A couple weeks ago the Portland Trail Blazers held a celebration downtown at Shrunk Plaza across from City Hall to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the team's 1977 NBA championship. The actual 30th anniversary is June 5, 1977, but the ceremony was held on the occasion of the jersey-retiring ceremony for the point guard on that team, Lionel Hollins, and held at halftime of the of current Blazers' last game.
Pioneer Courthouse Square would have been a much more visible and practical choice for the event, but Shrunk Plaza was where the original championship parade concluded. For history's sake, it was the right call. But Shrunk Plaza has only a small brick-paved area and the rest is mostly a grassy gently-sloping hillside occupying one city block. This was an early spring day, and not only was it showering, but the ground was very soft and muddy from lots of rain that already had fallen. The ceremony was held at noon, and there were hundreds of us - including lots of business people on their lunch hours - getting our feet and pant legs submerged in mud. One poor guy fell down on his butt and slid about 15 feet down the wet slope. He got totally covered in mud. But you know what? He still stayed until the end of the ceremony. There was also a woman who seemed to be in her early 40s who was trying to control her toddler, who also managed to get covered in mud. "I know this doesn't mean much to you at your age," the woman said to obvlivious little girl, "but it does to Mommy."
The team members from '77 who attended the event came by bus with a police escort down Broadway to the plaza, in a recreation of that day, in which hundreds of thousands of people mobbed the victorious team as it made its way down Broadway. They were a little late in arriving, however, so keeping the crowd warmed up fell on two disparate parties: emcee Bill Schonely, the much beloved longtime Blazers radio announcer (his call of the winning championship moment is a Pavlovian tear-inducer for Blazer fans like myself) and the Blazer dance team. It was pretty embarrassing to behold, seeing these cheerleaders rocking out to Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls" while the septuagenarian Schonely encourages them (I hope I detected a tongue-in-cheeck look in his eye) by saying, "Do it, girls!" I laughed to myself thinking how hard the Blazers' PR department is trying to generate a family-friendly image after the "Jail Blazers" era, and yet the cheerleaders are dancing to a song that had its music video set in a strip club.
It was really endearing, though, when the team arrived and got introduced by Schonely one by one. I remember noticing this sort of blue-collar guy in front of me video taping the whole thing with his friend. He recognized all the players (all 30 years older now) at once. "Oh my god," he said, "they even got Corky Calhoun!"
This was a case of two polar-opposite emotions coming through simultaneously, though. Seeing all these now pretty every day looking guys in their fifties and sixties hailed as conquering heroes was a sincerely beautiful scene. In one particularly heart-tugging case, current Blazer players Joel Pryzbilla and Ime Udoka helped carry Robin Jones in his wheelchair down the terraced steps onto the stage.
All the while, though, Schonely's microphone kept going in and out. Even thinking about it now, my eyes squeeze shut and my nose shrivels in full-on cringe. He carried on, either not realizing the mic was failing (my bet) or choosing to ignore it. Thankfully, his microphone seemed to kick in for good just as the championship trophy was brought to the stage by two season-ticket holders whose subscription dates back to before the championship some 35 years.
There was a problem bigger than the mud or the faulty public address system, though: the missing presence of Bill Walton. "The big redhead's not here," Shonely announced. Apparently Walton couldn't get out of an existing assignment doing commentary for an NBA telecast on ESPN. I felt pretty angry Walton wasn't there. Although this was a real team in the most basic sense, with a disciplined offense that shared the ball and a very strong defense, Walton was clearly its superstar. He's a powerful enough figure now (a kind of star broadcaster, love or hate his boisterous style) that I believe he could have gotten permission from his teacher to skip class for a day. But the Blazers also seemed not to have planned things very well - it was all a bit hasty - so I wonder if the real fault lies in asking Walton too late. Schonely did say that Walton asked him to remind the crowd that he poured a can of beer over the mayor's head during the championship celebration. What if someone did that to Tom Potter now? They'd probably be looking at hard time.
At the same time, though, I was shocked by how little Walton was mentioned in the ceremony other than Schonely's announcement. I mean, you don't have to be a Blazer fan to acknowledge that however short his career may have been, Bill Walton was one of the handful of greatest centers to ever play the game, along with Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwan, Robinson and O'Neal.
With Walton gone, though, the crowd could have more fun with the role players from the championship team, so many of whom seemed to rise above their individual potential. Larry Steele led the NBA in (appropriately) steals that year, for example. Steele, by the way, was the best dressed at the ceremony, wearing a nicely cut suit. Bobby Gross, as Schonely noted, "had Dr. J running all over the place" in the championship series. And then of course there's Maurice Lucas, the power forward who not only was the team's high scorer, but also was a hugely intimidating presence - an ideal combination with the ultra talented but highly injury-susceptible Walton. In one famous moment during the '77 playoffs, he actually grabbed a referee's whistle while still around the guy's neck and said, "I wouldn't blow that again if I were you." Of course today "The Enforcer", now an assistant coach with the current team, is quite the teddy bear.
Luckily given Walton's presence, coach Jack Ramsay (also an ESPN commentator) was at the ceremony. When he was introduced, the burly video-camera-toting guy in front of me said to his friend, "I love this dude!" And Ramsay was all about simple sincerity in his brief comments.
A continuing theme of the ceremony was the connection between the '77 team and the current one, which certainly seems to be headed in the right direction with Brandon Roy and company. But you just never know. The Blazers have been tantalizingly close to winning the championships on at least four other occasions, 1990-92 and 2000, but always wound up without the ring. I don't want to let myself get heartbroken again.
One bit of bitter personal irony is that, as much as I cherish the 1977 championship, I really was too young to appreciate or remember when it happened. I was five years old. I remember a blur of Blazer mania, but I can't visualize where I was or what it felt like when the moment was won. That has always eaten away at me, of course. But as we filtered out of Shrunk plaza, to the predictable canned blare of Queen's "We Are the Champions", I felt emboldened as part of a family of people who deeply cherish that day in June thirty years ago.
As I see what I've written, it feels embarassingly earnest, but that's precisely why the couple of sports teams I follow mean so much to me. They're an escape from all the complexities and ambiguities of life. There's nothing left to wonder about the 1977 Trail Blazers championship. They won it. They were absolutely positively the validated best basketball team in the world as of June 5, 1977. Nobody can take that away.
It's enough to make me get choked up standing the rain and mud through a bush-league ceremony broadcast with faulty speakers.