As the NBA championship finals bobbed and weaved their way along last week, it was fairly obvious that neither opponent, in the words of the eminent Mr. Rocky Balboa, was "just another bum from the neighborhood." At least not in its own neighborhood.
While the Philadelphia 76ers discovered how to run a playoff offense (somebody get the ball to Julius Erving or Doug Collins and everybody else take a cab to south Jersey), the Portland Trail Blazers learned how to survive back in Oregon by pretending the Doctor was only human and that they belonged in the same ring—uh, court—after all.
"We seem to get energy and sustenance from the response at home," Portland Coach Jack Ramsay said Sunday afternoon after his Blazers had stuffed the 76ers' 2-0 series lead back in their faces, in a 129-107 blowout. "The floor is made the same as Philly's. What is it?"
Perhaps it was Bill Walton, who finally discovered his passing lanes unclogged and joyfully passed off for nine assists to go along with his 20 points and 18 rebounds. Or Guards Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis, who made negligible contributions during the two 76er victories but who combined for 33 points in Game Three. Or Dave Twardzik and Lloyd Neal, who came off the bench to lead Portland's 42-point fourth-quarter fireworks.
June 5, 1977
Despite Erving's face-saving 28 points, Philadelphia appeared as lost and shaken—yes, as mismatched—as Portland had been earlier. "The Sixers just can't win here," said Portland's Bob Gross. Which, of course, had gone double for the Blazers in Philadelphia.
By outplaying the Trail Blazers in the psychological preliminaries so crucial to an NBA final, the 76ers took what seemed an insurmountable lead even before the series started. First there was the injury list, which started with Lloyd Free (partially collapsed lung, bruised rib), continued to George McGinnis (groin pull) and Steve Mix (bad ankle) and peaked with mysterious blurred vision in the right eye of Darryl Dawkins, who said he woke up one morning "all set to say 'Oh what a beautiful morning,' and I find I can't see."
To those who believe Dawkins' only responsibility is to get the colors on the uniforms right as he takes names and blasts bodies, this appeared to be (and subsequently was) as serious a threat to the health and welfare of his own teammates as it was to the enemy. Nevertheless, the specter of a partially blinded Dawkins roaming unchained must have given the Trail Blazers pause.
There was also the matter of Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue's closed practices. Everybody knew the series would be one of contrasts: Blazer calculation vs. 76er creativity; Portland discipline vs. Philly anarchy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the teams' practices, which, in style and substance, resembled, respectively, a recital by Horowitz and a picnic with Daffy Duck.
When Shue closed his picnic to outsiders, the public was spared such basic workout scenes as George McGinnis sneaking cigarettes and playing with Erving's children, Dawkins supine reading a newspaper, and assorted 76ers feigning boxing matches, twirling balls on fingertips and heaving mindless shots and passes as they non-listened to Shue.
These were our future NBA champions? Well, probably. As Shue conceded, "We have the best of one world—the playground."
What the coach was plotting put the lie to the theory that Shue is as prominent an airhead as his team's performances sometimes indicate. By the simple inversion of the 76er offense—6'11" Center Caldwell Jones bringing the ball upcourt while the team's guards scatter and hide—Shue planned to diffuse the Portland press, force Walton to defend away from the basket and take pressure off his own backcourt men, Collins and Henry Bibby.
After this happened exactly as planned in the first game, after the 76ers had won 107-101 with Bibby derailing Portland's Hollins on defense and with Collins (30 points) lighting up Hollins like a pinball machine at the other end, Shue was proclaimed a genius and the hot-dogging Jones considered the very model of a cross between Oscar Robertson and Oscar Mayer.
In truth, the only surprise was how confused the normally smart and poised Trail Blazers seemed to be in the face of a strategy that originated somewhere back in kindergarten ball. Not only did Hollins and the swift Davis have trouble finding somebody to guard, but they also managed to take themselves out of the Portland offense, scoring only five baskets, and being responsible for most of the 34 Trail Blazer turnovers.
That would have been enough to guarantee a 76er victory. For good measure, Erving danced and pranced, beginning his first NBA championship round with a flying dunk off the opening jump ball and finishing with 33 points, including four other slams and a few layups.
The presence of Walton and his new GI John Singlaub haircut was supposed to be an effective deterrent to Erving's sky-diving forays, but Dr. J was not impressed. "I'll challenge anybody. Either go over him or trick him," said Erving. "It's one thing to respect a man, but I'm not going to overrespect him."
