"Blazermania?" said Kathy Singler, a cocktail waitress in downtown Portland, before the season began. "I've still got scars from Blazermania."
In the bewildering world of the National Basketball Association, which began its 32nd season last week with wholesale personnel changes, bitter free-agent compensation disputes, mad economic wanderlust, a handful of crumbling franchises and one huge punch in the head, it is marvelous to report that love and spirituality and Blazermania continue to run rampant in the wilds of Oregon.
You may remember Blazermania. While other pro basketball teams were staying alive by begging for handouts on telethons or—ugh—moving to New Jersey, Blazermania was making for an embarrassment of riches. Because the Trail Blazers received requests for 18,000 season tickets, while Memorial Coliseum seats only 12,411, the team arranged for its home games to be shown on closed-circuit theater TV—and sold 300 season tickets for that. While fans in other cities were becoming disaffected by bewildering player transactions and tedious financial bickering, Blazermania caused 10,000 Portland school kids to sign and send their favorite team a telegram the length of the bridge between Portland and Vancouver. While players on other teams shave their heads, pierce their ears and leave the slammer on their way to jam-dunking immortality, Blazermania requires its hired guns to pass the ball.
"Teamwork is preached so much," says Portland's Lionel Hollins, "that when one of us turns an ankle, we all limp."
Blazermania was the force behind the Trail Blazers winning their final 18 games in the Coliseum, including 10 in the playoffs, including, of course, the world championship. Run a lap. Kiss a fir tree. Throw away an aerosol can. Chug-a-lug boysenberry-kumquat juice. And root for Bill Walton. You've got Blazermania.
What Blazermania demonstrated beyond anything else was that in an age when pro sports is so often the dull child of dismal bigness, a team by its style, character and wholesome ways can still manage to personalize itself, enchant its audience and make everybody feel good. The Trail Blazers didn't simply win the NBA championship. They related. They shared. They got down to their people. In the peculiarly accurate street vernacular of the NBA, the standard opening greeting of "Wha's happenin'?" finally can be answered:
"Portland is, what is."
While it is true that Portland is small (400,000 population) and that there is not much to do there in the winter unless you are a duck, the only-game-in-town theory is not enough to explain the sheer intensity of Blazermania. Portland was, and is, a city genuinely moved by its transient basketball representatives as well as by its hometown pride. At first, the town fell head over heels for the team simply because it was going to make the playoffs. "That would have been enough for us," says General Manager Harry Glickman.
But then the Blazers knocked over Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia on the way to the championship. When the team returned home after winning the fifth game of the final series, 5,000 people met the Blazers at the airport. It was 4:40 a.m.
By the next morning, June 5, V-J day (Victory over Julius), 16 dozen roses and 20 pounds of crab from a cannery on the Oregon coast had been delivered to the Blazer offices. The Oregonian splashed a banner headline across Page One: WE'LL WIN IT TODAY. The beach at Salishan, a popular oceanside resort, was deserted. At the Christ Church Parish in Lake Oswego, the Rev. John A. Bright kept consulting his watch during the service. He followed the choir down the aisle, said the dismissal by the door and, at the crack of noon, roared "Go, Blazers!"
The day after the championship had been won, an estimated 250,000 delirious Blazermaniacs lined the streets downtown as their heroes paraded from Union Station to Federal Plaza in a display of civic emotion not seen since the earlier V-J day. After Walton's 10-speed bike was stolen and he was lifted and passed end over end by the crowd up to the speaker's platform, the redhead poured beer all over Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt.
Forward Maurice Lucas rhymed to the masses: "While Ali was up to his old tricks, I predicted it would go in six." Coach Jack Ramsay said, "I will never forget the sight of this sea of happiness." Walton said, "I haven't had as much fun since I was eight years old." A few days later Walton's bike was returned. Now, that's Blazermania.
When will the Blazermaniacs cease and desist? Surely not soon. Specific plays from last year's games are still being discussed in Portland watering holes far into the night. At traffic lights Blazers are besieged by autograph seekers, who think nothing of jumping out of their vehicles to grab a quick name for their collection. When the world championship banner was unfurled in September and the team was introduced before the first exhibition game against Denver, the noise and ovations went on and on until somebody decided to play The Star-Spangled Banner to shut the people up. "Next I thought the Blazers would run out with wreaths around their foreheads," said Nugget Coach Larry Brown.
Now Portland's challenge is to be the first team since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics to win two NBA championships in a row, and the second will be considerably more difficult to achieve than the first. The Blazers will not sneak up on anybody this time. Besides that, over the summer they became indirect victims of the free-agent compensation procedures as perceived by Commissioner Larry O'Brien.
After Los Angeles signed Jamaal Wilkes to a two-year, $640,000 contract and could not agree with Golden State on suitable compensation, O'Brien awarded the Warriors money and a draft choice rather than, say, Kermit Washington or Earl Tatum or both. The commissioner thus revealed a certain insensitivity to pro basketball realities and singlehandedly made the Lakers an early favorite to unseat Portland.
"We were raped," Laker Assistant Coach Stan Albeck said solemnly.
Other teams will do their share of laughing as well. The 76ers, who tried to trade away George McGinnis and whose coach, Gene Shue, says, "When players are as talented as ours, you have a lot of bitching and moaning," should bitch and moan their way to another Atlantic Division title. The Washington Bullets, who tried to trade away Elvin Hayes, should be good enough to win in the Central.
In the Midwest, the Denver Nuggets, who tried to trade away the entire state of Colorado, and the Chicago Bulls, if Artis Gilmore can stay awake, may find themselves in a dogfight during those rare occasions when the division is not being diverted by the ongoing battle between the Detroit Pistons and their hated enemies, the Detroit Pistons.
Which leaves the Pacific—the Blazers and the Lakers. On opening night last week the course of this division was dramatically altered only 2:09 into the season when, after some vicious body language underneath the basket, Milwaukee rookie Center Kent Benson blasted Los Angeles' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a solid face to the right fist, knocking his opponent straight upright and fracturing the fourth metacarpal bone. "If he wasn't looking, he should have been," said Kareem, who evidently saw Benson's face coming at his knuckles but was unable to duck the blow. O'Brien thereupon landed a roundhouse $5,000 fine on Abdul-Jabbar, a league record. Upon emerging from the doctor's office, Abdul-Jabbar pointed to the cast, which will keep him out of action at least three weeks, and said. "The latest in evening wear."
Whatever the case, somebody from this division again should eventually win the NBA championship, surely handing out several of what Seattle's Slick Watts calls "voodoo-whuppins." Explains Slick, "You get whupped and whupped and whupped again, and you never know what does the whuppin'."
Somebody should let him in on it. Blazermania does the whuppin'. Nobody does it better.