The theory israpidly being advanced that nobody, not even Clint Eastwood, is going to makeit through Multnomah County as long as the Portland Trail Blazers—otherwiseknown as The Gauntlet—stay alive and healthy and remember to keep their eyesaverted from Coach Jack Ramsay's blinding array of multicolored pants. As BillWalton fires his heavy ammo from the rooftops, as Maurice Lucas and LionelHollins heave their deadly mortars front and rear, as several other vaguelyfamiliar and unfamiliar Blazers sneak-attack from all sides, how can ordinarybasketball teams avoid being massacred when Ramsay breaks out yet another pairof those remarkable trousers. They can't. They just lose quietly and goaway.
There is no realevidence that Ramsay's pants ("Pants?" says Guard Dave Twardzik. "Ithought his legs were tattooed") have been responsible for a single TrailBlazer victory. But it was the same old show again last week in Portland'ssold-out-forever Memorial Coliseum as well as across the river in the downtownParamount, where the Blazer games are transmitted on closed circuit for anaudience of thoroughly raving Blazermaniacs. The home team won two more gamesand sent historians scurrying out into the rain to speculate on just how longsport's newest wonder team can go on like this.
It is not merelythat Portland is in the throes of Blazermania, Part II—7-month-old babiesattend team practices; a truck driver named D. D. Albritton records acountry-and-Western masterpiece entitled Blazer Mania. Nor is it just that theteam is defending its NBA championship with a zeal seldom seen outside acollege campus. It is the fairly outrageous numbers the champions have beencompiling that have people leafing through the pages of the record books.
Before theAll-Star Game, Portland won its last five games by margins of 23, 35, 35, 20and 20 points. Last Friday night, after the Blazers had crushed Golden State112-92, Rick Barry was approached warily by an interviewer. Barry had scoredthree baskets in the game, which was an improvement over the last time heplayed against Portland, when he scored, uh, one. Barry was asked were theBlazers good, better, or best?
"This teamdeserves any comparison anybody wants to make," Barry said. "The oldCeltics, the Knicks, Philly with Wilt, L.A. with Wilt, anybody. It's a clinicwhenever you play them. They get the ball out and ram it down your throat.Walton is a great center who does everything, and all the rest complement eachother. The Blazers may be the most ideal team ever put together."
A few nightsearlier, Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson had been equally adulatory. His talentedyoung Bucks had exploded for 39 points in the first quarter, had shot 60% inthe first half—and were trailing Portland 71-69. After the Blazers pulled aheadto win another laugher, 136-116, Nelson, who played on five championship Celticteams, spoke of "situation basketball. Portland reacts to situations,"he said. "Ninety percent of what they do is automatic, everyone picks itup. The Celtics had role-playing, defensive and offensive specialists. Here theattack is more general. Everybody on the Blazers can beat you at either end.They are a team for all time."
For all time. Ah,again some numbers. At the All-Star break, Walton and his merry men had won 40games and lost eight. They were undefeated at home, with 26 straight victoriesthis year and 44 over two seasons, including playoff games. They were unbeatenin their division—the Pacific, arguably the NBA's strongest—with nine straight.They led the league in defense (100.4 points per game allowed), not to mentionin scoring margin (10.1) by nearly five points a game. Moreover, the TrailBlazers had already won as many games on the road as they had all of last year,and their road victory percentage of .636 (14-8) was higher than all but threeNBA teams' overall percentage. Projected over a full season (see chart), whatPortland could do would place the team among the NBA's finest ever.
The team itselfwill not be the last to admit this. "Lack of confidence has never been oneof my problems," says Walton, the ringleader. "Maybe I'm just surprisedwe haven't won more." And as Larry Steele, the oldest Blazer in point ofservice—seven seasons—points out, "Teams are always aiming for periods ofconsistency—20 minutes of great ball, 25 minutes. Well, we're coming closer andcloser to the perfect 48 minutes."
Last season,Ramsay could pinpoint the exact moment his club meshed, then erupted for allthe world to see how good it was—a 146-104 November rout of the 76ers. Theimprovement this year has been more gradual. The signs could be seen lastspring when the Blazers embarrassed Philadelphia by winning the last four gamesof the NBA finals.
"Now we aremore poised," Ramsay said last week as he drove through the Oregondownpour, wearing a blue jacket, blue shoes, blue socks—and brown plaid pants."We concentrate better. We have fewer dry spells on offense, fewer lapseson defense." Then the coach himself lapsed, taking leave of basic coachingrhetoric. "Our half-court offense is better than any of those Celticteams'," Ramsay said. "We are really awesome."
Early on, it wasrefreshingly obvious that the Blazers had not become fat, happy, complacent orcheckbook-conscious. Walton set the tone in training camp, arriving strongerand quicker, swigging huge gulps of hearts-of-artichoke juice or something andknocking off the required 300 jump ropes so fast a teammate said, "Youcouldn't even see the rope."
What is easier tosee is the steady progression of Hollins toward becoming one of the three orfour best all-round back-court men in the pros. Hollins' quick, ball-stealingdefense always was of top quality, but now the Train has also learned to usehis speed in moderation on the attack. Hollins' shooting is more consistent—42of 64 in Portland's five-game winning streak—and his floor mistakes lessblatant. "I thought I was playing well early," he says, "but in thelast 20 games, I've been playing great. Everybody is just very confident. Wewant it all again."
Lucas, theBlazers' other star, vows, "We're staying hungry. All of us know what it'slike to get blowed out. We want to keep doin' the blowin'."
