The NBA was beginning its 31st season in the fall of 1976. Just months earlier, the American Basketball Association had ended its ninth and last campaign. The combining of the two leagues, long fought by the players, finally happened.

Of the seven ABA teams, the four strongest -- the Denver Nuggets, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers -- survived and joined the NBA. The Kentucky Colonels, Spirits of St. Louis and Virginia Squires agreed to take a cash settlement and close up shop. Immediately, their players were dispersed across the new 22-team league.

In a special $6 million deal, the Nets sold Julius Erving, the ABA's leading scorer, to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million. The other $3 million went to Erving himself, by way of a new contract. In Philly he joined another scoring machine, George McGinnis, who had come over earlier from Indiana. This accumulation of talent brought talk of an immediate championship.

The pro game suddenly became a trial of quick assimilation, and that very first merged season offered yet another lesson in the value of team play over individual talent. It would become the season of Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Denny Crum had been an assistant to UCLA coach John Wooden when he first saw Walton play in 1968. Crum had gotten a tip about Walton, then a high school sophomore in San Diego. The coach was dubious, but he scouted him anyway. "I came back and told Coach Wooden that this Walton kid was the best high school player I'd ever seen," Crum recalled.

"We were sitting in Coach Wooden's office, and he got up and closed his door and said, 'Denny, don't you ever make that stupid statement again. It makes you look like an idiot to say that some red-haired, freckled-faced kid from San Diego is the best high school player you've ever seen. First of all, there's never, ever been, since I've been here, a major college prospect from San Diego, let alone the best player you've ever seen.'"

In three years of varsity competition, Walton led UCLA to two NCAA championships and 88 consecutive wins, smashing the 60-game streak set by Bill Russell's teams at the University of San Francisco. Walton also set UCLA's career assists record, which left observers declaring him the best passing center in the history of the game.

His college performance led to predictions that Walton would be pro basketball's next great dominating player. Yet those dreams went largely unfulfilled because of a series of foot injuries that hampered and frustrated him and eventually ended his career. But for one bright shining season he passed and played the Blazers to a storybook NBA championship. In the 1977 playoffs, Walton and his teammates found a chemistry that enabled them to confuse and humiliate one of the most talented pro teams ever assembled.

"Bill Walton is the best player, best competitor, best person I have ever coached," Blazers coach Jack Ramsay declared moments after Walton delivered Portland the title.

For Walton, it wasn't a question of wanting to play but of being able to. Injuries repeatedly interrupted his progress as a pro player, which didn't exactly endear him to the Portland fans. On the court, when he was healthy, he was the ultimate team player. He missed 17 games over the 1976-77 season; the Blazers lost 12 of them. With Walton in the lineup, they were 44-21, and their .677 winning percentage during those games was the best in the league.

The dispersal of ABA players had been particularly beneficial to Portland. Maurice Lucas was simply the most dominating power forward in the game, and his arrival only boosted Walton's effectiveness in the frontcourt. But his role was far from merely complementary, as Lucas led the team in scoring at 20.2 points per game and averaged better than 11 rebounds.

His intimidation factor was even bigger than his numbers. At 6-foot-9 and a muscular 215 pounds, Lucas wasn't the bulkiest player in the league. but he was almost the strongest.

Coming over with Lucas from the ABA was lead guard Dave Twardzik; with four pro seasons with Virginia under his belt, he played well enough to become a starter in Ramsay's system. The off guard was 6-foot-3 Lionel Hollins, a second-year player out of Arizona State who averaged nearly 15 points per game.

Ramsay molded this crew into a rebounding and running package that thrilled the Portland crowds. He was, after all, Dr. Jack Ramsay, the thinking man's coach. He had been the most respected of college coaches, guiding wonderful teams at St. Joe's and compiling a 234-72 record over 11 seasons. In more than 20 seasons as an NBA coach, he would pile up 864 regular-season wins.

The Western Conference Finals pitted the Blazers against the Lakers, creating a classic one-on-one matchup between Walton and his predecessor at UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Their meeting left the writers yodeling about future battles of Russell/Chamberlain proportions. The team contest, however, left a lot to be desired. Portland swept the series in four games. The franchise was a mere seven seasons old and headed to the NBA Finals.

The awesomely talented 76ers had posted the best record in the Eastern Conference at 50-32. Gene Shue was the coach. Erving (the esteemed Dr. J), McGinnis and 6-foot-6 shooting guard Doug Collins were the big guns. The quarterback on the floor was point guard Henry Bibby. World B. Free rained long-range jumpers off the bench. Caldwell Jones started at center with 20-year-old Darryl Dawkins, the self-proclaimed "Chocolate Thunder," in a backup role. As reserve forwards they had Steve Mix, Harvey Catchings and Joe Bryant.

Philly started the postseason strongly, downing Boston and Houston on the way to the Eastern Conference championship. Yet as the Finals opened in the Spectrum on Sunday, May 22, few observers were convinced of the Sixers' resolve. Philadelphia general manager Pat Williams acknowledged that the club was unpredictable. "But," he added, "we could win it all going away with our manes blowing in the wind."

