Like Americans everywhere last Thursday, the breakfasters in the coffee shop of a Cleveland hotel were unusually engrossed in their morning papers. Most were reading the first reports of the Pennsylvania nuclear-plant accident. But Dr. Jack Ramsay of the Portland Trail Blazers, the only coach in the NBA with a Ph.D., dived straight for the sports pages. In the penultimate week of the NBA regular season, a ferocious struggle for Western Conference playoff spots was on and Portland was in the middle of it. Seven teams were separated by seven games, and anything could happen.
Ramsay's mind was totally occupied with basketball. Never in 28 seasons of coaching had he experienced tribulations like those that began on Feb. 28, 1978, when Bill Walton fell on his left ankle, re-injuring it severely. Five other key players suffered injuries, and by season's end the defending champion Trail Blazers had their own orthopedic ward. There followed the staggering summer meeting in which Walton charged the team with improper medical practices and demanded to be traded.
Even after Walton went his own way to wait for his injury to heal, the Blazers' misfortunes plague continued. By the fourth game of the 1978-79 season, on Oct. 20 at Golden State, not one of the top seven players from the 1977 championship team was in a Portland uniform. Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross, Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins and Lloyd Neal were injured, Walton was in limbo and Johnny Davis had been traded to Indiana.
That the Trail Blazers last week came close to locking up a playoff spot is surprising enough. That they had won 16 of their last 20 games, had improved their road record to 13-27—as recently as Feb. 25 they were 25-5 at home and 4-25 on the road—and were playing as well as any team in the NBA seems nothing short of miraculous. The keys to Portland's resurgence are the development of two rookies—6'10" Forward Mychal Thompson, the Bahamian from Minnesota, and 6'4" Guard Ron Brewer, the shooter from Arkansas—as two of the best in the league at their positions, the machinelike play of Center Tom Owens, formerly Walton's backup, and Ramsay's coaching genius.
Because of the press scrutiny that followed Walton's allegations, injured Trail Blazers have been reluctant to take medication or rush back from injuries, and management has been extremely circumspect in referring to the availability of sidelined players. "If someone is injured—a hangnail to a broken skull—we just say, 'It's day to day,' " says Ramsay. "They come back when they're ready." Until the past few weeks there have seldom been enough players to hold a full practice. Between them, Gross, Lucas, Twardzik and Hollins have missed 72 games this season.
But because of those injuries, Thompson and Brewer have had more time in which to develop. Since March 11, when he became a starter opposite Lucas in the small forward spot—that's a 6'10", 230-pound small forward—Thompson has averaged 21.6 points and 9.6 rebounds while guarding and generally destroying the opponents' best forward, Julius Erving, Marques Johnson, Walter Davis and Bob Dandridge included. Brewer, after a slow start, is averaging 13.6 points on 50% shooting.
As for Ramsay, the strain of the season shows only in his eyes. His 54-year-old body belongs in a Vic Tanny ad. Before last Thursday's game with Cleveland he worried that his team might take the Cavaliers too lightly, and tougher games at Washington and Milwaukee were to follow. Hollins was in Portland with a sore knee, Lucas had a bruised hand, Gross was still not in shape after operations on his left ankle and both knees between March and November, and Twardzik's body was a disaster area. This season he has had a broken nose, a bruised shin and chest, a torn calf muscle and chronic back spasms. "Just basic wrack and ruin," he says. "Situation normal."
But nothing stopped Twardzik from, as usual, flinging himself around like a madman against Cleveland. He worked fast breaks and kept the Blazers' offense in perpetual motion as he (16 points), Lucas (24), Thompson (16) and Owens (18) took turns cutting to the basket and feeding each other perfect passes. In the 120-103 rout, 30 of Portland's 48 field goals were layups. At the other end, Thompson shut down the high-scoring Campy Russell (one for six), while grabbing 16 rebounds himself. Brewer's man, Austin Carr, went two for 11.
The Blazers spent the bus ride back to the hotel arguing whether to root for the San Diego Clippers (one game behind) or the Kansas City Kings (half a game ahead) in that night's game in San Diego. If Ramsay's Blazers play the consummate team game, Gene Shue's Clippers play the ultimate playground game. The Trail Blazers call them "The Dirty Dozen" and don't want to lose out to them, particularly by one game.
"We lost some we should have won," bellowed Owens. "But San Diego! We didn't lose that one. We were robbed." He was referring to the Jan. 24 game that the Clippers won 122-121 when Randy Smith made two free throws with two seconds left on a spurious foul call by Referee Paul Mihalik. There is no controversy. Ramsay received a letter from the NBA's supervisor of officials, Norm Drucker, acknowledging the error.