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Countdown To The Championship Season

  1. Written by: trailblazers

    Press Release: Oregon Historical Society to Celebrate 35th Anniversary of Trail Blazers' NBA Championship Tonight

    By Wayne Thompson

    The twelve Trail Blazer players who began the 1976-77 season had no idea what to expect. For all of them, NBA playoff basketball was an alien concept -- a mysterious voyage through uncharted waters.

    For that matter, having a winning team in the NBA was an unprecedented experience for the entire Trail Blazer franchise.

    In six prior seasons, the Blazers had compiled a record of only 170 wins -- an average of just 28 victories a year -- against 322 losses. Simply put, the Trail Blazers had the worst record of any franchise in the league.

    With seven new players and a new coach, the 1976-77 Blazers entered the season with modest expectations. No one could have predicted what was to follow: A 49-33 regular season record and a first-time birth in the NBA playoffs.

    After stunning playoff series wins over Chicago and Denver, the Blazers faced their toughest challenge -- the Los Angeles Lakers, a team with the best record in pro basketball that season.

    Larry Steele celebrated his 28th birthday the day before the Blazers opened their Western Conference championship series against the Lakers. He was feeling good about himself and his team.

    During the Chicago series, Steele told this reporter that he was going to use his playoff shares money to buy the family a new car -- an entry-level Chevy.

    But as Portland's playoff successes continued to mount, Steele's taste in cars rose commensurate with the size of the players' playoff pot. By the end of the Denver series, for example, Larry confided that he had upgraded to Buicks.

    Then after Portland's surprising sweep of the Lakers for the Western Conference championship, Steele started looking at Volvo and Saab prices.

    But it was during Portland's nine-day layoff before the start of the NBA championships finals against the Philadelphia 76ers that Larry Steele, beneath a sheepish grin, confessed that he was now beginning to think BMW.

    This was so typical of the young Blazers -- the youngest team ever to win an NBA championship. None of them had been here before. They were committed, yet naive about the task at hand.

    And here was six-year NBA veteran Larry Steele, solid as a rock, a Kentucky thoroughbred with 13 playoff games under his belt, measuring Portland's progress not by games or series won, but by automobile values earned.

    Both teams were confident, even cocky at times, and there was a kind of swagger about them that young teams often exhibit, perhaps to cover up their own anxieties.

    Indeed, they both were young: The ages of the 12-man Blazers' roster at playoff time totaled 297 years -- an average age of 24.8 per player. The cumulative ages of the 76ers' roster totaled 295 years -- an average age of 24.6 per player.

    Portland felt it had an edge going in. The Blazers were well rested and Bill Walton had a fresh hair cut. Meanwhile, the Sixers struggled to defeat Houston in a six-game Eastern Conference final after edging out Boston in a gruelling seven-game semifinal series.

    But when it finally came time to open the championship series against the Philadelphians, Sunday, May 22, the Blazers seemed nervous and a bit overwhelmed by the national spotlight.

    It didn't help that Sixer Coach Gene Shue had a big surprise to counter Portland's quickness and pressure tactics. He used his 6-foot-10 center Caldwell Jones, himself a future Blazer, to bring the ball up the court, thus reducing the effectiveness of Portland's guard-oriented, full-court traps.

    The 76ers had a lot of things to celebrate in Game One. For one thing, they looked more like the Blazers than themselves. Often chastised by the Philadelphia media for being too one-on-one rather than team oriented, it was the 76ers who played the best brand of team basketball. With Erving scoring 33 points and Doug Collins 30, the Sixers' ball movement was superb.

    Nothing about Portland's running or passing game was crisp. They made 34 turnovers that Philadelphia converted into 26 points. Even so, Portland kept the game close behind Walton's 28 points and 20 rebounds and some solid shooting from Maurice Lucas (9 of 18), Bob Gross (8 of 12), Walton (11 of 17) and Herm Gilliam (6 of 10).

    With 4:04 to go in the third quarter, the Sixers took a 75-73 lead that they never relinquished, and won on free throws down the stretch, 107-101.