That seemed to be just what was going to happen after the first two games. Erving opened Game 1 with a stupendous dunk off the opening tip. He finished with 33 points and Collins had 30 as Philadelphia won 107-101. The big factor, however, was Bibby's unheralded defense on Hollins. The Blazers were rattled enough to commit 34 turnovers.

Walton finished with 28 points and 20 rebounds, but when the media came calling after the game, Erving didn't want to engage in hero worship. "I'll challenge anybody," he said.

In Game 2 four nights later, the Sixers did an even better job, winning handily, 107-89. Jones and Dawkins handled Walton easily, and the Sixers ran off with the second quarter, scoring 14 points in one three-minute stretch on their way to a 61-43 halftime lead.

The game turned sour with about five minutes left. First, Portland's Lloyd Neal and McGinnis squared off. Then Lucas and Erving traded elbows. Finally, Dawkins and Bob Gross went at it. After a tug-of-war over a rebound, Gross screamed at Dawkins, who responded with a roundhouse. Gross ducked at the last instant and the blow caught Dawkins' own teammate, Collins, who had been holding Gross. Lucas then nailed the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Dawkins with a shot from behind, and both benches jumped into the fray along with coaches, spectators, security guards and officials.

Even Ramsay and his assistant, Jack McKinney, took on a few fans before Ramsay turned his ire on Dawkins, only to be shoved out of the way. When the floor was finally cleared, Lucas and Dawkins were ejected. They were later fined $2,500 each, and Collins needed four stitches.

Lucas seemed ready to settle the matter right off the bat that Sunday, May 29. He strode directly to the Philadelphia bench, then startled everybody, including Dawkins, by sticking out his hand for a shake. That matter settled, he and the Blazers proceeded to take out the Sixers with offense. Lucas himself contributed 27 points and 12 rebounds. Walton had a mere nine assists, 20 points, and 18 rebounds. Twardzik, too, had returned to speed, driving the Portland offense along to a 42-point fourth quarter. They won in a blaze, 129-107, closing the in the series gap to 2-1.

The Philadelphia coaches decided that they were relying on Collins' perimeter shooting too much, so they changed strategy for Game 4, attempting to send the ball inside to McGinnis and Jones. Walton responded with a shotblocking fury at one end, while Lucas did the offensive damage at the other. Portland opened up a quick 17-point lead, then cruised to a 130-98 win. Even when Walton went to the bench with five fouls in the third, the Blazers didn't miss a beat.

"We've got to challenge the other team," Erving said afterward. "Be aggressive. Get some axes and chop some arms and legs."

What Erving really could have used was some offensive help. McGinnis had shot 16-for-48 in the first four games. "I feel like a blind man searching for the men's room," he told the press.

The first half of Game 5 was just what the Doctor ordered -- plenty of hacking that led to a halftime score in the 40s. But the Blazers got their running game going in the third, feeding it off steals and zooming to another 40-point quarter, their third of the series. With a little more than eight minutes left in the game, Portland led 91-69 and the crowd was headed home.

The Doctor rallied the Sixers to make it respectable at the end, 110-104, but the naysayers had been vindicated. Gross scored 25 points to lead the Blazers, while Lucas had 20 with 13 rebounds. Walton finished with 24 rebounds and 14 points.

Erving, who scored 37 points, was distraught afterward. "I had a good feeling about tonight," he said. "It all backfired. It's a bad scene."

Commanding a 3-2 series lead, the Blazers arrived home at 4:30 a.m. to find 5,000 crazy fans waiting to greet them. The official word for the mayhem was "Blazermania." Always an emotional player, Walton rode to new heights on the crest of this wave. The next afternoon, a glorious, sunny Sunday, he had 20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocks and seven assists.

"He's an inspiration," Erving said afterward.

The Doctor himself wasn't bad in that department. His Sixers kept even through the first period, but they fell behind by 15 in the second. The Portland lead was still 12 with just half of the fourth quarter left when Erving led his teammates on one final run. At the four-minute mark, the lead was cut to four, 102-98. Portland upped it to eight just moments later, but Free hit a free throw and Erving canned a 20-footer and two foul shots to trim it to three. Lucas answered with a free throw for Portland. Then McGinnis came through with a jumper, and the lead was only two points with 18 seconds left.

The Sixers needed a turnover, and they finally got it from McGinnis, who forced a jump ball with Gross. Philadelphia controlled the ball and headed upcourt. With eight seconds remaining, Erving put up a jumper in the lane. No good. Free got the ball and lofted a baseline shot. Again no good. With a second left, McGinnis got a final shot off. It drew iron, and that was it.

Walton knocked the loose ball away just to be sure, then turned, ripped off his drenched jersey, and hurled it into the delirious crowd. "If I had caught the shirt, I would have eaten it," Lucas allowed later. "Bill's my hero."

Somewhere, Denny Crum was smiling. And John Wooden was no longer wondering about the red-haired, freckle-faced kid from San Diego.