Portland Trail Blazers: The out-of-nowhere, 27-point playoff scorer you’ve never heard of

Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

In what was dubbed the “Linsanity before Linsanity,” Rip City found a gem through a 10-day contract. And to this day, he’s got the highest Playoff scoring average of any Portland Trail Blazers Player ever.

For decades, injuries have been the unifying tie among Portland Trail Blazers fans across five decades. It’s created a special, misery-loves-company type connection among fans of Bill Walton and Brandon Roy alike. But where DNPs have been in some ways, the death of Rip City, they’ve also been a source of life and regeneration.

More from Rip City Project

In 1980, it served as the foundation for one of the little-told stories in Blazers history. Injuries — and try not to be so surprised to read this — had once again become the prevailing story of the season, and with the Playoffs well on the horizon, the NBA’s second-worst offense needed a bucket maker.

Fortunately for them, they found an answer in Billy Ray Bates — a backboard-breaking Rookie of the Year for the Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association. Dubbed “the Black Superman,” Bates gave the Blazers what many have called Linsanity before Linsanity.

Bates only played 16 games for the Blazers in 1979-80, but as proven, the ability to generate buckets can sometimes prevail over chemistry and familiarity. Against Dennis Johnson, arguably the best defensive point guard in the NBA, Bates averaged 25.0 points per game, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists on 53 percent shooting, and he was the only player on either team to hit a 3-pointer in the series.

With just a month of NBA play under his belt, Bates was recognized as the NBA’s Player of the Week (off the bench, mind you), which has to be close to some sort of record, if not the record.

Then, there’s this gem of a highlight, a fantastic display of aerobic ability, a game-winning alley-oop off of an inbound pass from Kermit Washington.

Here are some of the records we can say that Bates owns for sure, despite just playing 187 games, the equivalent of just 2½ seasons:

  • Highest Playoff points per game average in Blazers history —28.3 PPG (albeit, he played three games).
  • Highest Playoff career points per game average in Blazers history — 26.7 PPG.

These days, Bates is still adjusting to the post-basketball life. In L. Jon Wortheim’s feature on Bates in 2016, his struggles even during his playing days are chronicled. In 1998, he was arrested for attempting to rob a gas station, a comeuppance of only $7. According to these stories, Bates never quite acclimated with the lifestyle like that of an NBA player, or even the bourgeoisie right under it.

But, what he did on the court deserves to be celebrated. Basketball circles at the time have likened him to both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade because of his power and grace, especially around the rim. Consider this description:

"“Bates was 6′ 4″, with a convex chest, huge hands—“them big meat hooks!” he calls them proudly—and muscles that appeared to be making a jailbreak from his skin. He was strong enough to post up, skilled enough to rain jumpers from 30 feet and athletic enough to dunk with disregard both for defenders and the laws of physics.”"

Players with short careers are generally looked at in some ways as cautionary tales, or players to learn from. In short time, Bates would become one of the unheralded pioneers of the 10-day contract situation.

One year later, he again excelled with the lights on bright, averaging 28.3 points per game and 4.3 assists on a blistering 57 percent from the field, 100 percent from deep, and 82 percent from the charity stripe against the Kansas City Kings, a series they would have won if they hadn’t allowed Kings’ stars Otis Birdsong and Scott Wedman to heat up in the second half of that 1981 tilt.

Neil Olshey’s five best decisions as Portland Trail Blazers GM. dark. Next

As long as the Portland Trail Blazers employ certified buckets like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Bates’ 39-year record hangs in jeopardy. But until that day comes — and long after — we should appreciate the stories of the players that made us.

Players like Billy Ray Bates.