In the years to come it surely will be remembered as the Mountain Man Jam or the V (for Vegetarian) Bomb or the Sky-Is-Falling-Redbeard-Autographed-Screamer. Something like that. But before the explosive dunk shot that Bill Walton put in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's face—the one he threw right down there in the famous goggles—before that moment becomes blown out of proportion, let us consider what it was not.
It was not a signal that a new president of the UCLA Alumni Pivotmen's Association had been chosen. It was not a sign of quick and absolute victory in this new mano a mano duel. Possibly it wasn't even the decisive play in the Portland Trail Blazers' stunning 4-love defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Western Conference championship. What the shot did was proclaim to the world that Bill Walton has finally arrived on the same plateau as Abdul-Jabbar; that his classically balanced passing and rebounding, his quick shots and outlet bullets, his savage defense and intelligent command of all phases of the game are more than enough to match his adversary's greater offensive powers. The play showed that pro basketball has a brand-new Russell-Chamberlain rivalry to savor.
The manner in which wave upon wave of Trail Blazers galloped past the Lakers—as if, L.A. Coach Jerry West observed, "a shoemaker had nailed us to the floor"—made any extended comparisons of play in the middle invalid. But Walton's singular brilliance in the series obviously dictated that the Lakers, who somehow won 53 games during the regular season, were not about to play that one on five game of theirs all the way to the NBA championship.
Both centers went to great, silent lengths to avoid talking about each other. Walton did say, "It's no big deal.... I'm excited. As Kareem gets older, he gets smarter. Physically he's in his prime. I think he's playing the best of his life."
May 22, 1977
And Abdul-Jabbar said, "Walton believes in his talent. He tests his skill rather than using muscle to hang on me. It's a challenge to play against a guy this good, on a level above what I go through most nights. It's not so much even winning. It's expressing yourself."
After the Blazers had shocked the Lakers by winning the first two games of the series at the occasionally Fabulous Forum in L.A., the situation in Portland was this: 9:10 left in Game Three, Los Angeles ahead 81-77. Frustrated because his 70 points in the two L.A. defeats had been to no avail, Abdul-Jabbar had turned passer and defender. As a result, Walton had been held to eight points. But in the next 5:18, his eyes glazed and raging as if somebody had spiked his kumquat juice with kerosene, the Mountain Man scored seven baskets. He banked, he tipped. He soared, he stuffed. He hooked right, he hooked left. After this reign of terror had subsided, Portland had the lead, 93-84, and eventually the game, 102-97.
In the middle of all of this came the play which approximately 78 billion Oregonians and their grandchildren will swear they witnessed long after Walton's red beard is down to his toes. Maurice Lucas started it by missing a jump shot, which he rebounded and threw out to Walton in the foul circle. Walton paused, roared down the lane and flung himself into the air. Abdul-Jabbar went up to meet him somewhere north of reality, where few mortals dare to tread.
Boom! A mountain symphony. Incredibly, all of us survived.
After the smoke had cleared, there was Walton waving his fist at Lucas and flashing that peculiar manic grin. There was Abdul-Jabbar looking around at the scoreboard, the referee, the bench. Anywhere for some help. And everywhere but at Walton.
"I wish I had been on the bench, not in the game," said Portland's Herm Gilliam of the moment. "I wanted to jump up, do spin-arounds, do handstands. Bill got that look that says he's handling the case. That look is scary."
In all fairness to Abdul-Jabbar, he had spent the better part of three games—and would spend yet one more—exhausting himself by bounding up and down and all over the court attempting to deflect the rafter heaves of Lucas as well as those of greyhounds Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis, who had slithered through or simply zipped around the pitiful Laker backcourt defenders. When Abdul-Jabbar ran down, Portland would counter his weakened offensive efforts by placing Walton in front of him, Lucas behind him and two or three or 15 other Blazers swarming around him on all sides.
On his own, Walton forced Abdul-Jabbar to set up three or four feet farther out than he likes. He also overplayed the dreaded sky hook from the left so well that Kareem made only about a half dozen hooks in the lane—his bread and butter—during the whole series.
