Of all the passages that could be applied to the 20-year saga of the Portland Trail Blazers—and everyone from Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam to Paul Danzer of The Daily Astorian, in Astoria, Ore., has written about the team—the most appropriate lines may be those penned by that old Irish hoops sage, William Butler Yeats: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Portland won its only NBA title in 1976-77, then watched its title defense collapse along with the feet of Bill Walton. Ever since, a succession of injuries to starting centers has helped assure the Blazers an early playoff demise. In '79-80 it was Mychal Thompson's broken left leg. In '85-86, Sam Bowie's bruised left leg and bone spurs in his left foot. In '86-87, Bowie's rickety right leg. In '87-88, Steve Johnson's bone spur-infested ankles and, again, Bowie's right leg. "It's a never-ending story," says Portland's All-Star guard, Clyde Drexler. "It makes me wish I were seven feet tall."
It was fitting, then, that Portland beat fate last Saturday largely by rehabilitating its two ailing centers, Kevin Duckworth and Wayne Cooper, just in time for the first seventh game in franchise history. The Blazers beat the San Antonio Spurs 108-105 in overtime and advanced to the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns (page 34), the Blazers' first appearance in that competition in 13 frustrating seasons. Portland won Games 1 and 2 easily at home, and San Antonio reciprocated in its own arena in Games 3 and 4.
Each team held serve at home once more—the Blazers barely so in Game 5, 138-132 in double overtime, and the Spurs convincingly, with a 112-97 victory in Game 6—to set up last Saturday's dramatic finale. As usual, the longer the series went, the rougher things got. Game 6, at the HemisFair Arena, featured three sets of double technicals for near fights, plus the ejection of Drexler in. the third quarter for directing an elbow at Spur swingman Willie Anderson's face.
At the same time the mouthing off, particularly by coach Larry Brown's brash young Spurs, was escalating. "I don't think [Cliff Robinson] can guard me as well as Cooper can," said Spur center David Robinson. "And I don't think Cooper can guard me." Added Anderson, "Forget the home court. If we start good against them Saturday, they'll fold."
Portland didn't fold—not even after San Antonio took a crowd-quieting 97-90 lead with 2:31 left in regulation.
There had been at least one precarious moment for the Spurs. Midway through the second period, Spur point guard Rod Strickland delivered a forearm to the face of Portland guard Drazen Petrovic. Blazer coach Rick Adelman went nuts, arguing, to no avail, that Strickland deserved banishment every bit as much as Drexler had two days earlier.
"I'm glad they didn't throw him out," said Drexler later, when he could afford to be magnanimous. "Things worked themselves out."
Matters seemed much more perilous for the Blazers when they found themselves on the short end of that 97-90 score late in the fourth. But Duckworth, his broken right hand taped and splinted so that only two fingers could move freely, stroked home a medium-range jumper. Then, after a Strickland brick, Drexler squeezed off a particularly cold-blooded trey for someone who had missed 23 of his last 27 field goal attempts. It swished. Now down only two points with 1:24 left in regulation, Portland found itself rushing upcourt again after first Strickland, then Robinson missed. Point guard Terry Porter sensed forward Jerome Kersey on the right and shoveled a blind pass to him for a slam. Barely a minute had passed, and it was 97-all.
As emphatic as it may have been, Kersey's throwdown assured the Blazers of overtime, nothing more. In the final minute of the extra period, with the score tied at 103, the Spurs were moving the ball adroitly around their frontcourt, seemingly having recovered from their lost opportunity. Robinson got the ball just outside the key, rose and turned into a maze of defenders as if to shoot, then thought better of it. He pitched out to Strickland—only Strickland was moving toward the lane and had to turn his back to the basket to catch Robinson's pass. Then this: Thinking that Sean Elliott, who was lingering on the wing, would cut backdoor to the basket, Strickland flipped the ball blindly over his head toward the baseline.
It was a move born of playground hubris—a lead clip for a TV highlight package if it works, a misbegotten piece of showboating if it doesn't. It didn't. Elliott's expression turned to horror as the ball headed for a cluster of photographers. Kersey thought for a moment of letting it go safely out of bounds. "But Jerome is a hustler to the last second," Drexler would say later. So Drexler drifted toward midcourt as Kersey dived, whirled and hurled the ball deep into the frontcourt. Drexler took it on the move and, as he sailed toward the hoop, was hammered from behind by Strickland. The breakaway foul led to two of the five free throws Drexler would sink in the closing moments for Portland's final points. All things considered, Adelman and the Blazers must have been glad that Strickland was still around.
"What happened to your hand, man?" The questioner was Drexler, examining Kersey's fresh bandage in the celebratory locker room.
"Cameraman," said Kersey with pride. "Wouldn't move, man."
But the true medals of valor belonged to the Portland pivotmen who had manned the middle as Duckworth and Cooper convalesced on the bench. For most of the series the 7'1" Robinson found himself being harassed by 6'8" Buck Williams, 6'10" Cliff Robinson or 6'9" Mark Bryant. On Saturday, Portland again had real bodies to lay on Robinson. The 7-foot, 270-pound Duckworth strode out of the locker room only 13 minutes before tip-off, a ploy conceived by Adelman to light up the crowd. Duckworth finished with only six points and five rebounds but had an undeniable presence. As Kersey said, "You can't go through Duck. You gotta go around him."
Cooper, who had been sidelined with back spasms for virtually all of Games 3 through 6, blocked three shots on Saturday as they left the hand of the man who didn't think Cooper could guard him. Indeed, Robinson was so disoriented at suddenly not having his way in the lane that he missed 10 of his first 11 field goal attempts. As Porter lounged in the locker room, savoring his 36-point, nine-assist performance, he said, "Next year Larry can't say he has 'kids,' because they'll have learned from this series."
As the Suns come to cloudy Portland, the Blazers, too, have learned a lesson: In the playoffs, when you have a center you have a chance.