There's this book out there, Red Hot and Rollin', which is a pretty magnificent anthology of writings about Portland's NBA title thirty years ago. Matt Love put it together. Something pretty special for Blazer fans.
Tucked into the book, however, is some entirely unique video footage. UPDATE: Here you go ... some of the footage I'm talking about.
(You can see some more video of that season right now on ESPN.com, as well as a ton of other great 1977-centric material. Eric Neel talked to the team recently, here's an excerpt from the new book Red Hot and Rollin', and another one)
The video is very personal and very intimate, but also very ... well, how should I put this.
When I was watching the whole thing for the first time, I wrote this in my notes: "cinematographic style = stoner's delight."
What am I getting at there is:
It was the seventies, in Oregon.
There is atonal polyrhythmic music, and a general lack of narrative structure, at almost all times throughout the video.
It's generally "trippy."
Not that you'd want to, but you could, I'd bet, edit about 65% of this out without losing any story. You'd lose plenty of the feeling of what it was like to be there, but you would not lose any story.
Despite all that, I learned more about what it was like to be around those Blazers from this DVD than from everything else I had ever read or seen combined. It was oddly thrilling. Some of my favorite moments:
Corky Calhoun lolling about in the pool proud as heck that he got his real estate license in California.
Bill Walton, superstar athlete, riding his bike with author Larry Colton who is neither in the same physical condition nor does he have nearly as high-end a bike. As they approach the Oregon coast, Colton, struggling to keep up, says "I'll call you Lewis if you call me Clark." Walton responds: "I'll call you late for breakfast," and speeds off.
Johnny Davis tells the camera that he likes to keep his shoes as long as he can, because it is his belief that after a while, they get so they know where they are going.
Another great Walton moment: he often talks about how proud he is to have overcome his stutter. In this video, you can really see it, as he addresses the crowd at a basketball camp and is clearly nervous. Makes you see Walton as more of a human, involved in the kinds of struggles we all face, instead of some icon.
The film was produced by Don Zavin, who, sadly, died a few years ago. He is credited with not only hatching the idea for the film, but also having a tremendous passion for basketball that drove the project.
I recently spoke to the co-director and camera operator, Mike McLeod.
Talk to me about the style of this film.
We tried to get the real person, in an interesting location. Cinema verite was still alive back then. The idea, really, was to get lots of footage and let it play. The film ultimately ends up doing that to a fault. To my way of thinking, some segments needed voiceover and that sort of thing.
As it is, it is so unlike any other sports media you'll ever see.
It was such a different time, too. That's part of it. Those players were such a part of the town. I don't think you can say that about a lot of athletes today. This team just seemed older, and more together. Very thoughtful. There was no grandstanding or any of that.
I wrote in my notes that the style of the piece is "stoner's delight."
Yes. It was the seventies. We're talking about the stoner era. (Marijuana was around, and everybody did it, but nobody wanted to talk about it.) Hippies were massively evident. And Walton was a hippie. He had tie-dyed everything.
Of course, in the film, it doesn't help that there are these long, long voids where nothing really happens. Those needed to be coverd by voice-over in my opinion, or in some cases edited. The original plan was to have the author, Larry Colton, do a voice over where he explained the book he was working on (it eventually became "Fast Break," which is also the name of the film in question). That would be a way to get a lot more information about the players. But it never happened.
The movie was edited under duress -- there were money shortages and even a lawsuit -- and the films were even locked up for a period. There was a lot of water under the bridge, at that point. It was finished the way it was in part, I believe, because of a lack of money. I didn't have anything to do with it after it was shot, but I have often considered re-editing the footage a different way.
What would be some of the specific changes you'd make?
Well, it has been a long time. But off the top of my head, I remember a sequence with Lloyd Neal doing his knee rehab. It was amazing to watch what he went through with that injury. It cleary frightened the s--- out of him. He worked is tail off in the hopes that he could keep his job. There's footage of extreme close up of him working out. With the help of voice over, in that moment you could have built up the history ... what his chances were of making the team, especially when he was old enough that he knew he wouldn't get another chance somewhere else. And in those days the teams didn't pay squat. 100 grand or so, maybe. They were paid well, but they weren't paid like kings. They all knew they needed to do something to make money after basketball.
Also, in the end, I felt a big story was left untold. There was an important race thing. Here was white Portland in love with this team, and half of them were black. We shot a lot of footage at public events, and here were these giant black guys, and all these white people just didn't know what to do with them. We went to some event at Governor Robert Straub's house in Salem. There were 150 people or so at a barbecue, overlooking the valley. But as the barbecue unfolded, the black players ended up being by themselves. It was really stark.
But then, there's this shot of Lucas that didn't even make the film (it's in an archive somewhere). He's by himself, looking out over the valley. He's in the middle of this party, but he's totally isolated. But then a six or seven year old white boy with a ball comes up and hands him the ball. To me that said everything. It was a beautiful moment, talking about how sports can help us bridge that divide.
Sounds like it was a pretty powerful experience.
In fact, it was. We had one crew member killed during the making of this film. A sound guy and grip, Patrick Stookey. He was one of my best friends. He had been a weekend sports anchor, on channel eight. But he had quit the station a couple of years before, and was a free spirit.
That's terrible. What happened?
We were on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where Walton had hosted his camp. We were leaving, in our cars, when we spotted a swimming hole. We stopped on the side of the road, and you could see some people down there swimming, if you looked down over the edge of a
Stookey and a bunch of guys got out of the car. Walton was in the car.
The road looped around. There was a way you could drive around by the bottom of the cliff. I drove around. But Stookey sized it up, from up above, and decided to jump in. He was just the kind of guy who would do that kind of thing. He hit a rock that was under the water, and he broke his head open.
Some people were yelling. Somebody shouted. I jumped in, and pulled him out. But you could tell right away that he was gone.
Somebody called an ambulance and all that. But it was no use.
If you notice, that film starts with an illustration of a butterfly. Stookey is behind that.
He always loved butterflies. That was just Stookey's thing.
At his funeral, in a Catholic church somewhere in Yakima or Spokane, the sunlight was peeking into the ceremony. And then ... a butterfly ... appeared out of nowhere. It fluttered around the casket for a moment or so, and then it came over to all of us, the pallbearers, and it affected us all. Then it fluttered away and was gone.