The ’77 Blazers: From Near-Worst To First

Portland ruled the basketball world in 1976-77, displaying an exciting brand of team basketball and claiming the NBA Championship. After a decent 49-33 regular season, the team made the most of its first appearance in the playoffs, running all the way through the postseason.

This was the first year of Head Coach Jack Ramsay’s reign. His decade with Portland would solidify his reputation as one of the league’s most creative skippers. This was also the season that four former ABA teams-the Denver Nuggets, the New York Nets, the Indiana Pacers, and the San Antonio Spurs-were brought into the NBA under a merger agreement. The merger, in turn, led to a tremendous reshuffling of star players, and Portland acquired an enforcer, 6-9 Maurice Lucas, with the second pick in the ABA Dispersal Draft. But Lucas didn’t come without a price. The Blazers had to give up Geoff Petrie and Steve Hawes to Atlanta for the No. 2 pick. More shuffling went on when Portland sold Sidney Wicks to Boston.

With a revamped lineup and a cast of young players who were quickly gaining confidence, the team was very strong through the first half of the season. Walton and Lucas represented Portland in the 1977 NBA All-Star Game, although Walton missed the game with an injury. But the long campaign eventually took its toll, and the Blazers faltered in February and March, tottering to a 10-16 record during those two months. They turned it around at the right time, however, with a 5-0 mark in April that catapulted them back into the playoff picture.

The fan phenomenon known as Blazermania was beginning to catch fire, too. On April 5 there were still a few tickets available in Memorial Coliseum when Portland played the Detroit Pistons before 12,359 fans. That was the last day a fan could just walk up and buy a ticket. From that point on, and continuing into the mid-1990s, every Portland home game was a sellout. Capacity was 12,666 through 1988, when it was expanded to 12,854 and then eventually 12,888.

The Trail Blazers’ road to the championship rolled through Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles. The team hit its stride in the Western Conference Finals, eliminating the Pacific Division champion Los Angeles Lakers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in four straight games.

Portland entered the NBA Finals as the underdog to the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius Erving, the spectacular forward who was reinventing the game with his gravity-defying slam dunks. The Sixers put the Blazers in a hole by taking Games 1 and 2 in Philadelphia. Back home at Memorial Coliseum, however, Portland thrashed the 76ers by 22 points in Game 3 and by 32 points in Game 4. The Trail Blazers then won a third straight game by beating the Sixers back in Philadelphia.

Game 6 took place on June 5 in Memorial Coliseum. The Sixers got 40 points from Erving, but the Trail Blazers closed them out, 109-107, to claim the LucasNBA title. Walton scored 20 points, yanked down 23 rebounds, handed out 7 assists, and blocked 8 shots in Game 6, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Finals.

Walton was the star and the most recognizable of the Blazers, with his flamboyant personality, his counterculture leanings (which fit in with the general ambience of mid-1970s Portland), and his intense, intelligent style of play. But the Trail Blazers’ victory was the triumph of a well-balanced team over a collection of more brilliant individual talents. This was in line with the trend of the decade, which had also seen the Knicks, Lakers, Celtics, and Warriors
win titles on the basis of cohesion rather than individual dominance.

Lucas led the Trail Blazers in minutes played and scoring, averaging 20.2 points. Dave Twardzik, a 6-1 guard, set a club record for field-goal percentage, notching a .612 accuracy mark. Walton set the team record for rebounding, clearing 14.4 boards per game. He also set a Portland all-time mark for blocked shots with 3.25 per game. Second-year point guard Lionel Hollins ran the show, leading the team in both assists (4.1 apg) and steals (166).

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