American Graffiti was playing at two places in downtown Portland, Ore. last Friday and Saturday nights. One spot was the Broadway Tri-Cinema, where the hit film about adolescents and autos continued its run; the other was on the street out front. There teen-agers packed into family Fords, decaying pickups and a few hot '57 Chevvies crept south along SW Broadway, then looped back north on SW 6th Avenue. Many of them drove the circuit well into the early hours of the morning, radios blaring, peeling yards of slick rubber and calling to one another out of windows rolled down despite the endless autumn rain.
Clearly, cruisin' remains a favored pastime in this city of 380,000 where excitement is a wink from the cool blonde three cars over and ecstasy a pair of perfectly tuned glass packs—mufflers stuffed with fiber glass so that they burble in harmony. And teen-agers are not the only Portlanders roaming around at night in search of entertainment. Because of that, the Trail Blazers, like other teams in smaller cities where pro basketball is just about the only show in town, have prospered mightily. In their three previous seasons the Blazers became one of the NBA's best draws at home, even while they lost. Now they are winners, perhaps playoff contenders, and there does not seem to be anyone from 16 to 60 in Portland who has not stripped a few gears or blown a gasket over them.
In their three most recent home games, including two last weekend, the Blazers have attracted crowds at or above capacity to the 11,815-seat Memorial Coliseum. That brought Portland's average attendance to 9,898—the team averaged 8,134 while winning only 21 times last season—with the choice midwinter dates still ahead. Indeed, management is already wondering aloud about the delightful possibility that its arena may be too small, a state of affairs that previously existed only in the championship cities of New York, Milwaukee and Indianapolis.
This optimism could be considerably better founded than that of the Portland weatherman who last week predicted a day without showers. After a dozen games a year ago, the Blazers' record was 1-11; this season it was 7-5 and twice they have nudged into the Pacific Division lead ahead of playoff standbys Los Angeles and Golden State. Moreover, they have done it with a team on which no player is older than 26, with two top scorers who in the past often played with noticeable disdain for one another, with a coach whose most noteworthy accomplishment is that he once won the Ivy League and with a center who has chronic nasal drip.
The pivotman is 6'9", 215-pound Rick Roberson. Despite being one of the NBA's shortest centers, and perhaps its lightest, he has been the Blazer most responsible for the team's turnabout. And there are aspects of his appearance that are even less prepossessing than his size. His flattened nose looks as if it had been worked on with a ball peen hammer, and he invariably shambles about with his mouth wide open and his lower lip flopping. Roberson keeps his yap aflap in order to draw air down to his frequently congested lungs, since he cannot get it there by routing it through his usually congested nose, which is flanked by habitually congested sinuses. Not surprisingly in Portland's climate, Roberson has become an antibiotic freak, sometimes gulping as many as six pills a day.
During his career Roberson has consistently been bad medicine for opposing scorers, even though his accomplishments have generally gone unnoticed. Previously his only taste of glory came four years ago in Los Angeles when Wilt Chamberlain ripped a tendon in his right knee and Roberson, then a rookie from the University of Cincinnati, replaced him for 70 games. Roberson helped the Lakers to a second-place finish and the second-best defensive record in the NBA. Upon Chamberlain's return he slipped into obscurity, first at the end of the Laker bench and for the past two seasons in Cleveland.
Roberson's record with the Cavaliers shows some decided successes. Last year no center managed 30 points in any game against him and only three, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens and Neal Walk, scored more than 22. But the segment of his record that seemed to attract most of Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch's attention was the column under games played, which showed that in the past two seasons Roberson missed 39 with everything from congestion to contusions. At the end of last season Fitch offered Roberson and Forward John Johnson, who has also made a significant contribution to the Blazers, for Portland's first draft choice, Jim Brewer of Minnesota.
"Rick had only played against us once or twice last season, so I was not too familiar with him," says Blazer Coach Jack McCloskey, who came to Portland a year ago after 16 seasons coaching Penn and Wake Forest. "I keep a book that I write in after every game assessing the team we've just played. When the front office told me Rick was available, I looked back on what I had written. It said something-like, 'Very quick on defense. Strong rebounder. Shooter with limited range.' He sounded like just what we needed."
