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Spirit of ’76-’77

Teamwork Conquers Star Power in Portland's Magical Year

By Henry Abbott

In August 1976, Maurice Lucas arrived in Portland and invited his new teammates Bill Walton and Herm Gilliam to dinner at Jake's, a popular seafood restaurant. They had all met before—Lucas and Walton played in the Final Four together a few years earlier—but they weren't close friends. Nevertheless, Walton remembers that they ate fish and talked easily about "everything—basketball, life, music, and Portland."

They quickly knew that they were looking forward to playing together. They could not have known that the coming season would forever change their lives. They could not have known that Walton and "Mo" Lucas would grow so close that Walton would call his son Luke. As they played for a team that had never had a winning season or been to the playoffs, it would seem they also could not have known that they were about to win an NBA championship.

After eating, they stepped out of the restaurant onto the sidewalk, where the brightness of the summer day lingered into the evening. As they said their goodbyes, "Mo said 'Oh by the way: we're going to win the championship. We're going to win the championship, and we're going to win it this year,'" remembers Walton.

"I just said 'OK, Maurice, whatever you say. Let's go do it.'"

Portland had a brand new coach that year, Jack Ramsay, who preached selflessness and teamwork. His ideas caught on quickly and spread like wildfire. The team shared the ball relentlessly—everyone on the team could pass well—and players quickly set about learning how best to execute a truly balanced attack.

Basketball aficionados still approach Ramsay to talk about the cohesiveness of that team. "People—players and coaches alike—will say that team was the best ball-handling team, or the most together team," says Ramsay. "Those were great guys to be around. We just enjoyed being around each other."

25 years later, those players say they still talk to each other all the time. "It was such a special time in a special town—everything just had such a good vibration to it. The friendships forged in that time have lasted a lifetime," says Walton, who now calls games for NBC.

"It was very magical," says Lionel Hollins, who started at guard. "We're more like family. We grew together as players and as human beings. We sacrificed for each other," says Hollins.

Fans soon noticed the difference in the team, which had been uninspiring just a year earlier. "The team wasn't having success," says Ramsay. "Walton had been hurt a lot. There were some critics who thought he was too soft a player or a representative of the flower child generation. And he always had that beard and pony tail."

Walton arrived in training camp in 1976 with two new things: a clean shave and good health. As the team started winning, the counter-cultural giant quickly became the toast of the town. Blazermania was born, and, in a city with only one major league sports franchise, it never really left. That season the team started a home sellout streak that lasted deep into the 1990s.

The Blazers finished the regular season third in the west, and just scraped by Chicago in Portland's first-ever playoff series. In the second round they beat Denver in six games, before taking on the regular season's best team in Western Conference Finals. Starring Walton's hero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers were formidable. Portland swept them in four straight.

Then it was on to Philadelphia.

The ABA had just been merged into the NBA, and a lot of teams boasted new stars—especially the 76ers. "They were like the Who's Who of the NBA," remembers Portland's Hollins. "They had Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Henry Bibby, Caldwell Jones, World B. Free, Darryl Dawkins, Steve Mix, Mike Dunleavy, Jellybean Bryant. They had a bunch of guys."

The Blazers lost the first game badly, and fell far behind in game two. No Pacific Northwest team had won a major league sports championship since 1917, and it didn't seem like this squad would be the one to end the trend.

"We had a very young team," says Ramsay. "We only had one player who had ever been in the playoffs before. I think we were sort of overwhelmed."

Hollins says "the 76ers started partying" when they were up 20 with a few minutes left in game two. "They were talking about a sweep. Their fans were talking about a sweep. They really thought they had us."

Then something happened.

Philadelphia's 20-year-old giant, Darryl Dawkins—perhaps the strongest man in the NBA—more or less body-slammed the smaller Blazer Bobby Gross, then started swinging at him (he missed, but accidentally hit his teammate Doug Collins). The ensuing melee ended only when Lucas, the Blazers' enforcer as well as their leading scorer, shocked Dawkins with a blow to the head. The Sixers won the game, but the Blazers were invigorated.

"That fight was a major factor," remembers Walton. "We were on the ropes. We were just not playing good basketball. Then Maurice stood tall and said 'Look—no one is messing with my team.'"

"It gave our guys a little shot in the arm," concurs Ramsay. "And then, before the third game began, Lucas ran over and shook hands with Dawkins which really got our crowd all excited."

Back in Portland, the fans took over—beginning the instant the team's charter plane touched down. "We were greeted by tens of thousands—endless multitudes—of Blazermaniacs," recalls Walton, "even though we were down 0-2 and it was the middle of the night… it was absolutely mind-boggling."

"Then we had an unbelievable practice before game three," recalls Hollins. Game three saw Portland return to form, as they earned a gritty win. "In game four we blew them out. Then we went back to Philly and blew them out again. And with each quarter we gained more confidence."

Game six was once again in the City of Roses. McGinnis' unusual one-handed jumper was true in the early going, and Philadelphia center Caldwell Jones displayed a number of fluid scoring moves. Erving kept finding room to operate, and he threw down vicious, monster dunks just about every time.

But the Blazers were getting even easier baskets than the Sixers, and they built a double-digit lead. "Walton was perhaps the best passing center ever," says Ramsay. When he caught the ball in the post, Walton looked first for teammates streaking to the hoop. "I tell people all the time that I think that team probably had more layups than any other team in the history of the game," says Ramsay. "Bill's ability was a big part of that, but everybody else followed the game plan too."

In contrast, the Sixers took turns fighting the Blazers one-on-one. Calling the game for CBS, Rick Barry noted that the Sixers' ball movement was "non-existent."

Preoccupied with running down the clock, the Blazers handed the Sixers an opportunity in the closing minutes. With sixteen seconds left, trailing by two, Philadelphia won a jumpball and threatened to tie the game. (This was in the days before three-pointers.)

The Memorial Coliseum crowd was electric, tense, and deafening. Erving got the first good look at the basket, and missed. The crowd thundered. The ball bounced to Free. Hollins and Gross mobbed him and deflected his baseline jumper out of bounds. With five seconds left, McGinnis caught the inbounds pass and made his way towards the basket, pulling up for a fifteen-footer that barely missed. Blazer rookie Johnny Davis—now an assistant coach with Orlando—scooped up the loose ball and raced for the other end as the horn sounded. Blazermaniacs flooded the court, and the Blazers had become the youngest team ever to win a championship.

"Afterwards, the city was just mayhem," remembers Philadelphia's Steve Mix, who now does color commentary for Sixers' TV broadcasts. "That was a lot of fun. Walton was running around with the fans, he had his shirt off, the fans were partying, it was just bedlam everywhere. From a basketball fan's point of view—win or lose—that's where you want to be. It was just the place to be."

In footage of the street scenes from Portland that sunny June 5, it seems like every single person in the city has shaggy hair, bell-bottoms, and an enormous smile. Mix jumped right in. "My wife and I stepped outside of the Coliseum, before we got on the bus to the airport, and joined some of those fans for a glass of champagne. It was just a major party."

A quarter century later, the players on that Portland team are still thrilled about the 1976-77 season. "People ask me if I ever get tired of taking about that team," says Hollins. "No, I never do."

"All I ever wanted in life was to be part of something special," says Walton. "Nowhere have I ever come close to playing as well as I did in Portland. I just wish it could have lasted. It was such a perfect situation—being in Oregon, with those fans, that team, that coach, that time, everything. Nobody could ever ask for more."

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