Blessedly, Jack Ramsay got the word that these are hard times for window-checked pants. Those loud red-and-green numbers that he always used to wear went out of style in 1977, about the same time Ramsay's Portland Trail Blazers were winning the NBA championship with a deliberate-motion offense revolving around Bill Walton and his veteran teammates. But times change. Today, Ramsay is urban-cowboy chic in pointy-toed leather boots and jeans, and there's also a new look to the Blazers, who are now very young, inexperienced and fast-breaking—and don't have a Bill Walton. When Portland's break is working, the results can be devastating—witness its 142-137 win over Denver last week. When it's not, the results can be disastrous—witness Friday night's 126-104 pasting by Houston, in which the Blazers turned the ball over 17 times. But such wipeouts have been fewer and further between in recent months, and Portland—39-36 through last Sunday—is practically assured of a spot in the playoffs, which start in two weeks.
The Blazers, whose starters average 24.8 years in age and 3.0 years in NBA experience, are now fourth in the Western Conference, at least two games ahead of each of the other three candidates for the last three playoff spots—Kansas City, Golden State and Houston. If they maintain their lead, they will have the home-court advantage in a first-round mini-series. That's a real advantage for Portland, which has had 179 consecutive sellout crowds in Memorial Coliseum and has a 27-10 record there this season.
Back on Dec. 2, though, Portland's record was a sickly 7-19, and the Blazers were less worried about staying alive in the playoffs than they were about staying alive period. The problem then wasn't so much bad basketball as lousy etiquette—the players hadn't been properly introduced to each other. Mychal Thompson was returning to action after missing all of last season with a broken left leg, and he was being shuffled back and forth between center and power forward. Eventually, Ramsay left Thompson in the pivot and turned the power position over to Kermit Washington, who was in his second year with the team. The other forward, Calvin Natt, was beginning his first full year with Portland, after being acquired in a trade with New Jersey late last season. Guard Jim Paxson, another second-year man, had played only sparingly as a rookie.
Perhaps fittingly, the man Ramsay counted on to make all the parts fit together was a mere rookie, Guard Kelvin Ransey, from Ohio State. After acquiring Ransey in a draft-day trade with Chicago—for fellow Big Ten Guard Ronnie Lester—and seeing him play with the Portland veterans in a Los Angeles summer league, Ramsay was sure he had the triggerman for his new fast-break offense. However, training camp came and went without any sign of Ransey, who sat at home and waited for the Blazers and his agent to settle a dispute over the number of years in his contract.
"I didn't work out at all and gained about 15 pounds," Ransey says. "Coach Ramsay had told me I'd be an integral part of the offense, and there I was overweight and sitting out. I got pretty nervous about the whole thing."
Ransey eventually signed a four-year contract for $260,000 per season and joined the team the day following its opening game, which Portland lost 98-86 at Utah. Portland also lost its next 12 road games. Struggling to play his way into shape, Ransey didn't crack the starting lineup consistently until a late November trip to the East Coast. Once he did, the Blazers began to move, winning 12 of 13 games to reach .500 by the turn of the year.
Now that they can distinguish friend from foe, the Trail Blazers are a team in every sense of the word. Seven players are scoring in double figures—as many as on any other NBA squad—with Paxson the high man at 17.1. Paxson also leads the Blazers in steals. The 6'10" Thompson is the club's No. 2 scorer, and he is tops in both rebounds (8.3) and blocked shots (2.1, seventh best in the league). Better yet, he provides some of the dominance at center that Portland lost when Walton departed in 1978. Washington missed 13 games in mid-season because of the flu and injuries, but he is still the Blazers' best offensive rebounder and their deadliest shooter at 56.4%. As for Natt, who averaged almost 20 points as a rookie, he is scoring less (13.8), but at 6'6" and 220 pounds he is one of the more powerful of the league's so-called small forwards.
For all of that, the key to the Blazers' upswing is Ransey. "You have to accommodate the ability of your players," Ramsay says. "For us, that meant running more and making plays off the break. We tried it last year but didn't have a ball handler at guard. Now we have Kelvin."
A top candidate for Rookie of the Year, Ransey ranks seventh in the league in assists (6.8 per game). He also looks to the basket himself and has averaged 18.3 points over the last 48 games.
"People wondered how this team would survive with a rookie as the leader, but I like having that role thrust upon me," Ransey says. "I get fired up a little more, try to do a little extra. Having the team look to me in the tough situations and making the play, that just helps my confidence."
That confidence will be sorely needed if Portland expects to approach the level of the '77 championship squad. Seven of the 12 men from that team are no longer playing basketball, most notably Walton, whose present NBA employer, San Diego, recently collected a claim for $1.25 million from Lloyd's of London on the grounds that Walton's chronically damaged left foot has rendered him permanently unfit for play. Walton still has a $5.6 million suit pending .against the Blazers for injuries incurred during the 1977-78 season and playoffs.
Except for Bob Gross, now the third forward for the Trail Blazers, the active players from the championship team now play elsewhere in the league. Substitute Wally Walker was released after the championship season and now plays for Seattle, while Johnny Davis was traded to Indiana for the first pick in the 1978 draft, which Portland used to take Thompson. Maurice Lucas and Guard Lionel Hollins were traded to New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively, last year after ongoing contract wrangles.
Survival, not championships, became the Portland goal. "We had to change." says Ramsay. "To make our old, deliberate system work, you need rebounders and every player has to be a good passer, especially the centers. Our guys do a good job, but they aren't Walton. We have different players with different skills now, and you have to play the cards you're dealt."
Late last season that meant giving the ball to Billy Ray Bates, then clearing out and letting him do all the dealing. A refugee from the Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association, the 6'4" Bates played in four different leagues last season before becoming a deity in Portland. His offensive explosions got Portland into the playoffs, and his 25-point average in the miniseries nearly led the Blazers to an upset of defending-champion Seattle. With each game, with each quote, the Legend of Billy Ray Bates, the kid from the backwoods of Mississippi who made it big, grew and grew until people, all around the world it seemed, were asking, "Is this guy for real?"
This year it is Ransey, not Bates, who is running the show, but as Billy Ray says. "I'm still known to go one-on-one against six guys. I guess I'm not the hero I was last year, but times change, people change. Last year I just got the ball and went to the basket. Now I'm learning to play under control. But when we get down 12 or 13 points, Coach knows he can call on me to fire it up."
That he does. Billy Ray averages just 19½ minutes a game but has become that valuable NBA commodity, a sixth man who can give his team instant offense. And when it comes to the three-point bomb or crowd-pleasing dunking theatrics, no one on Portland does it better than Billy Ray.
The harnessing and unharnessing of Bates is a kind of microcosm of the entire Portland team. When under control, the Trail Blazers' fast-break style works well, but too many times Thompson or Washington finds himself in the middle of the break. When that happens, the ball is tossed about haphazardly and bounces off Portland hands like a pinball off bumpers. That's when Jack Ramsay takes one of his pointy-toe boots, thinks of the Walton days and, well, kicks himself.