Actually, Walton played more than respectably—28 points and 20 rebounds—but afterward he sat silently, only mumbling his objections to Brent Musburger's repetitious use of the nickname "Mountain Man" on CBS-TV.
"Big guy, big guy, big guy," Musburger kept saying, his arm around Walton. "It's O.K. I didn't mean it, big guy."
"I heard the tapes," said Big Guy. "I'm sensitive."
In Game Two, a 107-89 Philadelphia romp, Walton seemed not so much mountainous as out to lunch. Apparently confused as the 76ers alternated Jones and Dawkins, Walton was outscored 18-17 and outrebounded 19-16 by the two centers.
Along with Maurice Lucas, Walton also failed to score in the crucial second quarter when the 76ers—those same wealthy, spoiled, egocentric, selfish monsters who are not supposed to know how to spell t-e-a-m—ran and shot and passed and juked and jived like long-lost blood brothers to 14 points in 3½ minutes for a 61-43 halftime lead.
The play that may have broken Portland's back—and almost Walton's—occurred when Dawkins confronted the Blazer center high above the basket, blocked and then grabbed his shot in midair, landed and rumbled upcourt like a Concorde avenging its way over the backyards of Queens.
This impetuous explosion by Dawkins and the 76ers was almost spectacular enough to blot from memory the ugliness of what happened with 4:52 left in the game. By that time the frustrated Trail Blazers were behind by 20 points. Neal and McGinnis had nearly come to punches. Lucas and Erving were engaged in a wicked elbow-swinging duel. Then it happened.
As Dawkins and Gross came crashing down with a rebound, Dawkins dribbled Gross' arm and head on the floor. When the 6'11", 260-pound Dawkins ripped the ball away, Gross pointed at him and, according to Dawkins, shouted, "What the [obscenity] are you doing, you [obscenity]? I'll kick your [obscenity obscenity]."
Such a statement immediately qualified the 6'6", 200-pound Gross for a padded cell in an asylum for the hopelessly suicidal. "Here's your chance, suckah!" Dawkins screamed before charging and throwing a wild, looping left cross that connected just above the right eye—not of Gross but of Collins, who was holding Gross, trying to save his life.
As Dawkins backpedaled a bit, Lucas roared up from behind and punched him in the back of the neck. Dawkins lost his balance, but he was quickly up and squaring off with Lucas as both benches emptied and players and spectators flooded the court.
Before order was restored, Portland Coaches Ramsay and Jack McKinney had duked it up with some fans, Ramsay had yelled in Dawkins' face and been hurled away, and Lucas and Dawkins had been ejected (later to be fined $2,500 apiece by Commissioner Larry O'Brien).
When the 76ers arrived in their locker room, they found a toilet stall caved in. two floor-to-ceiling lockers turned over and a huge fan broken and smoking—"like a hurricane had hit a junkyard," said McGinnis—all courtesy of Dawkins. As the 20-year-old manchild—resplendent in a fedora and a Great Gats-by-era vanilla suit, with a red carnation in his lapel—stalked out, rudely shoving aside 76er GM Pat Williams, he said, "I'm mad at my teammates for letting a man jump me from behind."
Collins received four stitches. Gross said he wouldn't forget. Shue apologized to Gross and labeled Dawkins "just a kid." Ramsay said he wasn't afraid of anybody. And Lucas, dressed only in a towel, which he had wrapped about his head in a somehow terrifying turban, said, "I'm too professional to let this carry over. But this dude gets built up like a gorilla, then thinks he can gorilla everybody. I'll see Dawkins Sunday."
Retorted Dawkins, "I didn't know I hit Collins until he called me at 3 a.m. I don't remember what I did to the locker room. Lucas is a fighter but I can box. My uncle, Candy McDaniels, fought Joe Louis. He taught me. I usually stand 'em up with a left and take 'em out with a right."
But before Sunday's game. Lucas went directly to the Philadelphia bench to shake hands with Dawkins. ("I thought he was going to hit him again," said Twardzik.)
Those pleasantries over, Lucas drilled in 27 points and took down 12 rebounds, a performance that earned him a well-deserved rest in the final period when Walton converted lob passes from Gross and Twardzik into spectacular baskets that tore out what remained of the 76er hearts.
"I don't think I'm any swifter or stronger out here," Walton said. "I just like to play. I don't care where it is."
However, on the whole the Blazers would rather not be in Philadelphia.