It is playoff time in the National Basketball Association. Sign in, please. Willie Norwood: waived twice by Detroit, waived once by Seattle, played for the Rochester (N.Y.) Zenith in the All American Basketball Alliance until it folded in February. Jacky Dorsey: waived by New Orleans, waived by Denver, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Eastern Association. Dale Schlueter: appeared in the uniforms of six teams in nine years, picked up from the terrific Portland city-league team that won the Oregon AAU championship. The team's name is Claudia's.
What's their line? They are, of course, the amazing front line of the world champion Portland Trail Blazers. At least they were while the Blazer locker room was reminding everybody of the hospital in the movie Coma. You may have read about the epidemic. No sooner would one member of the NBA's best and brightest team be afflicted with whooping cough than a teammate would come down with terminal acne. For a while it seemed as if somebody was poisoning the Blazers' boysenberry and arugula salads. Or that Bill Walton was paying off on a pact he had made with the Devil and Marvin Webster.
What really happened was that fate and the law of averages (Portland was all but injury free in 1977) had decreed that the runaway Blazers come back to the rest of the NBA. So they did.
After 60 games the champions had a resounding 50-10 record and were threatening to break every record the Montreal Canadiens hadn't already disposed of. Then Walton was hurt and in a month Portland had lost its top four re-bounders and Nos. 1-2-4-5-7 scorers. The Blazers limped out of the regular season with only eight victories in their last 22 games. "Of all times to happen," said Walton, fastening his Tenzing Norkay memorial knapsack onto his 48-speed dual cam, everything-on-it-but-a-wagging-doggie-head-on-the-handlebars bicycle. "This is terrible."
Terrible for Portland. Wonderful for the rest of the NBA as well as CBS-TV, which, if the Trail Blazers had remained healthy, would have been forced to trot out Barnaby Jones reruns during the Blazers' stroll through the playoffs. They were that good.
While some of the champions' ills may be cured by the time they begin play in the second round, the suspicion lingers that Portland's chances of becoming the first team to repeat as NBA champion since the Celtics of 1968 and '69 are nil. More than any team, the Blazers depend on timing and repetition to be effective in their passing, cutting offensive flow. It is possible that this week's bye will enable Portland to regain its conditioning but it is hardly likely.
Not only has its predicament enhanced network merriment, but it has set up the most interesting NBA tournament in years, with the focus being the Pacific, which in 1977-78, top to bottom, furnished one of the strongest divisional lineups in the history of the NBA.
After one considers the reasonable arguments in support of the Eastern Conference champions—the Philadelphia 76ers of the Atlantic Division and the San Antonio Spurs of the Central—a couple of obvious questions remain.
If the media-darling 76ers are so talented and—where have we heard this adjective before?—"to-ge-ther," why, when they had the simple task of passing the crippled Trail Blazers for the season's best record, which is worth a $50,000 team bonus and the home-court advantage in all playoff series, did they fold up, losing four in a row and six of their last eight?
Moreover, if the (as comedian Steve Martin might say) craaaaaaazy Spurs are so good, why ain't they making big bucks? And why does everybody insist that the first time George Gervin and Larry Kenon et al. receive an elbow in the ribs, the Spurs will jingle and jangle, pack it in and head back to the Alamo?
In truth, four of the six teams that have a real chance to win the NBA championship are in the Pacific, and the only reason the division's fifth team—the Golden State Warriors—hasn't got a shot is that it did not make the playoffs. Somebody must have given Rick Barry a whiff of the green, because the Warriors closed with a rush to finish with a 43-39 record—and that would have been the fourth best in the whole Eastern Conference. As it was, Golden State finished dead last in the Pacific, but failed by only a single game to catch the Midwest Division's second-place club, the young Milwaukee Bucks, for the last playoff berth.
That leaves Portland, Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles to carry the colors of the NBA's westernmost division and prolong their donnybrook to the bitter end. The way it was in the West was fascinating enough to review as a reminder that in the NBA the game is not over until the last man is found, kicked or punched or thrown out.
On the last day of February the Trail Blazers were in the process of a 21-point homecourt blowout of Philadelphia when Walton walked to the bench saying the pain in his right foot had intensified to the point that he could not run. A week later minor surgery relieved nerve pressure in the area of the toes, but then his left foot pained him, and that was diagnosed as bursitis.
