A Look Back at the Original Blazermania
The images of that magical June in Oregon 13 years ago still warm the hearts of Blazermaniacs:
-- Bill Walton ripping off his jersey and hurling it into the crowd after clinching the title against Philadelphia.
-- A sea of humanity estimated at half a million swamping the team in a victory parade up Broadway.
-- Walton pouring beer on Neil Goldschmidt’s head as the mayor spoke at the ensuing celebration.
The Trail Blazers of 1977 were Portland’s first and only taste of sports success on such a grand scale.
The Blazers’ return to the NBA Finals this year has rekindled memories of that sunny day when this city became the basketball capital of the world, winning a championship that caught Oregon, as well as the rest of the league, by surprise.
“The team had never had a .500 season, had never even been to the playoffs,” Jack Ramsay, the Blazers’ coach that season, said, “so to win a championship was kind of shocking and euphoric. I think everyone just delighted in feeling the ecstasy of it.”
Portland was in just its seventh NBA season. Ramsay was in the first year as head coach. He came to town and promptly promised to build his team around Walton, the unconventional redhead whose first two seasons had been checkered by injury and off-court controversy that surrounded his counterculture lifestyle.
“I never had any controversies with Bill while he was playing,” Ramsay said. “He was a great player to coach. He was very supportive of everything I tried to do. He played hard at practice and was an intense player in games.”
The rest of the Portland lineup complimented Walton’s exceptional abilities as a passer and rebounder. The power forward was Maurice Lucas, “The Enforcer” signed when the American Basketball Association dissolved. The other forward was Bob Gross, who often was the target of Walton’s perfect passes as he moved up and down the baseline.
The off-guard was Lionel Hollins, in his second season with Portland. The playmaker was Dave Twardzik, nicknamed “Pinball” for his ability to bounce through the defense toward the basket. Twardzik, too, was an ABA leftover.
The bench included sharpshooting guard-forward Larry Steele, streakshooting guard Herm Gilliam, rookie playmaker Johnny Davis and power forward Lloyd Neal, among others.
But it was Walton’s team.
“The thing that made that team so good was Bill Walton,” Steele said. “Bill Walton was a great player, and he made other people very good. He was the key to our success.”
“Bill was magnificent,” Ramsay said. “Had he been able to continue, I think he would have been recognized as the best center ever to play the game.”
The team had a 49-33 regular-season record and opened the playoffs with a tough 2-1 victory over Chicago in the best-of-3 opening round series.
Next up was Denver. Portland won the series 4-2, even though the Nuggets had the homecourt advantage.
Next up was the Los Angeles Lakers, who had survived a rugged seven-game series with Golden State.
The Blazers won Game 1 on the Lakers’ court, then Gilliam came off the bench to lead Portland to a victory in Game 2. Portland returned home to win two more and sweep its way into the Finals against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Finals were rough. Philadelphia won the first two on its home court. Game 2 featured a melee ignited by Lucas and Darryl Dawkins.
“It was a physical game and both Lucas and Dawkins were the intimidators for their respective teams, but neither was really a very good fighter,” Ramsay said. “Dawkins threw a punch at Bob Gross earlier and hit Doug Collins, his own teammate, right in the eye. It was right in front of our bench. I couldn’t believe it.
“Luke came around later and threw a haymaker kind of from the side at Dawkins.”
The two squared off but no further punches were landed. Both were ejected and fined $2,500 apiece.
“My most vivid memory was of the fight between Lucas and Dawkins,” Walton said.
“I also remember Doctor J saying he knew all of our sets and patterns,” Walton said. “But even we didn’t know what were going to do. When he said that I knew then we had them.”
The Blazers went on to become the second team in NBA history to come back from a 2-0 deficit to win the title. Lucas diffused the tension by shaking hands with Dawkins before the start of Game 3 in Portland. The Blazers won that contest 129-107, then swamped the 76ers 130-98 in Game 4.
“We had a long layoff (nine days) after sweeping the Lakers and we struggled bigtime in the first two games in Philadelphia,” Walton said. “And then the fans in Portland got us going and we won four straight.”
The series shifted back to Philadelphia, and again Portland won 110-94. When the Blazers returned, thousands crowded the Portland International Airport terminal for the arrival. The players could barely fight their way through the throng.
“We Win It Today,” screamed the front-page headline of The Oregonian.
And so they did, hanging on for a 109-107 victory.
The city erupted. There was dancing in the streets. The next day, it seemed like everybody showed up for the victory parade downtown. Walton, the most valuable player in the championship series, tried to ride his bicycle, and lost it in the confusion. It was returned the next day.
“It was incredible,” Ramsay said. “That parade was such a spontaneous thing. To have half a million people there on Broadway. I don’t think anybody who participated in that parade will ever forget it.”
The Blazers thought they had built a dynasty.
“We thought we’d be in that role for several years,” Lucas said. “We were looking forward to winning it on a number of occasions.”
The following season, it looked like they were right. Portland got off to a 50-10 start and was the overwhelming favorite to win a second straight title. But Walton and Gross suffered injuries and the team never was the same again.