Both Fitch's and McCloskey's judgments have turned out to be correct. Roberson has already missed five entire games, plus all but three minutes of another, with a leg injury. In his absences, Portland's record is 2-4. With Roberson on full-time duty, the Blazers are 5-1, the only loss coming last week against the streaking Bulls, who made Portland their 11th straight victim. No center has scored more than 14 points against Roberson, and more important, his Cowens-like quickness and agility at stepping out from the middle and pop-switching on smaller, supposedly faster men have allowed the Blazers to employ an aggressive switching defense. In games started by Roberson, Portland has given up an average of 102 points, 10.3 fewer than last season.
"I'd be bulljiving myself if I thought I could stand in the middle and block a lot of shots the way the real big dudes do," says Roberson. "I've got to come out and play the small guys. You know, face-to-face. I got to get up on 'em and spread out so they can't drive by or pass around me to the big guy I've switched off. Being active like that means that I have to take some risks with my body. I don't think I'm injury prone. It's just the way I play that causes me to get hurt sometimes."
In the six games he has started, Roberson has also helped Portland's offense with his scoring (16.7), his rebounding (14.1) and his quick outlet passing, which has stepped up the Blazers' fast break. Passing, in fact, has become a whole new fancy in Portland. John Johnson has been a notable executant here, and so have the team's top scorers. Guard Geoff Petrie (25.2) and Forward Sidney Wicks (20.2), who in the past often played as if they thought passes were something used to get into the movies for free.
Petrie was the first favorite of the Portland fans and the NBA's co-Rookie of the Year when the Blazers were founded in 1970-71. Wicks arrived the next season and became a Rookie of the Year himself. Yet in their first two seasons together the Blazers won a grand total of 39 games. Particularly in Wicks' first year they often seemed at odds with one another on the court.
"We each felt threatened by the other and we were childish," says Petrie now. "By the end of that season I hated Sidney. I guess if you wanted to boil down the problem, it came out that Sidney didn't think I gave up 'the ball enough and I thought Sidney took too many bad 25-foot jumpers."
Wicks, who retains an understandable affection for the way things were done at UCLA, says he was not specifically critical of Petrie. "I was aiming higher," he recalls. "If Geoff was playing wrong, it wasn't his fault. It was the fault of the coach, who should have told him to stop it and play the right way."
The summer following their first season together Wicks and Petrie went to Israel to give clinics, and the two weeks there helped settle their differences, especially after Wicks, a strong swimmer, suffered cramps in the Sea of Galilee and Petrie pulled him to safety.
Still their games did not begin to blend until the Blazers' recent successes when their passes, often to one another, fired the Portland break. That kind of play fired up the fans, too. Along with Seattle and Phoenix, which are also basketball-only cities, Portland has been one of the few places where a losing team has received lavish support. "People here were dying for a major league team to cheer for," says Jerry Miesen, one of the club's most rabid fans. "But now that we're winning, it's really gotten to be something special. Like last Saturday against the Knicks. It was the height of the elk-hunting season and that's pretty big around here, but we had a record crowd and they all stood and cheered for the last seven minutes. Never saw anything like it."
Indeed, the Blazers came into last week with successive home wins over the Lakers and Knicks, and then extended their streak with a 122-108 victory over Buffalo, which put Portland in sole possession of first place for the second time this year. In that game Wicks scored 31, Petrie 29 and Roberson 12 with 16 rebounds. The next night the Blazers fell out of first by losing to Chicago 106-104. Still, they battled the Bulls right to the end even though Wicks and Roberson were in foul trouble much of the time. And when it came to the deciding basket, Portland's defense was faultless, stymieing the Bulls' patterns for 23 seconds before Jerry Sloan threw in a desperate 25-foot heave with one second showing on the shot clock and six on the game clock.
The Chicago loss left Portland's home record at 7-2, but to prove they are playoff contenders the Blazers must improve on the road, where Roberson has not started and where they are 0-3. They will have an opportunity to do just that this week and next on a testing five-game trip. If they win a few in such places as Milwaukee, Detroit and Atlanta, then the Blazers could truly be cruisin'.