At the end last Sunday, as bare-chested Bill Walton stood there, one moment higher than the highest mountain, the next submerged by Blazermaniacs deeper than the deep blue sea, Julius Erving would have been forgiven had he raised the roster of the Philadelphia 76ers over his head and jam-dunked it into the nearest garbage can.
The Portland Trail Blazers had whip-lashed the 76ers four times in eight days to win the NBA championship, simply because whenever Walton rolled his arms over his head in those strange, jerky circles, all of Multnomah County came to his aid; but when Erving asked for help, what most of the 76ers came up with was zilch.
Before Portland's clinching 109-107 victory on Sunday, only Doug Collins had joined Erving in fending off the Blazer legions of Bob Gross, Lionel Hollins, Johnny Davis, Dave Twardzik and Maurice Lucas. Then in Game Six, George McGinnis finally got his act together with 28 points.
But it was too late. The Sixers had waited too long to care that here was the magnificent Dr. J playing his heart out—one against all, 40 points on Sunday, 182 points for the series—and there were the Trail Blazers wrapping up the title with another disciplined, unselfish, well-balanced job of teamwork.
June 12, 1977
Up to the stirring final moments of the last game, the bright, new champions—Portland's starting team averages 23 years of age and 2.2 years of pro experience—seemed too young and carefree to be impressed with the fact that they were embarrassing the fat cats from the East.
Gross was flipping in some implausible shots, scoring 24 points and doing everything possible to keep Erving down among mere mortals. Hollins and Davis and Twardzik were running relay races by the 76er guards to the tune of 40 points to 21. Lucas was snatching key rebounds and sinking key free throws. Walton? The Big Guy was in full cry, ringing up his usual rather glorious individual numbers, such as 20 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight blocked shots.
"He changed everything we tried to do," McGinnis said.
"He's an inspiration," Erving said.
"Bill Walton is the best player, best competitor, best person I have ever coached," said Portland Coach Jack Ramsay.
Though the 76ers for once had started off a game as if they had not just awakened after an all-night drunk—that is, started crisply, efficiently and tied the Blazers 27-all at the end of the first quarter—Portland rolled to a 15-point lead in the second period and led by 14 in the third and by 12 in the middle of the fourth. At any instant it appeared as if the Trail Blazers would take off for another blowout.
But Philadelphia did not quit this time. Dr. J kept operating and the Blazer advantage diminished from 102-90 to 102-98 with 4:14 left. Lucas' two free throws gave Portland a 108-100 lead, but there was still time and here came the 76ers again.
Lloyd Free's foul shot and Erving's 20-footer got them to within five points. Two foul shots by Erving, and they were within three. Lucas made another free throw and Walton blocked another Philly shot, but McGinnis hit a jumper and the 76ers were just two points down with 18 seconds left.
"The end of the game was a total blank," Twardzik recalled. What he missed was McGinnis tying up Gross and winning the resulting jump so that Philly got three more shots to at least tie the contest. "It would have been our game," said Erving.
But with eight seconds remaining, the Doctor shot from straightaway behind the foul line and missed. ("As a rebounder and defender I assume everybody's going to miss," said Walton.)
With five seconds to go, Free shot from the baseline, but he was sandwiched between Hollins and Gross. His shot didn't go in either and Gross knocked the ball out of bounds.
With one second left, McGinnis, driving to the right, pushed up one final funny shotput jumper, but this one bounced off also. After Walton leaped to knock the ball away and secure the NBA championship for Portland, he whirled, ripped off his shirt and heaved it in the general direction of where he'd been swatting the Sixers' shots for a whole week: right into the heart of Blazermania.
"If I had caught the shirt, I would have eaten it," said Lucas. "Bill's my hero."
Not to mention the hero of everyone who has ever set foot on the Oregon Trail. "Did I plan the shirt?" Walton laughed at the question as people tried to shower his red hair and beard with champagne, beer and other wicked libations. "I only planned on winning," he said.
"Dr. J is incredibly tough," he added, "but we are not into stardom here. The 76ers played with their guts and their pride today and they didn't try to star. That's why both teams played close. But once we learn how to beat a team, we can do it and keep doing it."
Then Walton asked, "Where's my fruit juice?"