At the risk ofdrawing Lucas' All-Pro glare, let it be noted that his assessment is notentirely correct. The Portland brass has assembled this remarkable teamaccording to a theory based on winning as an inherited trait; all the Blazershave been big winners before. Only one member of the 11-man roster—BobGross—did not come from an NCAA tournament team, and that was because Gross'college, Long Beach State, was on probation. During his two years, Long Beach'srecord was 43-9.
The team's smallforward, Gross is that prime example of an excellent player toiling for a morethan excellent team. Simply, he "fills a role." While the Waltons,Lucases and Hollinses dominate the statistics and make the All-Star teams,Gross spends much of the time, as he says, "doing what's left over."This includes leading the team in offensive rebounds and, last week, turning inwhat amounted to a perfect game against Milwaukee—19 points, six assists, fivesteals.
Like Gross, thecurly-haired Twardzik—"our Polish immigrant child," Assistant CoachJack McKinney calls him—constantly is maligned as a journeyman living off hismore gifted teammates. This is hardly fair to the man his teammates have named"Fudd" (something about a resemblance to Bugs Bunny's not-too-speedyold foe). As he was last season, Twardzik is the league's best in shootingpercentage (.664) with a repertoire consisting exclusively of a twistingcorkscrew layup from three inches and a unique item he calls the"springer." The springer is a jump shot in disguise because Twardzikplainly cannot jump.
"Who wouldDave Twardzik be without the Trail Blazers?" asks Portland GM Stu Inman."Who would K. C. Jones have been without the Celtics?"
If Fudd is K. C.Jones, then Portland's Lloyd Neal is the famous Celtic sixth man. Or Tom Owensis. Or Guard Johnny Davis. Or Steele. So deep and talented is the Trail Blazerbench that opponents have a hard time figuring out which poison to accept.
Lucas, the premierpower forward in basketball, has missed six games, but the Trail Blazers havewon them all. Walton has missed two others—one when he flew home to be withSusie Guth and their newborn son, Nathan—and the team won both of those aswell. Five different Blazers have led Portland in rebounding in one game oranother. Seven different men have led in assists. Nine separate players haveled in scoring. The Portland bench averages more than 41 points a game.
"Being a subdoesn't bother me," says the 6'7" Neal. "Basically, you got to be acontributor. When you get in the game, the secret is to play so you don'tapprehend the flow." What?
Heretofore, Neal'smajor notoriety had come from his altercations with Laker fan Jack Nicholson inthe Los Angeles Forum ("Sit down, fool!" Neal yelled at the actor, whowas blocking his view from the bench), but this season Neal's rescue missionsare of spine-tingling stuff.
In the four gamesin which he has played more than 30 minutes, Neal has scored 31, 33, 21 and 10points, the last coming in a victory at Boston he clinched with three overtimebaskets. Last Friday Neal was in street clothes resting his sore knees whenLucas was thrown out of the game for flunking a vocabulary test with thereferees. But wait! Neal into the dressing room. Neal into the game. Neal 13points in 16 minutes.
Owens, too, hasprovided R and R for the front line both at forward and center. A skinny andmuch-traveled ABA veteran who once was labeled "the advance man for afamine," Owens has found a home in Portland, where he has used hisintelligence as well as his passing and scoring ability (13 games in doublefigures) to blend into the Blazer system. "Playing 12 minutes here is likeplaying 20 anywhere else, the center participates so much," Owens says.
As any of thelocal woodchoppers would tell you, however, there is another center who mustparticipate for the Blazers to continue devastating the NBA. Though he does notlead the league in rebounding or blocked shots, as he has before, Bill Waltonis playing a more complete defensive game. With the metal pin having beenremoved from his left wrist, Walton is also varying his offensive game to agreat extent, setting up on the right side, hooking both ways. "Thedifference is I have two hands now instead of one," he says. "Two handsfor shooting, passing, carrying the groceries, everything."
Also for shieldinghis privacy from the dastardly designs of the horrible, prying media. The otherday at the airport Walton put both hands over the lens of a TV camera when anational network tried to take a picture of older son Adam, who was there tomeet the Blazers' plane.
Be that as it may,Walton seems more relaxed and comfortable with the opposition, which is to sayanyone unacquainted with the Grateful Dead. Last week, between favoring abanquet audience with some self-mockery, smashing a journalist in the face witha marsh-mallow pie on McKinney's closed-circuit pregame show and admitting hewas "happy and excited" to be going to the All-Star Game, Walton gavethe impression that he has finally accepted more responsibility in the publicsector.
Walton always hasmaintained a joyful spontaneity with coaches and teammates. No longer "theChief," a moniker that seemed to hold contrary meanings he didn'tappreciate, Walton has been renamed "Beaver" (by Twardzik)—not intribute to his teeth but after his middle name, Theodore, which was BeaverCleaver's real name on Leave ft to Beaver.
In practice lastweek Beaver and Fudd and the rest of the once and future champions interruptedtheir march toward immortality long enough to ridicule anew the vivid ensemblesof "our bald-headed emperor," to play soccer against the scorer's tableand to balance as many balls as they could on the basket rim. The Blazers piled10 up there before all the balls came tumbling down.
"What is thepurpose of this?" said Ramsay, who had wandered over to investigate theuproar.
"Guinness.Guinness," called out Walton, referring to the book of world records. Whichwas only fitting.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
THE FIVE BEST—AND HERE COMES PORTLAND
LOS ANGELES 71-72