Like Americans everywhere last Thursday, the breakfasters in the coffee shop of a Cleveland hotel were unusually engrossed in their morning papers. Most were reading the first reports of the Pennsylvania nuclear-plant accident. But Dr. Jack Ramsay of the Portland Trail Blazers, the only coach in the NBA with a Ph.D., dived straight for the sports pages. In the penultimate week of the NBA regular season, a ferocious struggle for Western Conference playoff spots was on and Portland was in the middle of it. Seven teams were separated by seven games, and anything could happen.
Ramsay's mind was totally occupied with basketball. Never in 28 seasons of coaching had he experienced tribulations like those that began on Feb. 28, 1978, when Bill Walton fell on his left ankle, re-injuring it severely. Five other key players suffered injuries, and by season's end the defending champion Trail Blazers had their own orthopedic ward. There followed the staggering summer meeting in which Walton charged the team with improper medical practices and demanded to be traded.
Even after Walton went his own way to wait for his injury to heal, the Blazers' misfortunes plague continued. By the fourth game of the 1978-79 season, on Oct. 20 at Golden State, not one of the top seven players from the 1977 championship team was in a Portland uniform. Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross, Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins and Lloyd Neal were injured, Walton was in limbo and Johnny Davis had been traded to Indiana.
That the Trail Blazers last week came close to locking up a playoff spot is surprising enough. That they had won 16 of their last 20 games, had improved their road record to 13-27—as recently as Feb. 25 they were 25-5 at home and 4-25 on the road—and were playing as well as any team in the NBA seems nothing short of miraculous. The keys to Portland's resurgence are the development of two rookies—6'10" Forward Mychal Thompson, the Bahamian from Minnesota, and 6'4" Guard Ron Brewer, the shooter from Arkansas—as two of the best in the league at their positions, the machinelike play of Center Tom Owens, formerly Walton's backup, and Ramsay's coaching genius.
Because of the press scrutiny that followed Walton's allegations, injured Trail Blazers have been reluctant to take medication or rush back from injuries, and management has been extremely circumspect in referring to the availability of sidelined players. "If someone is injured—a hangnail to a broken skull—we just say, 'It's day to day,' " says Ramsay. "They come back when they're ready." Until the past few weeks there have seldom been enough players to hold a full practice. Between them, Gross, Lucas, Twardzik and Hollins have missed 72 games this season.
But because of those injuries, Thompson and Brewer have had more time in which to develop. Since March 11, when he became a starter opposite Lucas in the small forward spot—that's a 6'10", 230-pound small forward—Thompson has averaged 21.6 points and 9.6 rebounds while guarding and generally destroying the opponents' best forward, Julius Erving, Marques Johnson, Walter Davis and Bob Dandridge included. Brewer, after a slow start, is averaging 13.6 points on 50% shooting.
As for Ramsay, the strain of the season shows only in his eyes. His 54-year-old body belongs in a Vic Tanny ad. Before last Thursday's game with Cleveland he worried that his team might take the Cavaliers too lightly, and tougher games at Washington and Milwaukee were to follow. Hollins was in Portland with a sore knee, Lucas had a bruised hand, Gross was still not in shape after operations on his left ankle and both knees between March and November, and Twardzik's body was a disaster area. This season he has had a broken nose, a bruised shin and chest, a torn calf muscle and chronic back spasms. "Just basic wrack and ruin," he says. "Situation normal."
But nothing stopped Twardzik from, as usual, flinging himself around like a madman against Cleveland. He worked fast breaks and kept the Blazers' offense in perpetual motion as he (16 points), Lucas (24), Thompson (16) and Owens (18) took turns cutting to the basket and feeding each other perfect passes. In the 120-103 rout, 30 of Portland's 48 field goals were layups. At the other end, Thompson shut down the high-scoring Campy Russell (one for six), while grabbing 16 rebounds himself. Brewer's man, Austin Carr, went two for 11.
The Blazers spent the bus ride back to the hotel arguing whether to root for the San Diego Clippers (one game behind) or the Kansas City Kings (half a game ahead) in that night's game in San Diego. If Ramsay's Blazers play the consummate team game, Gene Shue's Clippers play the ultimate playground game. The Trail Blazers call them "The Dirty Dozen" and don't want to lose out to them, particularly by one game.