"I don't think anybody has ever played Kareem as well as Bill Walton," Portland Coach Jack Ramsay said. "Within a team defense," he quickly added. "With a little help from his friends," he meant.
It is not demeaning the Portland sweep—if you are scoring, the scores were 121-109, 99-97, 102-97, 105-101—to mention that the situation might have been different had Los Angeles come equipped with a healthy Kermit Washington, the powerful forward who missed the entire playoffs, and Lucius Allen. In the series Lucas destroyed Laker Don Ford in points (92-41) and rebounds (47-11) while the Blazer backcourt took advantage of Allen's immobility (because of a dislocated toe he played sparingly in only the last two games) to run wind sprints past the Laker guards.
As his team's marvelous season dwindled down to its tragic climax, West became touchy any time the Abdul-Jabbar/Walton comparison was brought up. "Excluding the big guys, would you want our 11 or their 11?" West demanded. "I have to feel sorry for Kareem. It's a terrible burden we put on him."
Which is to say that Abdul-Jabbar received nowhere near the support Walton enjoyed. Jazzy Cazzie Russell shot a bluesy 24 for 62, or 39%. After scoring 32 points in the opener, swingman Earl Tatum died with 23 in the next three games, including a new record for Pacific Coast airballs. And defensive "stopper" Don Chaney seemed to stop himself, frequently by looking bewildered, as if he wished somebody would please tell him which way Hollins and Davis went and when they were coming back.
The quicksilver Davis, a rookie filling in for the injured Dave Twardzik, combined with Hollins for 45 points in Game One and 39 in Game Four. In Game Two the veteran Gilliam (known to his mates as Trickster) hurled in some unlikely grenades, among which was one outrageous, off-balance, high-kicking bank shot that barely made it over Abdul-Jabbar's fingertips to win the game. "Give 'em some tricks, Trickster," his teammates kept yelling.
Though Abdul-Jabbar outshone Walton statistically—121-77 in points, 64-59 in rebounds, 15-9 in blocked shots as well as 61% to 50% shooting—Walton seemed to control every key rebound, throw every smart pass and convert every big play his team needed. His 23 assists befitted a center who is already a legend as a passer.
In Game One Walton outscored his rival 9-2 in the first quarter and outplayed him in the first half when Portland rushed to a 61-43 lead that buried the Lakers.
In Game Two, Abdul-Jabbar scored 40 points to Walton's 14, but each had 17 rebounds and Walton had the biggest of those after he had forced Abdul-Jabbar's tying-basket attempt in the final five seconds to be a fallaway moonball jumper rather than a sky hook.
In Game Three, Walton's five minutes of unrestrained havoc may soon be made into a major motion picture starring Bruce Jenner. The next day Abdul-Jabbar said, "I know Bill is enjoying this. It's not Amsterdam Avenue back on the playgrounds, but if he jams a couple I got to get the baskets back, so I dunk. I like the way the Blazers play. They should be national champs."
In Game Four last Friday night some brutal pounding inside resulted in Walton forcing Abdul-Jabbar to the bench with his fourth and fifth fouls late in the third quarter. Los Angeles was ahead by three points when Kareem had to sit down. By the time he returned, Portland was ahead by six. The series was over.
Though Abdul-Jabbar rallied the Lakers to within two points while batting away everything the Blazers challenged him with inside, Portland won the final game the way it had won the others—by doing the important little things that quick people get away with against slow people.
At the end Walton was not quick enough to get to Abdul-Jabbar as the Laker center rushed from the floor through the howling mob. The two combatants had sought each other out and firmly grasped hands following each game. Now, Walton encountered West instead.
It was Lucas who said, "Jabbar would never give up. He's the most respected player in the league because he never bows his head. Such great inner strength! You may beat his team but you never beat him."
As he embraced West and jabbed the air in the direction of the departing Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton understood that better than anybody in Portland.