Doctors predicted Walton would be out from one to three weeks. But he hasn't played since. In rapid succession injuries claimed Lloyd Neal (knee), Maurice Lucas (hand, then leg) and Bob Gross (ankle), who joined Larry Steele (both feet) and Dave Twardzik (entire body) who were already on the sidelines.
In the improbable event that everybody else is back and playing well, the Blazers will still sorely miss Gross (whose fractured ankle surely will keep him out of all playoffs). In Portland's final two championship victories over the 76ers last June, Gross scored 25 and 24 points. His replacements at small forward, Steele, Corky Calhoun and rookie T.R. Dunn, are basically defenders.
While Tom Owens has filled in admirably in the pivot, the Blazers have missed Walton's contributions to the guard position where Lionel Hollins and, especially, Johnny Davis require his presence to exploit their games fully.
In the playoffs Portland should not have to contend with the one team whose aggressive, overplaying defenses caused it the most problems—Midwest Division winner Denver (3-1 over the Blazers this season). Then again, at this stage, the Blazers might be hard pressed to stop Claudia's. Who the champs play may be academic unless physicians—or Coach Jack Ramsay—can perform some miracles in Multnomah County.
The Suns have the Rookie of the Year in Walter Davis, the guard of every year in Paul Westphal (with apologies to Gervin and the Nuggets' David Thompson, who are forwards masquerading as guards) and, some say, the hypochondriac of all years in Alvan Adams. With five rookies helping out, the team won 49 games and played consistently well except for a post-All-Star Game slump when Ronnie Lee, the runaround kid, was doing more referee-baiting than running around.
Now the Suns are regrouping just in time, exactly as they did two years ago when they roared into the NBA finals. And Phoenix is much better this time. The key statistic is its league-leading total of 1,059 steals (the vastly underrated guard, Don Buse, lives here), which are the source of a significant number of fast breaks and which offset the team's fecklessness underneath.
How much do the Suntan Boys rely on finesse? "If team tug-of-war ever got to be CBS' halftime show," says Phoenix Gazette columnist Joe Gilmartin, "the Suns would finish 22nd." The team also can be intimidated by—shhh—zone defenses, which tend to shut down Coach John MacLeod's vaunted motion offense.
Because of their low profiles, it seems to be a big secret in mediaville that the self-contained scoring machines, Westphal and Davis, are absolutely brilliant and that MacLeod is one of the best coaches in the business.
With the home-court advantage over everybody but Portland, Philadelphia and San Antonio, this team will be very tough to handle in the playoffs and certainly a strong favorite over Milwaukee in the mini-series, then over Denver, whose magnificent Thompson, in closing out the season, scored 73 points, tying the third-highest total in NBA history.
"What the bleep's goin' down with you bleepers?" was Bob Hopkins' idea of a pep talk in the huddles while the SuperSonics were losing 17 of the 22 games he coached. When Lenny Wilkens took over, he installed a starting lineup of Center Marvin Webster, rookie Forward Jack Sikma and Guard Gus Williams, along with the firm of Johnson and Johnson (Forward John, Guard Dennis) who proceeded to powder—get it?—the opposition and even get along with each other.
Moreover, Wilkens has meticulously formed the embryo of a true "team," one with the strength to grow and mature. That sounds suspiciously like what happened in that other paradise of the Pacific Northwest last season.
In the final weeks Seattle and Los Angeles traded third place in the division as if it were a ticking package, but the Sonics should defeat the Lakers in their mini-series on rebounding and defense if not on character.
Because Webster, the former Human Eraser, has become a rejuvenated in-your-facer—what with his blocked shots and his averages of 36 minutes and 13 rebounds—the Sonics have risen to No. 2 in the NBA on defense.
"Banger" Sikma, he of the flaxen locks and the trivia-answer alma mater (Illinois Wesleyan, folks), and leading scorer-assist man Williams, he of the "attitude" that got him released from Golden State, have been revelations, while Downtown Freddie Brown has been content to ride the bench until Wilkens beckons him to throw in his patented bombs from the Space Needle.
All this and veteran Paul Silas tearing apart the backboards, too. Is it conceivable that everybody was correct about the championship staying way up there in the rainbelt, but had the wrong city?
After Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand on Kent Benson's face in the season opener, he missed 20 games. Then when he returned, and Jack Kent Cooke's checkbook surrounded him with new playmates such as Adrian Dantley and Charlie Scott, he went on a work strike for 20 more games, claiming he was "bothered by the violence.... It gets to my psyche." After journalists badgered him as "Captain Sleepwalker" and Coach Jerry West told him that if the game wasn't fun anymore he should get out, Abdul-Jabbar promised to end the most listless slump of his career and play his goggles off.
In the last month he has earned his $8,000 per game salary by averaging 28 points and 16 rebounds, and the feared Lakers are coming on. Or are they?
Too often they have lost the big game by missing the big shot. Though strong-boy Dantley and ancient Lou Hudson put together fine seasons, the injured Jamaal Wilkes and Scott contributed mostly by enabling the Lakers to lead the world in Muslims.
That left it up to a babe, rookie Point Guard Norm Nixon, to hold the Lakers together. And, oh, how Nixon responded. With his girlfriend in the stands shouting things like, "Use him, Norman! Use that chump!" Nixon became Hollywood's new Little Big Man.
West has said he doesn't care who his team draws in the playoffs, and no wonder; the Lakers are a combined 2-10 vs. their three probable Pacific foes. L.A. may have more native talent than anybody, but the team is a collection of men who are not close either on or off the court. "Our problem is rectifiable," Abdul-Jabbar has said. "But first, we have to identify what it is."
Whoever wins in the West will face the survivor of what could be the smokin'est series of them all, the probable East final between Philadelphia and San Antonio. This assumes that those division winners turn back two of the following: the New York Knicks in the Atlantic and the Washington Bullets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks in the Central.
A lot of good things can be said for Hawk Coach Hubie Brown and the job he did with a bargain-basement collection of more hounds than Disney rounded up in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. But what about the other "contenders"?
The Knicks have Bob McAdoo shooting everything and Lonnie Shelton fouling everybody. The Cavs have the alleged Walt Frazier, who sat out seven weeks with an ingrown toenail or something, and of whom Coach Bill Fitch said, "He's 32 going on 40. You or I would be playing on that. Looking at Frazier puts me to sleep." And the tired and gimpy Bullets, who keep their best player (Mitch Kupchak) shackled in a sixth-man role, permit opposing guards to fire at will and then wander around wondering why they lose at home.
It is difficult not to imagine San Antonio advancing to a Gatling-gun rendezvous with the 76ers at which Gervin and Julius Erving and Kenon and Darryl Dawkins will play Dueling Jammos. Best lock up the women and children.
While the Spurs are lightweight, unphysical and incapable of defensing your grandmother, they are never out of a game as long as their arms stay cocked. On learning that Thompson had overtaken him only hours before for the scoring lead, Gervin used his final game to throw in 63 points and grab the title back; if Bill Walton is not basketball's MVP, Gervin certainly is.
Still, Philadelphia would seem to have more weapons than San Antonio—specifically Doug Collins' slapping defense on Gervin and Henry Bibby helping out. Also the Sixers no longer quiver at the mention of "Spurs," because they have whipped their Texas cousins three of four this winter after losing all but one of their meetings last season.
"We need more love than any team in the history of basketball," says George McGinnis, the same beleaguered "McGoonis" of last spring's playoffs, who has returned smoking less but enjoying it—well, don't ask.
New Coach Billy Cunningham gave the 76ers much affection, but the team still floundered. With all the Lloyd Frees juking and the Joe Bryants skying and the Dawkinses spouting off about "interplanetary funksmanship," the 76ers were embarrassed down the stretch by the likes of Atlanta's Tree Rollins and New Orleans' Rich Kelley. So whither, really, Philly?
The tranquil Erving says, "The opportunity does not exist for me to carry Philadelphia on my back; it isn't necessary for me to perform up to potential." But wait a minute. Isn't this the same guy who in the 1977 finals was obliged to do just that? And can anybody forget him showing everyone what interplanetary really means?
"Obviously you'd like to see me turned loose, have total freedom and be freaky," says Erving. "But what would be the result?"
Perhaps the 76ers will romp. Or collapse. Or scream and yell at each other again. Maybe the sky will fall and the Hawks will upset everybody.
In this most competitive of playoff seasons anything could tip the balance. But here is one vote for teamwork, cohesion, character, finesse. Here is a vote for the Phoenix Suns.