Geoff Petrie: Portland’s Prize Tiger, 1972

[In his book Promoter Ain’t a Dirty Word, Harry Glickman talked candidly about finagling an NBA expansion team in Portland in 1970 and “the welter of activity” that followed, starting with the college draft. 

“We had the eighth pick in the first round of the college draft, which was conducted in a small pressroom at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. When we announced our selection of Geoff Petrie, there was a stunned silence among those present. No one had ever heard of the guy and the headlines reflected it by saying, “Portland Drafts Geoff Who?’”

By November 1970, Geoff Who had become Geoff How Many. Petrie went on a scoring tear that would earn him the league’s Rookie of the Year honors. This article, from Action Sports’ 1971-72 Pro Basketball yearbook, picks up Petrie’s NBA story, though passing over the bad blood between him and teammate Sidney Wicks, alluded to yesterday. The article comes to you from Keith King.]

During the first contest between the San Francisco Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers last year, a star blazed to life. Most of the game was on big yawn. Portland, one of three NBA expansion teams, had made the usual beginners’ mistakes and was paying for it. Near the end of the fourth quarter, the Warriors had a comfortable 16-point lead, and a bored audience began shuffling between the exits of San Francisco’s Cow Palace. Some had already left, and that’s too bad—they missed a good show. In fact, they missed the birth of a star. Because, suddenly, a Portland rookie single-handedly started taking the Warriors apart. 

No. 45, Geoff Petrie, began by hitting two long jump shots. Then he stole the ball and fed a teammate for another bucket. The Warriors were still dozing, still trying to cruise to a victory, when they looked up and saw the score drastically narrowing. But when Petrie made another assist, the Warriors began playing for real again. No matter, Petrie, a solid 6-foot-4, made like Walt Frazier and stole the ball—twice—and converted them both into baskets. 

San Francisco tightened its defense even more against the new menace (while the crowd left the exits to return to their seats). The defense wasn’t good enough. Geoff scored three more baskets, bringing his total to five baskets—10 points—in 44 seconds. If the buzzer hadn’t sounded (with SF three points ahead), there’s no telling what damage he would have caused that night. 

What the Warriors and the fans should have guessed was that Petrie’s explosive play was just a hint of things to come. There would be many more 30-plus point games for Petrie (he had 38 that night) and more late rallies under Geoff’s direction. While his team flubbed and floundered its way to a 29-53 record—best among the expansion teams last year—Petrie was busy becoming the ninth rookie in NBA history to score 2,000 or more points. Geoff totaled 2,031, to be exact, and he did it with a style and flair that reminded fans and players alike of a famous veteran superstar—Jerry West.

“It doesn’t embarrass me to admit that I am a great fan of West’s,” Petrie says. “In a way, I owe my jump shot to him. I patterned my shooting style after West’s.” 

He explains, “Until my junior year at Princeton, I wasn’t much of a jump-shooter . . . more of a driver. But I realized I’d have to develop a better outside shot. So, I watched West on television one Sunday, and marveled at the quickness with which he got his shot away.” West, Geoff says, takes a “real hard dribble just before he shoots, so the ball bounces higher and quicker into his hands for the jump shot. That’s what I did. Now when I maneuver for a shot, I always take the hard dribble before I leave the floor. The ball naturally gets up to my hands quicker, and I’m ready to release it a lot faster.”

What does West think of this unadulterated idol worship? It would seem the two guards have a mutual admiration society going. “Geoff has everything it takes to be a superstar in this league,” says the great Laker. “All he has to do is learn to control his game and run the team. He does a lot right now just by instinct. And his instincts for the smart play are excellent.”

Petrie’s instincts were honed at Princeton University, the school that also gave the NBA Bill Bradley. As a Tiger scoring star, Geoff had many shining moments, not the least of which was the game against UCLA his senior season, two years ago. In that match, Petrie had 28 points in driving Princeton to within one point of beating the nation’s No. 1 college team. 

The pro scouts were unanimous in their praise of Petrie. Many even rated him ahead of Charlie Scott in basketball skills. Geoff was the No. 1 draft pick of the Trail Blazers, and he was happy just to play in the same league with West and his other favorites. 

He was also happy with his contract, estimated at $250,000 over three years—far less money than fellow rookies Bob Lanier and Pete Maravich received. Ironically, Geoff had a better scoring season than either of them. Maravich, for instance, was eighth in league scoring, averaging 23.2 ppg. Petrie was seventh (24.8 ppg). Geoff may have developed quicker than his Atlanta rival because he had fewer pressures on him. And Lanier had a disappointing rookie debut. 

Petrie’s development was followed by admirers around the circuit. According to his coach, Rolland Todd, it was a thing of beauty. “In the beginning, when he was sorting things out and learning how to play the pro game, he would revert to a one-on-one, run-and-gun style when he needed points. But recently, there has been more sophistication in his game. He sees the open man more. He passes off more when he gets double-teamed. And he has found out how to move effectively without the ball and how to let his teammates set him up for higher percentage shots.”

Geoff led the Trail Blazers in almost every statistical category in 1970-71. He played in all 82 contests (only one other Portland player, Stan McKenzie, can make that claim) and topped the club in minutes played (3,032), field goals attempted (1,770), field goals made (784), field goal percentage (.443), assists (390), total points (2,031) and scoring average (24.8 ppg). Unofficially, he was the best defensive player among the Portland starters. But then, the Blazers where the NBA’s worst defensive club, so Petrie is properly looking to better that aspect of his game. 

Defense isn’t what the onlookers want out of him. They want the same brand of scoring and offensive fireworks he provided last season. Not surprisingly, some onlookers are with other teams, and they’d like to have Petrie in their team’s uniform, scoring for their club. Before the season began last year, 76er coach Jack Ramsay saw him play in a summer league and offered Portland Archie Clark in exchange. Uh, uh. Even before that, the Lakers tried to swap him for Mel Counts. Uh, uh.

By now, general managers all around the league are ready to trade some fine players for Geoff. Do they have a chance of getting him? Uh, uh.

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