The sweeping collapse of the 76ers might have seemed melodramatic had it not been so comical and, given the schizophrenic nature of the species, so thoroughly predictable. Philly's downfall probably began on an airplane somewhere over Des Moines during the team's trip West after the first two games. It was then that the Sixers stopped taking the Blazers seriously and started debating whether to give Erving all their playoff shares or just buy him the Liberty Bell as a thank-you present.
Philadelphia had won the first two handily by combining good concentration on defense with its DDT (Doc plus Doug plus Think) offense. Little did this marvelously motley crew of infantile thrillionaires realize that their plane was flying directly into the teeth of the Portland storm.
The third game, in which the Trail Blazers ran roughshod through the visitors, was bad enough. So were the torrents of rain that kept falling and washing out the BEWARE, DUCK CROSSING road signs. But Blazermania also featured such items as long umbrella-studded lines at the Memorial Coliseum ticket windows 48 hours before they opened and policemen interrupting radio dispatches to report game scores.
One night a 7-year-old boy was arrested for scalping tickets. Another night a man in a rainbow-colored Afro wig, Rockin' Rollen Stewart, showed up at the Coliseum to say he was "a trippin' dude representing the people pleasers." Whole neighborhoods gathered to watch the games on television. Woodburn, Ore. sent a telegram to the Blazers and signed it, 781 names strong. Local newspapermen gathered all the objectivity they could muster to address the Portland coaching staff in the first person plural, e.g., "What do we do here that we don't do in Philly, Jack?"
Even before the humiliating 130-98 pasting the 76ers took in Game Four, it appeared as if some sort of grenade had exploded in the Philly camp. Among the ongoing atrocities was Free's request to go home because his sore ribs hurt too much to play in the biggest games of his life. "Lloyd is 85% well," said team physician Stanley Lorber. "Some people just don't want to play."
Fourth Forward Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, who did want to, contributed some nasty verbal slaps at third Forward Steve Mix for "not really playing 100%. As soon as we started losing, Steve didn't feel well," said Jelly Bean. "Any given day I'll beat Steve's face in any aspect of the game."
Sixer Coach Gene Shue spent the hours he wasn't working on his backhand—"Tennis clears my mind. I don't want to overthink," he said—closing practices or canceling them outright. A 76er official was asked if this was done out of a need for secrecy. "No," he said, "out of embarrassment."
Behind closed doors, McGinnis, laboring through one of the worst slumps any superstar chain smoker ever experienced, got solace from his teammates. Every time Un-gorgeous George put up a jumper, the 76ers shouted "brick, brick"—the NBA term for an incredibly horrible shot. Once when McGinnis was wide open under the basket, a teammate deliberately hurled a pass over his head into the seats, as everybody laughed. McGinnis must have figured this was at least as hilarious as the banner at the Spectrum which spelled his name MCGOONIS.
In an effort to reverse the outcome of Game Three, Shue decided to take Collins' perimeter shooting out of the offense and force the ball inside to McGinnis and Caldwell Jones, who together would challenge Walton. The effect of the strategy was debatable to say the least.
In the first 1:30 of Game Four, McGinnis twice got his shot shoved down his throat by Walton and twice turned the ball over himself. He surrendered seven quick points to Lucas, and the Blazers were off and running to a 28-11 lead.
Jones, who wears a sun visor off the court, may have been perplexed at the lack of rays in Portland or intimidated by Walton's huge shadow enveloping the lane. In the first two games in Portland, Jones had a grand total of seven points and nine fouls, and performed as if he couldn't wait to get to a TV set for what he once described as his greatest thrill: "When The Flintstones went from half an hour to an hour. A full 60 of Fred and Barney. Wow!"
In the third quarter of Game Four, Collins mustered some offense and Walton went to the bench with his fifth foul at 7:02. All the Trail Blazers did then was install Lloyd Neal at center and stage a fast break-and-layup clinic, expanding a 71-55 lead to 98-67 by the end of the period. That's a 15-point swell without Walton.
Dr. J was so frustrated by the defense of Gross and other Blazers lying in wait in their ill-disguised zone that when he finally got a chance to take off on one of his Ferris wheel, dynamite-slam numbers, he threw the ball down through the hoop so hard he hit himself in the forehead. Erving is believed to be the first man to give what the players call "a facial" to himself.