    Philadelphia felt good going into Game 2 on May 26, because they had won the opener despite only eight points from all-star forward George McGinnis, who was engulfed in a horrendous shooting slump.

    McGinnis did a little better in Game 2, but he really wasn't needed. The Blazers were terrible. They made 29 turnovers and shot only 35.6 percent from the floor as the Sixers outplayed Portland in every phase of the game, winning handily, 107-89.

    Toward the end of that game, a fight broke out that some say changed the course of the series. It began when mammoth Philadelphia center Darryl Dawkins threw Gross to the floor in a scramble for a rebound.

    Gross said something to Dawkins and suddenly an enraged Dawkins charged at Gross and swing at him with a left hook. The punch missed Gross, but caught Doug Collins (who was holding back Gross) above the eye.

    Moments later, Lucas charged up and landed a roundhouse right on the back of Dawkins' head, which staggered him, but he didn't go down. Those two squared off, as both benches emptied and fans streamed onto the court.

    Blazers Coach Ramsay raced on the court and grabbed Dawkins. And Portland Assistant Coach Jack McKinney pummeled an unruly fan, who had swung at another Blazer player, before order finally was restored.

    Dawkins was so upset that he destroyed a sink and toilet in the Sixers' lockerroom after the game. While the fight was an undesirable side show in an otherwise solid 76er rout, some, including Philadelphia's Steve Mix, felt that the Lucas challenge of Dawkins was a turning point in the series.

    Both Dawkins and Lucas were ejected from the game and fined $2,500 each, which at that time was the largest fine for fighting in NBA history.

    Whether the confrontation between Lucas and Dawkins was a turning point or not, it was clear on the plane ride back to Oregon that Portland's confidence was unspoiled by the losses.

    When told that no NBA team had ever come back to win from two games down in an NBA championship series, Walton said, "You mean we'll be the first to do it. I like it."

    Ramsay, often a tinkerer when his team's engine was out of tune, surprised the media, the fans and his own players after Portland's opening losses at Philadelphia when he said, "We don't need to fix anything."

    In Game Three, the Blazers blitzed the Sixers on Sunday, May 29, outscoring them 30-12 in the first 10 minutes and 42-25 in the last period en route to a one-sided 129-107 win. Lucas (27 points, 12 rebounds, 3 steals) and Walton (20 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists) dominated the inside and Philadelphia had no stoppers for that.

    One electrifying series in the fourth quarter typified Portland's determination to turn the series around.

    Gross lobbed the ball to Walton, who made a spectacular dunk as he fell to the floor. Before Walton could get up, Dave Twardzik dove on the floor to intercept Philadelphia's inbounds pass and in one motion -- like a shortstop going into the hole to field a grounder -- fired another lob at the Portland hoop. Walton climbed to his feet just in time to leap up and slam down another dunk -- two Walton dunks in less than four seconds.

    Two days later, on Tuesday, May 31, the Blazers jumped all over the Sixers, roaring to a 19-4 first quarter lead as Lucas, Walton and Lionel Hollins did all the scoring. Game Four proved to be a statement maker, as the Blazers never let up, outscoring the 76ers, 41-21, in the third period on their way to a 130-98 romp. The series was even 2-2.

    Gross and Corky Calhoun did such a good job of defending the great Julius Erving and Lucas and Lloyd Neal were so effective in intimidating McGinnis that the entire last quarter turned into national television's most dreaded moment -- garbage time.

    Despite Portland's dominance at Memorial Coliseum, the national media wasn't giving the Blazers much of a chance to win Game Five in Philadelphia on Friday, June 3.

    But the series momentum had changed. Using their superior team speed and rebounding, the Blazers took a 22-15 lead, nursed it until halftime, and then crushed the Sixers, 40-25 in the third period, to take a 19-point lead.

    Playing conservatively, Portland held off a mild 76ers' rally, but the Blazers' lead was never in danger as they claimed home-court advantage, 110-104, and a 3-2 series lead.

    The Blazers took a charter flight home, arriving at the Portland International Airport at 4:30 a.m., Saturday, June 4. To the shock of the sleepy-eyed players, there were more than 5,000 cheering Blazer maniacs on hand to greet them at that hour.

