Beloved small city teams down 0-2 in the NBA Finals to the super dominant team that everyone knows will win should all study the 1977 Blazers. ESPN's Eric Neel explains why, in an article that (I don't say this lightly) is my new answer to the question "why do you like sports?":
Maybe it was the us-against-the-world love affair that gave them their edge in the postseason. Maybe neglect and disrespect from the rest of the country, and often their opponents, fueled their resolve ("The Sixers were talking sweep, they gave us no respect," Lucas says). Whatever it was, down 0-2 to the 76ers in the Finals, the Blazers didn't flinch. "Dr. Jack called a meeting," Walton recalls. "He said we had nothing to worry about, that we hadn't played anywhere near where we could. He said he wasn't changing a thing. He just wanted us to be who we were and to remember what we do and why. Run, attack, fast break." And so they turned up the volume at home, with the Maniacs doing their thing in the stands, and the passing game and pressure defense doing its thing on the floor. And that was all it took.
As they'd done back in November, they took it to the headliners, left them standing still and all twisted in knots, winning the next four games by an average of 15-plus points (including a 32-point win in Game 4). Walton was dominant in the clinching Game 6, going for 20 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight blocked shots.
You hear words like euphoria and magic tossed around too casually in sports. We have a tendency to glorify moments for the sake of glory itself, to dress things up. But if you look back at images from the Trail Blazers' celebration -- Walton with his jersey off striding through the delirious crowd, some 200,000 turned out in the streets of Portland for the championship victory parade, Ramsay and his players hugging in the locker room under a shower of champagne -- you see something genuine, some pure bit of joy and surprise, some magical euphoria, frankly.
"Things felt so perfect," Walton says. "It was the best feeling I ever had in my life." It wasn't just what they'd done, but how they'd done it. They had come from nowhere to stand at the top of the heap. They had come together to accomplish something no one had thought possible. "That's the look you see on our faces," Davis says. "Satisfaction. Pride. We had an opportunity to do something special -- we knew that from very early on in the season -- and we did it. I can't tell you what that feels like. It's just so ... sweet."
I love how Dr. Jack Ramsay (who is, incidentally, in the very Cleveland hotel where I now sit) filled that team with confidence. Amazing stuff.
One other historical footnote about the mood of that series turning -- the players and coaches told me that a key factor was Maurice Lucas' coming to his teammates aid and slugging Darryl Dawkins near the end of Game 2. (It was a different time, such things did not result in suspensions.) It sent the message, loud and clear, that the Blazers were not scared. I don't love that part of the story, and I don't advocate it for the Cavaliers or anybody else. But if you want to know how Portland turned that series around, that's certainly part of it.