When We Fell Hard

I don't remember much about the final game itself and it shocks me. I'm talking about the one that was played in Memorial Coliseum on the afternoon of June 5, 1977. As a sports writer and columnist in Portland for more than three decades, I'm a little disappointed in myself -- embarrassed, actually -- because the details of the biggest basketball game in the history of this state should have been burned into my cranium.

After all, the Portland Trail Blazers that afternoon did the unthinkable. They had become champions of the world -- back before countries around the planet had a right to quibble over such pronouncements. Yes, little old Portland was the very best in the world on that day.

But the game? Can't remember much of anything. I do recall my little piece of reporting about it in the Oregon Journal--a short sidebar documenting the pronouncements of the most famous denizen of the planet Lovetron, backup Philadelphia center Darryl Dawkins. I grabbed him because he was notably quotable and, more accurately, because he would talk to me.

As I look back, I'm going to guess that my lack of recall about the big game -- and all it created for Portlanders and Oregonians -- is not due to my creeping senility as much as it is because of all that happened later.

For me, the aftermath was much more important than anybody's basket or blocked shot. Growing up as a Portland kid loving sports, we didn't have a lot to hold on to. Who were the beloved local teams of my youth?

There were the Portland Beavers, but Triple-A baseball slipped in importance from the 1950s until the end of the 1960s. After that, it mattered only as a clean and enjoyable summer afternoon of entertainment -- but nobody much cared whether the team won. The results were irrelevant because the heroes, the main characters, were so transitory. You couldn't really root for them because winning didn't really matter. You liked Sam McDowell? Good, hope you enjoyed him because he was here for just a few weeks and then on to the big leagues. Same for Luis Tiant, with Tommy John, of all people, sent here to replace him. But just for a little while.

The Portland Buckaroos were huge in this city for quite a few years. But the National Hockey League expanded and our town was once again consigned to second-class sports citizenship. The memories of Jack Bionda, Tommy McVie, Art Jones, Don Head and Hal Laycoe just didn't last long enough.

The Far West Classic was a brief few days of excitement right after Christmas, but the era of eight-team tournaments died away and so did the willingness of big-time teams to come here in the winter without major financial guarantees.

The Ducks and Beavers? Well, in the days before fast cars and even faster freeways, we didn't make the drive very often. We followed their football and basketball teams as best we could, but to Portland kids, at least in my neighborhood, those guys never felt like the home team.

In the beginning, the Blazers didn't either.

It seems nobody remembers all the doomsayers who predicted this town would never support a major-league sport -- certainly not the at-the-time rather obscure NBA. And in the early years of the Blazers, the team was not well supported at the turnstiles. It took the drafting of Bill Walton in 1974 to get the town buzzing.

But once Portland fell in love, it fell hard.

And what I remember most about the NBA Championship is that love affair that followed -- one that lasted for many, many years. What that 1976-77 team set off was a rocket that seemed for a while destined to orbit this city forever. Of course, it didn't. And I think about that a lot these days.

I think not just about the horrible path the franchise took over a recent five-year span, but about the damage that has been done to the overall importance of sports in a community.

There are people living here -- a good many of them, in fact -- who have no idea what the Blazers meant to this area during the glory years. They probably can't imagine a Portland where an entire city lived and died with every game, a Portland with a shared passion so deep it cut across all sorts of political and social lines.

There are people here, of course, too young to remember. And so many who didn't live here at the time. They are people who have no concept of how big the team's impact was on this city and state.

I remember reading about how much the Dodgers meant to Brooklyn and it often reminded me of the Blazers in Portland. How the city lived and died with each win and worshipped the players and their families. They were gods. But those days are so long gone.

I didn't go to the victory parade after the Championship win. I wasn't up for all the hassle. And I didn't need to be there, because I knew what it all meant. I look at those parade pictures now and can't help but smile. Fans were pushing out onto the street, keeping the cars carrying players and coaches from moving. Hundreds of thousands of people, some of them hanging from trees and lamp posts, all wanting just to be a part of it. All of them celebrating together. All of them, in some way, enjoying their little piece of it in their city. With their team.

It brought this area together unlike anything before or since.

As a lifelong resident of Portland who has probably always cared more about sports than just about everyone else I knew, it was heaven. It was an opportunity for the people here to finally see just how much a professional team could bring to a community. Truth be known, it was probably one of the few times in my life when a sports event meant as much to the whole city as it did to me.

It's a funny kind of relationship sports writers have with the teams they cover. I've never been a Blazer fan. I've never loved the Blazers. That's how we do our job in my business. But I loved what the Blazers did for Portland. And I can still remember how good people here felt about their team and -- somehow, by association -- themselves.

When I talk to so many Portlanders about what the Trail Blazers once meant to the city, I get the kind of bewildered stares you give crazy old Uncle Walt when he goes off on one of his mysterious tangents. Ah, they figure, the ramblings of a senile old sportswriter.

And then there are some who do remember, but who tell me it will never be like that here again -- for the Trail Blazers or any other team. The world has changed too much. People won't buy in. The current Blazer image problems will always keep some from jumping back on the bandwagon.

I doubt it. I remember how many people disliked Walton early in his Blazer days -- from the carrot-juice jokes to the rumors of him helping to hide Patty Hearst. He was no big favorite -- until he propelled the team to that great championship run. Then he was the king of the city. Winning is the ultimate deodorant.

Yes, I think, sports can matter here, just as they can everywhere else. Not to just a few crazy diehards, but to most of us. And those of us who were here during that wonderful ride have seen it.

I refuse to believe that we have witnessed Portland's one and only victory parade down Broadway. Some day it will happen again. Maybe for the Blazers, or perhaps for a baseball or football or even a hockey team.

If it doesn't, I'll take solace in the fact that I was here to see it happen once. And I can honestly say, without feeling a bit sappy, what a glorious time that was to live in Portland.

Dwight Jaynes is a lifelong Portlander. He is a five-time Oregon Sportswriter of the Year award winner who covered the Portland Trail Blazers for seven years as a beat writer. He also co-authored two books about the Blazers, The Long Hot Winter with Rick Adelman and Against the World with Kerry Eggers. Jaynes now serves as executive editor and sports columnist at The Portland Tribune, a paper he helped start.