Portland Trail Blazers: The Dismantling of Camelot, 1980

[Mark Heisler worked during his journalistic prime as a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, filing his final story in 2011. Heisler, however, broke into the business in Philadelphia covering the city’s pro sports scene during the late 1960s. This was a vibrant, roiling, seminal period in Philadelphia sports journalism, giving rise to the edgy, entertaining, enlightened copy that lives on Broad Street to this day.

What follows below is an article by Heisler on the demise of the Jack Ramsay-led NBA Portland Trail Blazers of the late 1970s. The article comes with plenty of journalistic edge. It also comes with plenty of enlightened observations about the Portland coach, separating Jack Ramsay, the man, from  Dr. Jack, the myth. Throw in the Ramsay quote in this article from former Blazer Herm Gilliam, which is spot on, and you’ll gain a better understanding of Ramsay and appreciate his many strengths as a coach as well as his weaknesses. 

Ramsay, of course, is only one character in a cast of many who had their fingers in, as Heisler poetically describes it, “the dismantling of Camelot.” Heisler checks in with many of the other characters, presenting a balanced view of one of the NBA’s most-celebrated teams ever. The article appeared in the January 1981 issue of Basketball Digest, where I first noticed it. But the article originally ran in the L.A. Times on March 11, 1980.]

****

Bill Walton’s sudsy celebration.

The morning of June 6, 1977, the high-water mark of Blazermania, came up dazzling, one of those days they get in the Pacific Northwest that makes nine months of getting rained on worth it. 

This was the day after the Trail Blazers won their first NBA championship, Camelot on the day of the crowning of King Arthur. The images are still memorable, even if a lot of people who’d made it all happen say they don’t think about it much anymore: 50,000 people jammed into downtown for a victory parade; Bill Walton arriving on his 10-speed bicycle; Walton pouring a can of beer over the head of Mayor Neil Goldschmidt; Walton getting his bicycle stolen; and to prove this really was a different time and place, Walton getting his bicycle returned.

Three years later, Jack Ramsay, the coach, suggests this may have been the best basketball team ever put together, but it never saw another day like this one, and now it’s been broken into its constituent pieces.

Eleven one-year dynasties have come and gone since the 1968-69 Celtics became the last NBA team to win back-to-back championships, but the Portland one was special for the way it played and for what it demonstrated. Players were capable of sensitivity. For one brief and shining moment, they were all in this together.

To Ramsay, it was the realization of an ideal he’d chased his whole career. To Walton’s friend, Jack Scott, a counterculture sports figure heretofore alienated from the bourgeois mainstream, it was the workers’ paradise at last. To Rip City (nee Portland), which claimed to be happy to be out of the way of the huge migrations West but which ached at the same time to be major league, it was, oh baby . . .

“Like the Beatles first coming over,” says Herm Gilliam, the color man on Blazer telecasts now, the Trickster who broke the Lakers’ back with a 14-point fourth quarter in Game 2 of their 1977 series, and who was cut by Portland the next fall. “It was unbelievable.

“This was like being back in high school, college. I had almost gotten to the point I didn’t know that existed in basketball.”

Three and a half years later, the Blazers still sell out. There hasn’t been an unsold seat, in fact, since April 5, 1977, and there are 3,000 names on the waiting list for season tickets. An average of 1,200 people still pay $5 apiece to watch the games on closed circuit TV in the Paramount Theater downtown. The 27-station radio network, with its affiliates in Klamath Falls, Tillamook, and John Day, is the NBA’s largest. 

But the players have scattered. Walton wears a San Diego Clippers jersey (when he’s healthy), Maurice Lucas dons a New Jersey Nets uniform, Lionel Hollins sports Philadelphia 76er gear, and Johnny Davis is an Indiana Pacer. They were four-fifths of the starting lineup. Of the 12 members of the 1977 champions, three remain—Dave Twardzik, Bob Gross, and Larry Steele. 

Since the championship, there have been comments that the team was only put together by luck in the first place; that the front office had only to keep it together and blew it; that the front office was cheap; that the club employs questionable medical policies; and that the owner turned over the players, finally, for an $815,000 profit. Aside from that, the franchise has made a pretty good transition.

Hollins and Lucas were traded the same day in early February, the final break with the past, and though neither had looked like himself for a while, the community fell in on the front office. The Oregon Journal ran the club’s player payroll, suggesting it was one of the lower ones.

