It was 29 years ago when Portland blazed an unprecedented trail by defeating the heavily favored Philadelphia 76ers in its first-ever postseason appearance
The season of destiny began five months after the Portland Trail Blazers finished in last place in the Pacific Division. It had been an active offseason. Of the 12 roster players at the beginning of the 1976-77 season, seven were new.
One future Hall of Fame coach (Lenny Wilkens) had been replaced by another (Jack Ramsay). Bill Walton was healthy. And, thankfully, bare knuckles boxing had been outlawed decades before, so Maurice Lucas had nothing else to do. He became the Blazers’ power forward, leading scorer, and, in the vernacular of the time, The Enforcer.
The individual parts may have been new, and the elements a little unsure of one another. But they discovered that they shared an attitude that turned out to be nothing less than magical, and that was the foundation of what would become the Blazers’ only championship in their history.
Ramsay discovered that special feeling soon after he arrived in Portland from Buffalo, where he had guided the Braves to the playoffs in the previous three seasons. After meeting with his new players, Ramsay prepared to depart but was stopped by Walton.
“Coach, there’s one more thing,” Walton said. “Don’t assume we know anything.”
“My feet hardly hit the pavement as I walked to my car,” recalled Ramsay, a Hall of Famer now working as an NBA analyst. “I knew that if a team’s best player had that mindset, we were going to have a great team.”
There seemed to be little doubt that Walton was capable of greatness. “The Mountain Man” could do it all. He had the uncanny ability to find an open teammate when double-teamed, to fire an outlet pass through traffic, and to release his jump shot a split second before his defender could react.
But he had been playing hurt, appearing in only 86 games over two seasons since being tabbed by Portland as the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. He came to Portland from a college program (UCLA) with a winning tradition unmatched in the world of basketball. He wasn’t happy losing in Portland, and he let everyone know it.
While Walton was the centerpiece, Lucas, a bruising power forward whom the Blazers had selected in the American Basketball Association (ABA) dispersal draft during the summer, demonstrated that toughness was only a part of his game. He also had a deft shooting touch and a scoring mentality that enabled him to lead the Blazers with an average of 20.2 points a game.
“Lucas was the heart and soul of the team,” said Herm Gilliam, a sharp-shooting backup guard. “I don’t know if that’s because the big forward position fits his big head, but he gave us toughness, that never-say-die attitude.” It would come in handy when the 1977 Playoffs rolled around in late April. The team stumbled through March with a 7-8 record and finished as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, four games behind the Lakers in the Pacific.
In the first round, they beat one of the hottest teams in the league, the Chicago Bulls, barely escaping with a 2-1 series win. They were only up by two points with 36 seconds remaining in Game 3 at Memorial Coliseum, but, backed by one of the most vocal legions of supporters in the league, they held on for the victory.
“The crowd was in agreement with us. We’ve never got a chance to be something special, even in his first year in the playoffs,” said Larry Steele, a backup small forward. “It was a unified effort.”
“I think our fans grew right along with us,” Gilliam said. “They started meeting us at airports, things like that. It was the start of Blazermania.”
The Blazers upset the Midwest champion Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the conference semifinals, leaning heavily on the strength of their bench in games when Lucas and Walton got into foul trouble.
In the conference finals, they faced their nemesis, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Despite losing the season series to the Lakers 3-1, the Blazers swept Los Angeles. Although Abdul-Jabbar outscored Walton 121-77 in the series, Walton utilized his all-around skills, and sent a few powerful messages with several thunder dunks over his rival.
“At the half (of Game 3), Walton told me he thought he needed to go to the hoop more,” Ramsay said at the time. “When he gets that determined look in his eye, I don’t know who is going to stop him.”
Certainly not any center on the Philadelphia 76ers, the Blazers’ foe in the 1977 NBA Finals. But most experts felt it didn’t matter. Walton might dominate in the middle, but he wouldn’t be able to shutdown Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, World B. Free, or any of the other hot-shot players on the most loaded team in the league. The Sixers of 1977 were the Bulls of 1997, the NBA team every coach feared and every fan watched. “We were sold out everywhere we went,” McGinnis said. “People traveled miles to see us play throughout the country.”
