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Fran Blinebury

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Synergy led Portland squad to 1977 championship


Posted Nov 23 2011 9:22AM

The worm turned. The pendulum swung. Suddenly the gale force winds were blowing at their backs instead of into their faces.

A year earlier, the Portland Trail Blazers had finished last in the Pacific Division and as a franchise had never even been to the NBA playoffs. Twelve months later, they had the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins and Darryl Dawkins on the ropes. And that was after trailing 0-2 in the 1977 NBA Finals.

"Dr. J was spectacular, brilliant throughout that series," Hall of Fame center Bill Walton recalled. "But I think, as a whole, the Philadelphia team knew they were gonna eventually see who were we were."

The Blazers were a Halley's Comet type of team, a once-in-a-lifetime combination of talent and intellect and greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts competitiveness that seemed to arrive out of deep space to roar like fire across NBA sky.

This was a Portland team that had been built around Walton, the three-time college player of the year at UCLA and the No. 1 pick in the 1974 draft. But the big red-head had played in only 86 games over his first two NBA seasons due to foot injuries and as the team foundered, Walton stewed.

It was the addition of the late Maurice Lucas in the 1976 ABA dispersal draft that gave Walton the power forward strong man he needed at his back along with the ability to score 20 points a game to lead the Blazers in scoring. If Walton was the heart of the lineup, Lucas, who became known as the enforcer, was their backbone.

"Luke was the best teammate I ever played with, bar none," Walton said. "He backed down to no one."

"Lucas was the heart and soul of the team," said backup guard Herm Gilliam. "He gave us toughness, that never-say-die attitude."

Nevertheless, the Blazers lost eight of their final 15 regular season games to finish with a 49-33 record and were only the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference going into the playoffs.

In a first-round mini-series against the hard-nosed Chicago Bulls, the Blazers were up by two points with 36 seconds left in the deciding Game 3, when the crowd at the old Memorial Coliseum used a full-throated roar to prop up the home team and got them home. It is that game that is generally regarded as the birth of what came to be known as "Blazermania."

"The crowd was in agreement with us," said reserve small forward Larry Steele. "We had a chance to be something special, even in our first year in the playoffs. It was a unified effort."

"The fans grew right along with us," Gilliam said. "They started meeting us at airports, stuff like that."

It was such a rapid, remarkable rise for a franchise that had averaged just 28 wins in the franchise's first six years of existence and had lost the two best players in Portland history, both of whom departed before the season started.

The Blazers lost guard Geoff Petrie to a career-ending leg injury and traded Sidney Wicks to Boston. A young Moses Malone was a Blazer for a few weeks of training camp, but was shipped to Buffalo before the regular season began.

But this was a new start under new coach Jack Ramsay, who had no trouble getting a selfless group of players to buy into his passing offense. Most notable, of course, was Walton, who was known for his passing ability out of the post. With a healthy Walton able to play 65 games during the regular season, the Blazers were able to flourish with a lineup that also included guards Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis along with small forward Bob Gross.

The Blazers were both young and worldly. Walton was in only his third pro season, as was Davis. Hollins was in his second. It was Lucas' first year in the NBA after changing leagues.

"We had a good mix of young guys who were confident, if not cocky, to go with real, smart, tough veterans like Herm Gilliam and Larry Steele," said Hollins. "Everybody on that team knew what had to be done and how to do it."

After escaping the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, the Blazers took out the Midwest Division champion Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the second round.

Next up in the Western Conference finals were the L.A. Lakers. Led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers had won the regular season series 3-1 over Portland. But despite Abdul-Jabbar outscoring Walton 121-77, the Blazers ripped off a stunning 4-0 sweep and found themselves in the Finals with the first two games at Philly. And quickly found themselves in that 0-2 hole.

But it was near the end of Game 2, that everything changed. Late in the game a fight erupted and the Sixers hulking young center Dawkins took a swing at Gross and wound up hitting his own teammate Collins in the ear. That's when Lucas embraced his role as enforcer, punching Dawkins in the head.

"I thought that changed how we felt about ourselves," said Lucas, who died of bladder cancer on Oct. 31, 2010.

The Blazers went back home to win the next two games, but the series felt like anything but even. The tide had turned.

"Basketball is like rock 'n roll music," Walton said. "There is a rhythm and a momentum that builds, and then it has a way of transcending everything. You can definitely get caught up in it."

Walton was dominant in a Game 5 win in Philly and then the Blazers survived three shots by the Sixers in the final 18 seconds of Game 6 to clinch a 109-107 for their first -- and still only -- championship in franchise history.

The series was a drastic contrast in styles: the flamboyant Sixers' 1-on-1 talents against the Blazers' passing, sharing style and ultimate team game.

"I haven't ever spoken to them directly about it," said Ramsay. "But I've heard down through the years that most of the Philly players couldn't believe we were capable of being them four times in a row."

Until the worm turned, the pendulum swung and a magical season of Blazermania rode out on the wind.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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