The Portland Trail Blazers have created a rich history and culture during their time in the NBA. Here’s where it all started.
Fifty years ago, Bill Walton had just arrived in UCLA, Lew Alcindor was beginning his first and only MVP Season under this name, and Rip City was a place no one would spot on a map.
Still, Portland was filled with basketball excitement as the Portland Trail Blazers geared up for their first regular-season game in franchise history.
October 16, 1970, had been a long time coming for Oregon. Like many sports organizations in the state, the roots of the Trail Blazers had to do with late, legendary, Harry Glickman.
Raised in Portland, Glickman initially planned to be a sportswriter after graduating from the University of Oregon with a journalism degree. However, after graduation, Glickman quickly turned to sports promotion, bringing preseason NFL games to Portland and eventually founding the now-defunct Portland Buckaroos hockey team.
Having wanted to bring a basketball team to Portland since the Memorial Coliseum’s first bond passed back in 1954, Glickman went through years of struggles attempting to put together a professional organization.
In 1970, after tireless efforts, Glickman and the city finally earned an expansion franchise with the National Basketball Association.
Eight months later, the franchise had a name, a roster, a home arena, and was ready for action.
While anticipation must have been overwhelming within the arena, it’s likely few were paying attention outside the building.
With the Blazers facing the Cleveland Cavaliers, the game featured two of the three expansion teams introduced to the league that season. Because the 1970 NBA expansion draft only allowed new teams to select players established franchises deemed expendable, both teams were largely made up of rookies and non-starters.
For the Cavs, only Bingo Smith would go on to have his jersey retired by the franchise.
While Portland also saw many players stay just a single season, their debut lineup featured many names revered amongst Trail Blazer fans to this day.
Rookie Geoff Petrie, considered “the original Trail Blazer,” experienced his NBA debut with the franchise as a whole and would go on to become the 1970-1971 Co-Rookie of the Year. Through five seasons and two All-Star appearances, Petrie earned his status as a legendary Blazer, since having his number 45 jersey retired by the organization.
Although Portlanders likely remember him most in a suit and tie, legendary Blazer coach Rick Adelman began his time with the franchise long before he was ever he ever wielded a coach’s clipboard. Selected by the Blazers as a part of the expansion draft, 24-year-old Adelman would become Portland’s first-ever starring point guard. Never the most talented player, Adelman transition to coaching by the late 1970s, eventually returning to Portland as Head Coach, where he would lead the team to two finals appearances.
While Blazer starter Jim Barnett would only be with the team for the 1970-1971 season, he played a crucial role in creating the franchise’s everlasting nickname. On February 18, 1971, while playing the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, the Blazers were in the midst of coming back from an over 20 point deficit. Down just two, Barnett found himself with the ball at half court.
After taking just a couple steps, he let fly, sinking an insane, pre-three point era, game trying bucket. Without explanation or hesitation, legendary play-by-play announcer, Bill Schonely, exclaimed: “Rip City, Alright!” To this day, Schonely swears the phrase was unprepared and simply birthed in the moment. While Barnett left the team just months after, he helped shape one of the most beloved rallying calls in basketball.
The game itself ended up being quite an entertaining event. A close game from tipoff, the Blazers went to the half down just a single point in a tight 55-54 contest. The Cavs would continue to have the slight upper hand in the third quarter, taking an 86-81 lead into the fourth.
Then came the Portland speed. While Dr. Jack Ramsay and his fast-paced style were still a few years away from arriving in Portland, head coach Rolland “Mod” Todd shared an affinity for a quick, explosive offense.
The Blazers began their first-ever fourth-quarter comeback, evaporating the five-point deficit and eventually sealing a 115-112 victory in front of a far from sold-out crowd of fewer than 5,000 people.
Portland would finish their inaugural season with a 29-53 record, which was viewed as a successful start for the franchise despite missing playoffs.
Unfortunately, the team struggled to improve in the coming years and would miss the playoffs every year until their 1977 Championship run. Still, as Todd stated in an interview, “Nobody got cheated if they came to a Trail Blazer Game. They got their money’s worth whether we won or lost.”
While “Blazermania” did not arrive instantly, the Trail Blazers’ early years planted a seed in Oregon, inspiring a fanbase that soon became one of the most loyal in North American sports.
At this time of the year, Portland, along with the rest of the league, would normally be preparing for the return of a new season, likely in the midst of a preseason run.
Instead, in this anything but normal year, next season’s return date remains in question.
When it does, we can only hope Portland brings the same dedicated following for another fifty years and beyond.