

If this is the only game in town, it had better start getting better.

Club officials argue that the Trail Blazers sold out quicker than ever this season, largely on the promise of a 49-win season a year ago under new Coach Mike Schuler. That was the same number of wins as in the last championship season, which was Jack Ramsay's debut. Parallels were drawn.

But another 1-3 showing in last spring's playoffs and subsequent disappointments this season--still injury-prone, they linger well below the Lakers--have given ticket-holders pause.

"I came here at the tail end of Blazermania," says Jim Paxson, a nine-year veteran. "I remember when they'd be on their feet at the introductions. They're waiting for us to excite them. They keep seeing ticket prices go up and yet they never see us get beyond the first round."

A guy comes home from a hard day logging and he doesn't want to be reminded of lumbering, you know what we mean? Come the playoffs, these guys go down faster than fir trees on non-government land. The last two seasons, they've failed to survive the first round.

Let's put their particular failure another way: This team boasts of the fifth-best winning percentage among NBA teams over the last 10 seasons, yet is 16-28 in playoff games those same years.

"It's always something," says Kiki Vandeweghe. "First year I get here, Sam (Bowie) is hurt. Then someone else. Every year there are at least three to five players out. Now, when most of them are healthy, I'm hurting."

Vandeweghe, who has averaged 25 points a game since coming to the Trail Blazers in that five-man swap with the Denver Nuggets, was practicing his famous jump shot before a game recently. Corner to corner he'd go, sinking every one.

Come game time, though, the bad-backed Vandeweghe puts on street clothes. He remains on the injured list.

"We've just never been able to get it together," he's saying, between the swishing sounds. "We've been chasing the Lakers, in contention so to speak, but just haven't gotten over the hump."

There is little secret as to why.

"We've never had that center, the big center the team was built around," Vandeweghe laments. "He never plays."

Sam, Sam, Sam.

Sam Bowie, 7 feet 1 inch, has played in just 119 games during his Portland career. Just 5 games last season, 38 the year before. If he hadn't played so well his first season, it might be easier to write him and his fragile bones off. But there was that first season, the last time the Trail Blazers had a real center.

It was Jerome Kersey's first season, too, and he remembers the promise it seemed to have. "We're in the first round of the playoffs and Sam blocked a shot that we returned for the winner," he says, almost sighing at the memory.

It was the last season Portland has advanced beyond the first round and some folks sense a connection.

"You've got to have that big center in the playoffs," Vandeweghe insists. "In playoffs, a big center makes all the difference. Very few teams win without one."

Vandeweghe was brought to the team to offset opponents' habit of packing it inside. In fact, a shooter like Vandeweghe does expand the court. But with nobody bigger than 6-10 Steve Johnson inside, opponents are now profiting by doing the opposite.

"They just slough off us (inside)," says Kersey.

It is a recurring theme among the Trail Blazers. Life without Sam, and when's Sam coming back?

"If we just had a center who could score," Lucas is lamenting. "The big 7-foot guy who can get you 12 boards a night, every night. Block those shots. If we had that, it would all add up."

It's got to add up, he insists. Then, thinking, the team's elder statesman says, "Of course, I've never seen him play."

Few have. Except for that first season when he averaged nearly 10 rebounds and 3 blocked shots a game, Bowie has been more recognizable in street clothes than shorts. At least last year, he got into five games and there was at least room for preseason hope last summer.

But this season he comes down on his leg after an unguarded layup in the exhibition season and here he is, clomping around the arena in his three-piece suit and some kind of contraption on his foot.

"It's frustrating," says Bucky Buckwalter, the club's man in charge of player personnel. "Doctors say he doesn't have brittle bones, it's just something that's happened."

The team is understandably reluctant to write him off and it doesn't want to do something drastic to replace him.

Memories of that five-man swap sort of haunt the team, too. "It just tore the fabric of the team," says Buckwalter. "At the time it made sense . . . "

The implication is that personnel changes will be made more gradually.

They couldn't be accomplished much more gradually than recently. These days, this team doesn't change a lot from year to year.

Says Paxson, himself just off the injured list: "This team is a little more reluctant to make major changes. This team has patience."

And that may be good. He was explaining this the night after Dallas had pasted his team and he observed: "My second year in the league was (the Mavericks') first. It can be done."

But, then, it may still be time to look at life after Sam, which could be right now.

"Getting Sam was certainly a step in the right direction," Paxson is saying. "But we can't count on him, can we? The club said last year they were no longer counting on him. But, they were."

It could be that it's time to move on. For the sake of the fans, even for the players. Both parties have invested a lot of patience in this enterprise, some over a long period of time. Paxson has spent his entire career here. A crowd favorite, the cheers are no longer quite enough.

"We're close to it," he says. "We win the games we're supposed to and all that, but if you look at my nine years and the second round is the farthest we've made it, well. . . . Sometime in your career, you should come as close to a championship as you can."

Vandeweghe says: "There's a feeling this team hasn't reached it's potential, that it's still an up-and-coming team."

But how many years can the Trail Blazers be an up-and-coming team?

"Well, that's the question," he agrees.

Says Lucas: "You'd certainly like to play at your peak some time."

Lucas, as a member of that famous championship team, did once. But survivors, and memories, of that era are growing increasingly scarce.

Meanwhile, the fans, still strong in their numbers, sit in their seats with their arms folded across their chests. You wonder how much longer this can go on.

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