BlazerMania Is Born

A recount the day BlazerMania was born

Wayne Thompson, the original beat-writer for the Portland Trail Blazers takes the fans back to an important point in team history and brings that game back to life with his "One For The Books" articles, which go beyond the box score. This installment of "One For The Books" was taken from the May 2003 issue of Rip City Magazine where Wayne relives Game Three of the 1977 NBA Finals between the Trail Blazers and 76ers. Powered by "The Enforcer", Maurice Lucas, the Trail Blazers took Game Three and the momentum en route to winning the championship. Without further ado, enjoy "BlazerMania Is Born"

By Wayne Thompson

Generations of Trail Blazers fans by now have seen the film clip of the final seconds of the team’s all-time shining moment – winning the NBA championship.

It’s been shown on the Rose Garden big screen dozens of times. It’s also been a rerun on both the ESPN Classic and NBA channels. Some devout Blazers memorabilia collectors even have it on videotape.

Here’s a refresher: Philadelphia’s George McGinnis takes a 15-foot jump shot with four seconds left. It bounces off the rim. Bill Walton leaps high to slap the ball toward center court where teammate Johnny Davis grabs it and runs out the clock.

Blazers win! Blazers win!

That prize moment in Trail Blazers history, when Portland bested Philadelphia, 109-107, for all the marbles, is not unlike similar sports memories that fans throughout America cherish. They serve society well as exercises in nostalgia.

You know the type: Carlton Fisk coaxing his 1975 World Series home run into fair ground against Cincinnati; Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumpers (pick one) against the Hoyas, Cavs, Jazz. Those precious milestones in sports help mark the time and usually beg the question: “Where were you when…”

The question, however, that Blazers fans of 1977 could be asking is not where they were when Portland won its first and only NBA crown, but where they were a week earlier, on May 29, 1977, when the Blazers faced the Sixers in Memorial Coliseum, down two games to none.

This was a psychological test of a young basketball team that many pundits believed had no business being in the finals against such a multi-talented, athletic 76ers team.

The Philadelphia press corps said as much after Game 2 when the Sixers blitzed the Blazers, 107-89. Portland committed 63 turnovers in the two losses at Philadelphia and to all concerned, the Blazers’ heralded team game appeared overmatched against Philadelphia’s one-on-one skills.

To win the championship after being embarrassed in Philadelphia, the Blazers had to win four of the next five games. Not impossible, but not likely. Indeed, no team in NBA history had ever won four straight games after dropping the first two games of the championship series.

So a depressed and disillusioned Blazers team flew back to Portland May 27 in desperate need of a morale boost. They got it at the airport where more than 1,000 Blazers fans were waiting to greet the team with signs and cheers of encouragement.

“Let’s put some cracks in their Liberty Bell,” one sign read.

“Forget Philly Forge, we’ll win the war,” said another.

Where were you when Blazermania was born, one might ask.

As the Blazers prepared for Game 3, the challenge was clear: They had to sharpen up their passing game, control the boards, ignite their dominant fastbreak and most important, find some way to slow down Philadelphia superstar Julius Erving.

The answer to some of those questions came swiftly. Sparked by Johnny Davis, the Blazers jumped to a 24-8 lead in the first eight minutes. It didn’t last, but it did send a message to Coach Gene Shue’s Sixers: The Blazers weren’t rolling over. They, too, got game.

“They were very aggressive at the start,” Shue said afterwards. “They were more aggressive on defense and that gave us problems. They had control from the outset and that’s something I didn’t want to happen and didn’t expect. After that first quarter (the Blazers up 34-23), I knew we would be in a dogfight.”

Game 3 in Portland, by all accounts, was the pivotal game of the entire series because it demonstrated that the Blazers, when they played their game (as Jack Ramsay repeatedly uttered in true cliché fashion), were a very good match for the 76ers.

Philadelphia did get back into the game, pulling to within one point at 54-53 with 1:28 left in the half. Two jumpers by Maurice Lucas, who had 27 points and 12 rebounds, and a pair of free throws by Lionel Hollins gave Portland a 60-53 lead at halftime.

With Erving scoring from all angles, the Sixers kept the pressure on and when Henry Bibby converted on a three-point play early in the fourth quarter, Philly trailed by only four points, 91-87. That’s when the Blazers pulled off what arguable is among the most memorable eight seconds of basketball in the franchise’s 33-year history.

This precious moment, like the film clip of Walton volleying the ball to Davis in the final seconds of the championship game, also has been seen by generations of Trail Blazer fans on the big screen. The play started when Bobby Gross spotted Walton cruising the baseline and lobbed a pass in his direction. Walton lost his balance in trying to reach the ball, but he did manage to tap it into the basket before crashing to the floor.

With Walton down, the Sixers tried to create a 5-on-4 advantage up the court, but Dave Twardzik stole the inbounds pass and threw another lob pass toward Walton who had just gotten to his feet. Same result: Walton slammed it in.

The two baskets by Walton in a span of eight seconds stretched the Blazer lead to 95-87 with 9:22 left, and, according to the Sixers, the twin dunks by Walton were the back breaker. “I’ve never seen a play like that in my life,” said Bibby, a former teammate of Walton’s at UCLA. “It was a great one.”

“Whoosh!” was the way McGinnis described it. “Walton scored and before I could get down court, I turned around and he was doing it again, like a television replay.” “It launched a great spurt by them,” said Shue.

“It was a four-point game and suddenly we were down by 14.”

On the first part of the play, Walton acknowledged that it was routine and part of Portland’s playbook. “Bobby and I use that quite a bit because we have a feel where each other is going to be on the court.”

As for the second part of the play – the Twardzik steal – Walton had no clue. “I had just gotten up from falling after the first basket and I didn’t even see what happened or how Dave got the ball. I just remember turning that way and here comes another lob pass. It was a 3-on-1 situation and Dave just made a nice pass to me.”

Twardzik chimed in: “It was by design. It’s one of Jack’s (Ramsay) secret plays. We have a name for that play. We call it L-U-C-K.”

The double-dunks by Walton in less than the time it takes most people to get out of bed in the morning aroused a record Memorial Coliseum crowd of 12,923 and triggered the greatest fourth quarter offensive explosion in a Blazers playoff series.

Portland scored a record 42 points during the period, en route to a resounding 129-107 victory.

What was even more surprising to the pundits than the final score was that Portland seemed to find the way to slow Dr. J. He had 28 points through three quarters, but was blanked by Gross and Corky Calhoun (with a lot of defensive help from teammates) in the fourth period.

“One man isn’t going to stop Dr. J,” said Calhoun afterwards. “I just tried to take away the things he likes to do. I overplayed his right hand and tried to keep him from getting the ball in the open floor. Once he gets there, there isn’t much you can do about it.”

Gross agreed with that assessment, but also added, “I think Erving was getting a little tired.” One of the reasons Erving seemed a little tired was that he has to chase Gross around the court in the fourth quarter.

In the first three quarters, Gross logged just 22 minutes compared to Erving’s 35. Bobby was in constant motion, forcing Erving to run after him. He was a threat, connecting on 7 of 11 shots. No doubt he had the fresher legs.

The Erving-Gross match up turned out to be a pivotal one in the games that followed. Erving got his points, but no one expected Bobby Gross to be such an effective scorer in Portland’s offense. He made Erving work on both ends of the court and that arguably had a lot to do with the fact that in two of Portland’s crucial wins, the fabulous Dr. J. threw up goose eggs at the end.

So while the waning moments of the June 5 Portland-Philadelphia championship game may be the images Blazer fans recall when they reminisce about the good old days.

Truth be told, their beloved basketball team figured out how to do it a week earlier.