As Hollins broke out of a personal trance with 25 points and as the Portland lead grew to a mellow 41 points, the 76ers (minus Dr. J), loafed, sulked, laughed and quit, while Darryl Dawkins tried to shatter both backboards with his teeth and/or throw at least one outlet pass to Canada.
Erving, who scored 24 points, was not amused. "We got to challenge the other team," he said. "Be aggressive. Get some big axes and chop arms and legs." Dr. J was asked why he seemed to be forcing his own game. "Nobody else—uh, nothing else—is working." he said, slipping for once from his admirable doctoral diplomacy.
Erving was correct, of course. McGinnis, shooting 16 for 48 and saying, "I feel like a blind man searching for the men's room," was disintegrating from being merely terrible to being a monster turkey and recalling such wonderful fold-ups as Gil Hodges' in the 1952 World Series, Fran Tarkenton's in the Super Bowl and George Foreman's on Planet Earth.
Jones was out to lunch and so, too, it seemed, was Dawkins, the ferocious Dawk reduced to a Squawk since his scary fisticuffs with Lucas in Game Two. Collins looked battered and unhappy. Even the usually dependable Henry Bib-by, whom the 76ers call Julio, because of his Hispanic features, missed 14 of 19 shots in Portland.
Everybody was knocking everybody else while Shue was swatting tennis balls. "We don't hold grudges," said the coach, and smiled.
Portland's Squirmin' Herman Gilliam summed up the 76ers' plight. "I hear them yelling in the warmups to 'get together!' " he said. "That isn't normal. That team can fall apart much easier than it can pull together."
On Portland's flight back East, Ramsay nonchalantly did a crossword puzzle, Lucas read a paperback and Gross pored through High Times magazine, the dopers' bible. "It's Bill's," Gross said, pointing to Walton, who was sprawled across two seats, listening to The Grateful Dead.
"We're 10 points better than the other guys—on both courts," said Portland Assistant Coach Jack McKinney.
On Friday night both teams went about choking themselves to death during a pitiful first half in which Portland led 45-41 mainly because Walton was intimidating everybody except Erving, who scored 20 points.
But in the third quarter, after McGinnis finally woke up to lead a rally that enabled the Sixers to cut the lead to 53-52, the home team collapsed again. As Twardzik made steals and fed passes; as Walton (14 points, 24 rebounds) and Lucas (20 and 13) controlled the glass; as Gross turned into Dr. G, scoring 11 points in the quarter (and 25 in 25 minutes) while holding his fellow physician to four, the Trail Blazers went on a 17-2 burst that ran the 76ers right out of their own building.
The explosion provided Portland with its third 40-point plus quarter in three games as well as effectively deciding the outcome. After the Blazers took a 91-69 lead with 8:28 to go, those fans who weren't booing were heading for the exits as if 76er owner Fitz Dixon had screamed "Fire!"
While Dixon's millions went up in smoke, Erving, Collins and the hyperactive Jelly Bean led Philadelphia back to a semirespectable 110-104 defeat. Dr. J, again spectacular with 37 points, shook his head in the locker room. "I had a good feeling about tonight," he said. "It all backfired. It's a bad scene."
Bryant again accused some of his teammates of giving up. Collins said what Bryant saw was confusion, not quitters. Free said he didn't want to play Sunday. Shue smiled and slammed a door. Dawkins filled his tote bag with soda pop cans, then slammed a cooler. McGinnis saw former 76er Billy Cunningham and said, "Hey, Bill, can I borrow a smoke?" Mix said, "Can you believe the head cases on this team?"
During the 76ers' charter flight to Portland on Saturday (where 5,000 fans had greeted the Blazers at 4:30 a.m.), it was easy to believe anything. Most of the wives and girl friends were along. Poker money exchanged hands and tape decks blared. Mix prepared ice cream sundaes. Free complained about his ribs.
The Dawk recited poetry: "I love fast cars, cool summer breezes. Love when I want to and quit when I pleases." Turquoise Erving refused to take bows for being a prophetess. A 76er official announced over the P.A. that Shue was buying dinner for the entire plane and "you don't even have to eat with him." Was this a circus act or a Ship of Fools?
Caldwell Jones was asked what it was all coming down to. "I'm missing the cartoons," he said. "I be glad when basketball be over so I can get back to my 'toons."
On Sunday pro basketball finally was over. Only the Philadelphia 'toons flickered on.