The visitors' locker room in veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix was almost empty an hour after the Portland Trail Blazers had beaten the Suns 112-109 last Thursday evening to win the NBA Western Conference finals, four games to two. Only guards Byron Irvin, a rookie reserve, and Clyde Drexler, both of whom were half dressed, lingered behind the rest of the team. "You gelling tonight?" Irvin asked as he prepared to douse his own hair with pomade. Drexler smiled his tight-lipped smile and shook his head. "No, I don't need to," Drexler replied. "I don't have any hair left. You're forgetting I'm an old man."
Although it seems the dignified Drexler, now in his seventh professional season, has been around since before hair goop, he is only 27 years old. Yet he has been the Blazers' sole signature player since the Walton era ended in 1977-78, and he is a four-time All-Star. Drexler has also been a lightning rod for censure over the club's first-round flops in the playoffs the last four years and, recently, a target of biting criticism from Golden State coach Don Nelson concerning Drexler's role in the downfall of former Blazer coach Mike Schuler, who was fired last season with 35 games remaining. But certainly in the final two games against Phoenix, Clyde the Glide was bona fide. In Game 5 on May 29 in Portland—a 120-114 Blazer win—and in Game 6 in Phoenix, Drexler collected a total of 55 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists and came up big at crunch time in both contests. "Clyde's our man, no question about it," said Portland point guard Terry Porter. "He doesn't have to be our go-to guy, but we need him to make the big plays."
To advance to the NBA finals for the first time since '76-77, the Blazers' one championship season, Portland called upon a flock of big-play types against Phoenix. There was Porter, dissecting defenses, swishing threes with impunity and withstanding the enterprise of Kevin Johnson, the heart of the Suns' attack. There was undersung forward Jerome Kersey, who paced Portland against Phoenix in points (21.5 per game), rebounds (8.8) and shooting percentage (50.5%). And there was Buck Williams, whose low-down defense harassed Tom Chambers, a three-time All-Star and the Suns' leading scorer, into missing 26 of 37 shot attempts in the last two games. "That's why we're still playing," says Drexler. "If you have only one or two main guys, teams can take them away. If the other guys don't respond, you go home. Our team structure is different, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Drexler made that clear last season when teammates came to him and asked that he assume a stronger leadership role. He declined. No wonder Drexler often took heat, even from his teammates, for deflecting criticism. As Drexler slipped while running for a team bus last year, one Blazer player cracked that there must be some defect in the bus. Then, during the Phoenix series, came the bombshell from Nelson, who called Drexler "destructive" and the NBA's "most overrated" player. Nelson's comments struck many as political, designed to help his friend Schuler, who had openly feuded with Drexler in Portland, land the vacant job as head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. (Schuler did.) Said Drexler, "I admire Nelson's loyalty, but not at my expense. He doesn't even know me."
Portland coach Rick Adelman certainly does, and with the series tied at two games each, Adelman knew that he needed Drexler at full flight if the Blazers were to survive. Drexler had been shooting only 43.9% against Phoenix and interrupting the team's offensive flow by firing too rapidly with fiat jumpers. "Ray Charles can see when I'm not shooting it right," Drexler says. Nonetheless, Adelman cleared room for the 6'7" Drexler to operate against 6'3" Jeff Hornacek of the Suns. Drexler responded with 32 points in Game 5, including a trey that ignited a rally by the Blazers, who trailed 106-101 with 6:33 left in the fourth period. "People have been putting a lot of pressure on Clyde," Johnson said after the game. "He did a good job of maintaining his composure."
Handwritten on an index card tucked above Hornacek's locker are the words SUCCESS IS FAILURE TURNED INSIDE OUT. Good words to live by, but the Blazers turned them into Phoenix's epitaph. In each of their four losses, the Suns disintegrated in the stretch, reversed by Portland's unflinching defense and their own offensive ineptitudes. The waning moments of Game 6 provided a classic example of the Suns' self-destruct mode. Though Johnson missed the entire second half because of a pulled left hamstring suffered in the second quarter, Phoenix, inspired by Hornacek (and his career-high 36 points), led 105-99 with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth period. But Porter canned a three, Drexler notched two steals, and Kersey made a thrilling block and subsequent layup with a dish from Drexler as Portland went up 110-109 with 27.2 seconds on the clock.
On the Suns' last real chance, they fed the ball to Chambers on the left block. Chambers turned into the paint to make his move on Williams. "When he raked the ball, I kept my hands down to see if I could shake it loose," Williams said. "And I did." Drexler, who had double-teamed Chambers, picked up the loose ball and was fouled. Drexler nailed the two free throws to seal the scoring. "You hate to lose without getting a shot," said Phoenix forward Eddie Johnson. "But that was just typical of the whole series." In the end, the Suns' four losses to Portland were by an average of three points.
"When you look up the definition of gut check in the dictionary, they'll probably have a picture of the Trail Blazers," shouted Williams in the locker room madhouse that followed the series clincher. Drexler, as usual, was more cool. "It was just a golden moment for us as a team," he said. "And we seized the moment."