Blazer general manager Harry Glickman became defensive enough to accuse David Halberstam, who was in town doing a book on the franchise, of taking the club’s accountant to lunch so he could learn the payroll. Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize winner who made his reputation covering Vietnam, had endured the considerable displeasure of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, as well as the President of the United States, trying to get him fired. So he was less impressed with Glickman than he should have been. In a hall in Memorial Coliseum on a game night, where this exchange took place, he shouted back that Glickman was a “goddamn small-minded twit.”

The Blazers staggered down the stretch last season in a death struggle for the last playoff spot with the run ‘n’ anguish Clippers. The Blazers’ latest hope, Calvin Natt, is new, didn’t really know The Offense, and was winging it.

The Blazers did make the playoffs, but were eliminated by Seattle in the first round. “Everybody became experts [after the championship],” Gilliam says, “the coaches, the general manager, the scouts. The club was put together by accident, by the merger with the ABA [that brought Lucas and Twardzik].

“Jack is a very good coach. You can relate to Jack. He’s health-oriented, he’s professional, he’s organized, which makes him an exception. Players come right in and understand they’re under great leadership.

“But he’s always seeking perfection. That’s been Jack’s history [moving players]. That’s what Red Auerbach said when they were comparing our team to the Celtics. ‘Give Jack two years, and he’ll rip that team up.’ Jack doesn’t respect players. This is the first year [1979-80] he said he’d have Julius Erving on his team. Jack said his defense had improved.” [Ramsay, historically, hasn’t been Erving’s greatest fan.]

****

Jack Ramsay at one with the basketball universe.

No one feels the impact of the demise the way Ramsay does. Losing has always been an affront to Ramsay’s soul. Once in Detroit, where his 76ers had lost in double overtime, he took a late-night walk downtown all by himself, “waving a roll of bills,” he said later, “trying to get mugged.” (He wasn’t.) Anyone who thinks this is too incredible to be close to being true doesn’t know Ramsay.

Even in the days when Portland was as remote to him as Nepal, Ramsay approached coaching as a calling. At St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, where he first became famous, Ramsay was regarded as a god. That was the word everyone used: god.

An entire generation of semi-talented guards from Philadelphia’s Catholic League dreamed of hurling themselves across floors and smashing into bleachers for him. One who did all that was Pacers coach Jack McKinney, another was Lakers coach Paul Westhead. Once Ramsay remembers one of his guards, Jimmy Lynam, drawing a line in the backcourt with his sneaker the day before a season opener and yelling to a teammate, “Chano, they don’t get past here!”

Another time Ramsay sent Westhead out to guard Oscar Robertson of the University of Cincinnati. As a joke, Westhead followed Oscar all the way over to the UC huddle after a timeout. Robertson was still talking about it a year later. What St. Joe’s was under Ramsay was a garrison mentality with a sense of humor.

The seven years Ramsay spent in the NBA before he arrived in Portland weren’t like that. He was so beaten coaching the 76ers that he gave up and walked away. He wasn’t invited back in Buffalo.

But in Portland, besides a great deal of talent (assembled by the front office and not particularly by accident, though after a fair number of mistakes) was hunger to match Ramsay’s own. Walton had been hurt his whole career, had made his famous anti-FBI speech a few months before, and was widely scorned. Lucas had played for two folding ABA teams the year before. Hollins had suffered through a rookie season being booed by fans who had wanted the Blazers to take Oregon’s Ron Lee instead.

“That was a great team,” Ramsay says, “perhaps the greatest ever. We were considerably better the next year. We were 50-10 at one point.”

What loomed as a goal was a Celtic-like greatness, but this was another time. When Bill Russell retired in 1969, the black-white ratio in the NBA was about 55-45. Now it was about 70-30, and there were more good players everywhere. A 6-foot-8 Connie Dierking starting at center was unthinkable. The Celtics have been held together by an autocrat, Auerbach, playing with a stacked deck. Now, with free agency, if a team stayed together, it would have to be because it wanted to.

The players say management moved first, beginning with the cuts of Gilliam and Robin Jones, four months after the championship. The trade the players really resented was Johnny Davis for draft rights to Mychal Thompson a year later. “Mychal,” Gross says, “is a good player, but . . .”