"We lost some we should have won," bellowed Owens. "But San Diego! We didn't lose that one. We were robbed." He was referring to the Jan. 24 game that the Clippers won 122-121 when Randy Smith made two free throws with two seconds left on a spurious foul call by Referee Paul Mihalik. There is no controversy. Ramsay received a letter from the NBA's supervisor of officials, Norm Drucker, acknowledging the error.
As it turned out, Kansas City snapped a five-game losing streak by beating San Diego last Thursday. The Kings had led the Midwest Division from Nov. 17 until just the night before, when they lost to Golden State while Denver was beating Detroit. That loss had made their record 3-11 since early March, when Forward Scott Wedman drove his Porsche off an icy road. The car collided with a telephone pole and split in two. Lucky to be alive, Wedman was out of the hospital four days later. That is why his teammates now call him the Incredible Hulk. At San Diego, in Wedman's fourth game back, he scored 19 and the Kings slid ahead early and beat the Clippers 116-111.
The Trail Blazers arrived in Washington Friday to find a newspaper account of a radio interview in which Walton said, "I haven't ruled out playing this year." With Portland? In the playoffs? "Yep," he said. "That would be really exciting." But Walton has cried wolf too many times for anyone associated with the Blazers entourage to take him seriously. "That would be a pretty good addition, having a backup center like him," said Assistant Coach Jack McKinney.
Walton's last exotic adventure took him to Davao City, Mindanao, in the Philippines. There he climbed 200 feet up a luan tree to weigh a baby monkey-eating eagle for an ABC-TV American Sportsman show. He has been home in Balboa Island, Calif. the last three weeks, running and bicycling, but according to his adviser, Portland attorney John Bassett, "His legs are two different sizes." Walton has not touched a basketball since last April 21—the day he broke a bone in his left foot in a playoff game against Seattle—except for two days of clinics in the Philippines.
"Bill would like to participate in the playoffs," says Bassett, "but deep down he recognizes that that's not going to happen. He'd love to ride in on a white horse, but he'd hate to have the ball bounce off his forehead in the first minute." Nonetheless, smart money says that Walton will re-sign and return to the Blazers next season.
Friday night the Blazers gave the defending champion Bullets their worst home-court thrashing in four seasons, 132-104. Dick Motta started 6'10" Mitch Kupchak in place of 6'6" Bob Dandridge at small forward, hoping to cope with the big Blazers. But after 18 minutes against Thompson, Kupchak was one for five with one rebound. For the rest of the game Thompson held Dandridge to three for 10 shooting, while he hit 11 of 17 for 22 points, collected nine rebounds and had six assists. Twice he blocked Dandridge's shots, and twice he moved over to knock down shots by Elvin Hayes. Owens scored 30, and again the Blazers' offense worked efficiently—30 of 60 field goals were layups, and they shot 61% from the field.
The other big game that night was San Diego (then two games behind) at Denver (half a game ahead). Whom would the Blazers pull for? "I don't think it matters anymore," said Gross.
It didn't. San Diego lost again, 130-121, its fourth straight. And while the Nuggets won, they lost as well when George McGinnis went down in the third quarter with a torn ligament in his left ankle. He is expected to be out six weeks, which means that Denver, which has little bench strength, faced a brutal season-ending five-game road trip without one of its big stars.
On Sunday the Blazers were in Milwaukee, and for 47 minutes it seemed that the reality of road life had finally caught up with them. Gross was out because of his injured knee, joining Hollins on the sidelines, and even though Milwaukee was without Marques Johnson, the Blazers were pushed around most of the game. But with a foul and a turnover in the last 11 seconds, Milwaukee handed Portland the game 109-107, thus giving Portland its first unbeaten road trip of the season.
Quite suddenly the Trail Blazers seemed to shake two conference rivals, one of them cruelly ravaged by injury, just as the Blazers themselves had been for most of the past season and a half. "It's too bad," said Lucas. "I like the competition."