It’s August. What’s more, it’s mid-August, which means nothing has happened or will happen to the Trail Blazers for quite some time. Any big news would be bad news at this point, since all that can really happen is some sort of freak injury. So we as basketball fans are left to daydream about the future or the past; the present is dull as hell.
A couple months ago, a neighbor of mine moved away and I ended up with a bunch of his old sports books and magazines, several Blazers-related. The one I want to talk about today is Red Hot and Rollin’, a 2007 anthology about the Trail Blazers’ first and only NBA Championship in 1977.
The book was edited and partially written by Matt Love, who has written extensively about Oregon. Love compiles 22 different takes on the Trail Blazers and Portland in the grips of Blazermania, by writers who grew up with the franchise.
For most diehard Trail Blazers fans (the sort, perhaps, to read a Blazers blog in August), the championship story is familiar and even tired. After years of mediocrity, the team, behind a new coach and a newly-healthy center, played beautiful basketball all year long. The upstart team swept Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers and faced off with Julius Erving’s Sixers, in a collision between one-on-one Talentball and cohesive team play. The Trail Blazers were blown out through two games, but were rejuvenated at the end of Game 2, when Maurice Lucas and Darryl Dawkins got in a fight. They proceeded to sweep the rest of the series and clinch it in Game 6, setting off an explosion of civic pride not seen before or since.
(If that was new to you, I don’t mean to condescend. You can be one of today’s lucky ten thousand! Dive into more footage and read up. Enjoy.)
That parenthetical aside, all of that is inherent to the collective Blazers memory. Red Hot and Rollin’ is at its best when it puts all that aside. Understandably, every author wants to relive the iconic moments, but when every author does, it makes for dull reading. At least half a dozen of these essays recount the final moments of Game 6 (“Here’s McGinnis, Lucas comes out, McGinnis for the tie, it’s off, Erving is there–It’s over! It’s over!”). It’s cool, but not especially enlightening.
And that is where we run into the problem. There is a communication gap between the fans lucky enough to remember the Trail Blazers in 1977 and the fans lucky enough to be young. No matter how hard anyone tries, it seems more or less impossible to recreate the excitement and obsession over the Bill Walton Blazers.
That is why the idea behind this book is ultimately brilliant. The title team captivated everyone in Oregon so thoroughly that any one person’s account of that spring is doomed. An anthology, though, lets us look at twenty-plus case studies in Blazermania and try to triangulate from that the atmosphere in Portland in 1977.
Some of these accounts are great. Highlights include a kid sprinting around his garage doing color commentary on his own Nerf-ball exploits on a makeshift hoop, a woman pretending to be a professional photographer to get closer to the team, and a doorman at a bar-nightclub afraid to kick out the underaged but enormous Dawkins.
There are also occasional details from the season itself that manage to bring more meaning to the team. Case in point: I came away from this convinced that we need to talk about Lucas more. In the popular retelling, he’s the enforcer who allows Walton to play his brand of basketball. While that is probably true, Lucas also led the team in scoring and averaged 11.4 rebounds per game. Maybe he wasn’t on Walton’s level, but that dude was good. What’s more, according to an interview that Love managed to get with Luke, he was into transcendental meditation and vegetarianism. Why don’t we remember him more?
Jeff Baker writes an account of what happened in Game Six, aptly titled “What Happened in Game Six.” There’s a good bit of tedious description, but also some brilliant details. On the flight from Philly to Portland, he says, “the 76ers were unhappy because the scheduled movie on the flight, Rocky, was replaced by The Cassandra Crossing.” Do we as Trail Blazers fans owe a debt of gratitude to the critically-panned 1976 British disaster movie? I think we might.
There is an excerpt from a Sports Illustrated article about the sweep over the Lakers. About Walton’s massive dunk on Abdul-Jabbar, Curry Kilpatrick says “the play showed that basketball has a brand-new Russell-Chamberlain rivalry to savor.” It’s impossible to know how much of that is thrill-of-the-moment hyperbole, but, y’know, geez.
Hyperbole or not, some of the bare facts about this era sound made up. Like that 250,000 people turned out for the parade in Portland, at the time a city of 350,000. Or that “the National Conference of Christians and Jews bestowed a Human Relations Award on the Trail Blazers for their ‘teamwork and generosity.’”
Then there is Brian Doyle’s breathless essay, “An Exquisite Geometry,” which burns through almost two pages in the space of nine sentences. It starts out “They were fast quicksilvery generous liquid flowing zesty vivacious creative selfless sprinting flying, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a many-headed creature alert and attentive and attuned to the exquisite geometry of basketball at its highest level, which is where they played it for a couple of years, which is a long time really when you think about it…” and keeps going like that for a while. It’s great.
While this book would never be put at the top of the Trail Blazers literary canon (that spot will be filled by David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game for the foreseeable forever), it is definitely worth a read for a bored/curious Blazer fan. As Dwight Jaynes says in his piece, “There are people living here–a good many of them in fact–who have no idea what the Trail Blazers meant to this area during the glory years.” It’s true, and I have all sorts of envy for those who do get it. But Red Hot and Rollin’ brought me just a little bit closer.
 Like, everyone. An excerpt from Harry Glickman’s biography begins: “Ratings for that final playoff game indicated that in Oregon we had a ninety-six percent share of the television audience. I am told that this is the largest share for any event in the history of television anywhere in the world.”
One final note: the book includes a DVD copy of Fast Break, a documentary of the ‘77 team. I haven’t seen it and can’t review it, but here is a TrueHoop review if you’re curious.