Ramsay says he didn’t want to give Davis up either. Walton had missed 23 regular-season games in 1977-78,and the plan was to get a stronger backup center, one who could cut Walton’s minutes in an attempt to keep him healthier. 

Cutting Gilliam and Jones couldn’t hurt that much, Ramsay says. The Blazers went 50-10 with [Tom] Owens backing up Walton and Gilliam gone.

It is hard to tell if Ramsay is involved in the medical complaints. None of his players have named him. But Walton is said to have been put off by a phone call from Ramsay in the summer of 1978, asking if Walton was working out a few months after he had allowed himself to be shot up with a painkiller and play on a broken bone in his foot against Seattle. Walton asked to be traded shortly after that.

Ramsay has a tough approach to the game. (“It is seldom a player is going to feel 100 percent. I do feel if a player has a bruise, a strain . . . most players play with them,”) He also has unchallenged credibility. He says neither he, nor Dr. Robert Cook, the Blazer physician, nor trainer Ron Culp ever told a player to play or to get shot up with a painkiller.

Ramsay was asked recently if the championship season ever seems too good to be true to him.

“But it was true,” Ramsay said.

“Taken any walks lately?”

“I’ve taken walks in all the major American cities,” Ramsay said, laughing. 

Ramsay had always conditioned himself to take nothing for granted, never to live in the past, but he says he never dreamed it could be over so quickly. He now wonders how long anyone can keep a champion together, not that that is his worry. He is starting over, like Sisyphus, trying to push uphill the rock which keeps rolling back on him.

****

Maurice Lucas

The Blazers’ first offer to New Jersey last fall was Lucas for Natt and two No. 1 draft choices. The deal they finally made was Lucas and the two No. 1’s for Natt. 

Lucas isn’t particularly nostalgic, not about Blazers management anyway. The players knew management would pay Walton whatever it had to. Among the rest of them, there was a feeling they could be making more in, say, Philadelphia. “We always knew,” Gross says, “our owner wasn’t generous.”

Lucas felt locked into a five-year extension. He’s angry that management made so many moves, he’s angry that management didn’t trade him fast enough, he didn’t like the medical policies, you name it.

There was a time two years ago when the Blazers organization had a chance to get Walton back by disassociating itself from Cook and Culp. It wasn’t even contemplated. There was a principle involved. But when Walton signed in San Diego, Blazers owner Larry Weinberg offered the Clippers $2.25 million in cash for his contract.

(Gilliam says the Blazers did do more shooting up than other teams that he played for—“How does Herm know?” Ramsay asked. “Was he ever hurt?”—but suggests there was a reason for it: it was such a hungry team. “We had guys willing to do it,” he says. He adds that Walton not only allowed himself to be shot up in the 1978 quarterfinals, he had done it for an aching big toe in the finals against the 76ers the year before.)

By the spring of 1979, though, Ramsay had rebuilt the Blazers behind a gigantic Lucas-Thompson-Owens frontline. But the Suns knocked the Blazers out of the playoffs in the first mini-series. And two summers ago, Mychal Thompson broke his leg in a pickup game in Nassau, far away from any painkillers, and was lost for the season.

“We were playing so well [in 1977-78 when they started 50-10], it was essential everybody perform, everybody play, keep it going,” Lucas says. “As a result, a lot of guys got hurt [Walton, Lucas, Gross, Steele, Twardzik, and Lloyd Neal were all hurt, almost one after another]. Of course, Lloyd came back too fast. That was half Lloyd’s fault. An athlete should know when to get off the boat.”

Neal has since retired and lives in Portland. “You can’t play with a knee that looks like the fence,” Lucas said, pointing to a grate above his dressing cubicle. “. . . I’m just glad I walked away healthy.”

He was sitting in the Nets dressing room in the Forum in Los Angeles, where the Lakers had just pounded them. A young radio interviewer walked up and introduced himself shyly. “Mo,” he asked.

“My name’s Maurice, man,” Lucas said.”

The young man managed to say he had been a Blazers fan, and he didn’t really understand all these trades. “What’s your question?” Lucas asked the nervous questioner.

The young man asked if Lucas understood the deals.