    From the Blazers' point of view, it was all coming down to one game. Either win it Sunday, June 5, in Portland or face the prospect of having to win yet another game in Philadelphia.

    Ramsay looked solemn, not the expression of a coach whose team had just stolen Game Five in Philadelphia and was about to make history. "Expect a war Sunday," he said.

    And that's what the nation saw. The lead changed hands a dozen times and it was 40-40 five minutes into the second period. That's when the Blazers exploded on a 10-0 run, finally taking a 67-55 lead into intermission.

    Erving, who had 40 points, but only three in the final quarter, and McGinnis, who finally broke out of his series-long shooting slump with 28 points, kept the Sixers in the game. But each time the Sixers cut the Blazers' lead to within a few points, Portland had answers and pulled away.

    Walton, with 20 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists and 8 blocked shots, simply wouldn't let the Blazers lose the lead, but another major key to the victory was Gross, who ran Dr. J. into near exhaustion.

    Yes, Erving was magnificent, hitting 17 of 29 shots. But after chasing Gross around the court all day (Gross scored 24 points on 12 of 16 shooting), the Doctor connected on only 1 of 6 shots down the stretch, largely the result of a stellar defensive effort by Corky Calhoun.

    The last 2:29 were agonizing minutes for both teams. Portland led comfortably 108-100, but could only score one more point (a Lucas free throw) for the rest of the game.

    The Sixers, meanwhile, missed three good looks at the hoop in the last 18 seconds that might have tied the game. The last of those shots -- a 16-foot jumper by McGinnis -- was short. As it hit the front of the rim, Walton leaped high in the air, tapping the ball toward midcourt to a speeding Johnny Davis as the clock ran down.

    That scene has been etched forever in the minds and hearts of Blazers fans, not only the witnesses of the live event, but also those who have seen the replay on videotape.

    When that final buzzer sounded at Memorial Coliseum at 2:18 p.m., June 5, it triggered one of the most spontaneous celebrations in Oregon history. Indeed, the city of Portland became host to a series of impromptu street parties, many of them lasting into the wee hours of June 6.

    The 76ers, to a man, were disappointed, yet years later, at a 20th anniversary celebration of Portland's only NBA title, they were highly complimentary of the way the Blazers played the game. Philadelphia forward George McGinnis, in an interview with Rip City Magazine, said, "The Blazers were blessed with unbelievably talented and intelligent players. That combination was what made them a great team."

    The great Hall of Famer Dr. J, seconding McGinnis' statement, summed up Portland's championship team best when he said, "Basketball is a five-man game. The Blazers played as though they invented the concept. We were a team that possessed great individual, one-on-one skills, but Portland played like a committee, with no part greater than the whole. In the end, the team concept prevailed," he said.

    Henry Bibby, the starting point guard on that Sixers team, said the Blazers of 1976-77 showed the sports world what an all-for-one and one-for-all attitude can achieve in a team sport.

    "The Blazers that year were like a machine that just kept coming at you," Bibby said 20 years later. "I've never seen an NBA team which played so much together, were so unselfish. "All through their lineup, they had guys who could run you ragged -- Johnny Davis, David Twardzik, Bob Gross, Larry Steele, Herm Gilliam. They just moved without the ball so well, waiting for those great Walton passes," Bibby added.

    "Say whatever you want about the way that series went. In my estimation, we couldn't have beaten that team," Bibby said.

    After Portlanders toasted the city's only major league sports team and first and only world title, Blazermania, as it was called in those days, was just heating up.

    The next afternoon, the Blazers were honored with a parade through downtown Portland. Police estimated the crowd at 150,000, but it has grown to at least twice that size over the last 30 years, as people who weren't there now claim it as a bragging right. For many fans, June 5, 1977, was a defining moment for Portland, Oregon in terms of its market identity and their connection to it. The championship changed the lives of the players, too.

    Oh yea, Walton was given a jeep as the championship series MVP, but Larry Steele never did buy the BMW; he put his playoff dollars in the bank instead.

    But for all of them -- and despite their tender years and careers ahead of them -- the championship season was their defining moment and crowning achievement as basketball players.



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