In Games 1 and 2, Sixers coach Gene Shue threw the Blazers a curveball: He had 6-11 starting center Caldwell Jones bring the ball upcourt!
“First play of the series, Jones started dribbling the ball up the court, and I looked over at Ramsay in utter confusion,” Walton said.
“Jack was like, ‘Get up there and press them.’ Caldwell did a little shake-and-bake and I just about fell to the floor. I was an okay basketball player, but one of the things I could not do was guard people 85 feet from the basket.”
“We really feared the Blazer full-court traps,” explained Shue. “We were a totally undisciplined team, almost like a team of high school players. Portland’s forte was structure and teamwork. The Blazers just ran their stuff and didn’t seem to get out of the flow of their game.”
The ploy worked temporarily. The Sixers won the first two games of the series and fans in the City of Brotherly Love were talking sweep. But in Game 2, Lucas did something several players now say was the turning point of the series: He stood up to big, bad Sixers center Darryl Dawkins and literally revived the Blazers’ fighting spirit. With about five minutes left in the game and the Sixers comfortably ahead, several flareups led to a huge, ugly fight.
Dawkins took a swing at Blazers small forward Bobby Gross, accidentally grazing Collins instead. A melee ensued when Lucas went after Dawkins, landing a looping right behind Dawkins’ ear. Both benches joined the battle along with the coaches, spectators, security guards and officials.
After being ejected, the 6-11, 260-pound Dawkins demonstrated his Herculean strength by breaking a toilet in the Sixers locker room. The incident seemed to unravel the Sixers.
“I thought that changed how we felt about ourselves,” said Lucas, who now operates a variety of businesses in Portland. “It changed their game for sure. It let them know that we were going to play them regardless of who they are and what they’ve done.”
And Ramsay noted: “That turned out to be our last really tough time in the Finals.”
At the time, the tough, anti-fighting rules had not been adopted by the league, so it was up to the payers to make sure the game was basketball and not brawling. And it was Lucas, the toughest of the tough guys, who defused the tension at the beginning of Game 3 by shaking Dawkins’ hand during introductions. “I froze him because I grabbed his hand and I shook it real hard, I mean like one of my Artis Gilmore shakes,” Lucas said with a laugh. “And then the fans got real crazy. Right after that, they went nuts.”
The Blazers held serve, winning the next two games at home. Erving was racking up his points, but so too was his less graceful counterpart, Bobby Gross. The Blazers small forward averaged only 11.4 points a game during the season, but that figure soared to 17.3 points on an amazing 67 percent shooting from the field during the Finals. “Bobby’s points were big numbers for us,” Lucas said.
In Game 5, Gross pumped in 25 points, Walton ripped down 24 rebounds and the Blazers won on the road for their third consecutive victory. The teams returned to the packed Memorial Coliseum for Game 6, a down-to-the-wire thriller. The Blazers nervously held onto a 109-107 lead with 18 seconds left when McGinnis tied up gross for a jump ball. The Sixers controlled the tip, and Erving missed a shot from the top of the key. Free rebounded, but his shot was blocked out-of-bounds by Gross with five seconds left. When McGinnis missed a 15-footer and Walton tipped the rebound to guard Johnny Davis, it signaled the end of one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
“Basketball is a five-man game,” Erving said. “The Blazers played as though they invented the concept. We were a team that possessed great individual one-on-one skills, but Portland played like a committee, with no part greater than the whole. In the end, the team concept prevailed.”
And continues to this day. In April of 1997, the entire 1977 championship team assembled in Portland for a two-day 20th anniversary celebration labeled, “The Biggest Thing That Ever Happened (in Portland, Ore.).”
Fans paid $77 (of course) to attend a 1977 Blazers Reunion charity dinner and silent auction at the still-standing Memorial Coliseum. The next evening, more than 21,000 Blazermaniacs packed the shiny new Rose Garden next door to raise the roof for heroes of the past, who actually continue to be heroes to this day.
And why not? Before that special season nearly three decades ago, the Blazers had never even been in the playoffs. But they not only won a championship, they won it with a team style that was so beautiful that it is still respected and revered not only by purists, who say it was a classic case of the game being played exactly the way it is supposed to be played, but also by opponents, who were mesmerized … and victimized.
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