“I’d like to answer that in a positive way,” Lucas said, more gently. “Each individual was traded for a more productive situation for that individual. As a unit, we fell apart over a number of things: trades, contracts, medical reasons. It’s just a matter of each man now doing things on his own.”

The young man got up to leave. Lucas asked his name. It was Dave. They wished each other good luck. 

****

Like Lucas, Hollins had contract problems. He was also defiant enough to critique Ramsay’s handling of most things, including team exercises, to The Oregonian’s Steve Kelley last spring. There was the time Ramsay scolded Lucas for talking during stretching exercises. “Luke said Jack LaLane talks during stretching,” Hollins told Kelley. “That really teed Jack off.”

The contract problems ended the day Hollins was traded. The 76ers, who had injured guards, signed him, reportedly for more than twice the $150,000 he was making in Portland, and threw him in the starting lineup.

“If you’re looking for controversy,” Holland said, not what you’d call happily, “you’ve come to the wrong place. They’re going ahead with their organization, and I’m going on here. I have nothing bad to say.

“They’ve made some bad trades. I feel like they made a mistake trading me. Other than that, it’s dead.”

In his first game back in Portland, Hollins got a 90-second standing ovation, scored 25 points, held Ron Brewer to six, and assisted on Maurice Cheeks’ layup tying the game in the closing seconds. Ramsay said that if Hollins played like that, he’d still be among them.

****

When Walton got hurt and was forced to sit out the first half of last season, it became a common thing for people to say it had been stupid to sign him in the first place. Had Walton stayed, the Blazers could have lost everyone else, and they might still be playing for championships. But if Walton had stayed, everyone else probably would have stayed, a fact Walton recognizes. He says he did what he had to do. A principle was involved.

Walton has gone through three phases: the radical who disapproved of his teammates eating “dead flesh” (meat) and who wondered what it was that Glickman actually did; the pragmatist under Ramsay, who began putting basketball first; and now, a full-bore, flat-out capitalist. He talks now, quite graciously. 

“It finally came to the point that I was afraid to go into the trainer’s room or the doctor’s office,” he says. “I felt there was a terrible discrepancy between the way they talked about how they were concerned with the future of our team and the way they treated me, the Bob Gross case [Gross suffered a stress fracture on an ankle playing on a painkiller in 1977-78], the Lloyd Neal case, the Larry Steele case . . . 

“Fifteen to 20 days after surgery, they told Lloyd he was able to play [also in 1977-78], that it was just a matter of the pain. Lloyd Neal is one of the toughest individuals in the world. If he says it hurts, most everybody else would be in bed. Here they were asking him to play. Larry was injecting regularly . . . 

“My problems were strictly the way I was treated medically, the fact I was certainly not an isolated instance. It wasn’t a situation where I was the only one it happened to and it only happened once, so it might be a mistake . . .”

Cook says the Blazers’ medical policies don’t differ from those of other NBA teams, that all decisions to use painkillers are mutual, that he doesn’t push painkillers. One of the sadder elements in this is that Walton, Cook, and Culp were once close. Walton and Cook used to go river rafting together. Scott, who lived in Walton’s home, wrote in his book Bill Walton, that players should pick their own doctor and trainer, but if the Blazers had had their choice, they’d have picked Cook and Culp. 

There is a widely held theory in Portland, shared by Weinberg, that this was all really the doing of Walton’s advisers, Scott and Portland attorney John Bassett. Walton says no, it was all him.

There is another theory, which is now held by Scott, that underlying everything was Walton’s desire to get back to Southern California. Scott worked out a deal for Walton with Golden State, which was Walton’s first choice after he decided to leave. Scott says he had the money that Bill wanted, Bill could pick the doctor, Bill had chosen the Warriors in the first place, Warriors’ owner Franklin Mieuli was Bill’s kind of guy. But then Walton stonewalled.

Walton denies it. All that held up the deal, he says, was the Warriors wouldn’t pay his salary to a corporation that Walton would form, which would’ve helped tax-wise. 

****

The Blazers fans are still there, but Gross says he can sense a difference now. They’re quieter. On a Friday night last year in Portland, the Blazers lost to the lowly Utah Jazz. Two days later, they beat the nearly-as-bad Chicago Bulls on Natt’s three-point play with five seconds left.

An hour later, a cab made a pickup outside Memorial Coliseum. “They actually win a game?” the driver asked. 

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