Two months ago, shortly after he arrived in Portland, Ore. for preseason practice, Geoff Petrie took his paycheck, to the First National Bank. Petrie was the first draft choice of the NBA expansion Trail Blazers, and First National carries the Blazers' account; in fact, the bank had printed the team's schedule as a giveaway gimmick. Still the teller hesitated to cash Petrie's check. She had never heard of the organization that had issued it.
By last week conditions had changed—somewhat. Again Petrie, who had just completed a very good exhibition season, wanted to cash a paycheck, and this time the teller recognized the name Trail Blazers. Now what she wanted to know was: Who is Geoff Petrie?
One might safely assume that professional basketball has not exactly overwhelmed Portland, which is a bit hard to explain since the Blazers, unlike their expansion colleagues in Buffalo and Cleveland, are the first major-leaguers of any kind in their state. But Portland's loyalty to minor league hockey and the tendency of Blazer management to hire unknowns for important jobs have tempered the response. When Petrie, an unpublicized 6'4" guard from Princeton, was announced as the team's first pick in the college draft, headlines in the Portland papers asked "Geoff Who?" Those same papers had wondered "Rolland Who?" only a few weeks earlier when the Blazers hired Rolland Todd of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas as their coach. Before that the question had been "Stu Who?" when Stu Inman, the former San Jose State coach who had been selling sneakers, was given the job of running the team's scouting program.
In fact, the only members of the Portland organization—players or management—whose names were not followed by question marks when the season began were General Manager Harry Glickman and Jim Barnett, the ex- San Diego Rocket who holds all the University of Oregon scoring records. Barnett is one of only three Blazers who have ever averaged in double figures as pros, and the trade of Larry Siegfried to the Rockets to obtain Barnett was one of the few early moves by Portland that was not challenged by a bewildered "Who's he?" Glickman, a slight, 46-year-old native of Portland, is nearly as much of a novice at pro basketball as the rest of the Blazers. In the past few years he has occasionally brought the pros to Oregon for one-night stands, but his reputation as a sports promoter is based substantially on the extraordinary success he has had running the city's minor league hockey franchise.
Glickman began trying to obtain a pro basketball team for Portland 12 years ago and thought he had one for sure when he went to an NBA board of governors' meeting in Philadelphia last January. At that time he had guarantees of $2.5 million in local backing, the amount that was supposed to have been the asking price for membership in the league. In the process of hesitating over expansion the NBA owners upped the price, though the league was still adjusting to two expansions in the previous three seasons. The ante was raised to $3.7 million, a figure welt beyond the Portland resources. Glickman managed to win a franchise a month later, but the team ended up with absentee ownership. The three biggest shareholders live in California, Washington and New Jersey, a potentially distressing situation if the team is not a quick success at the gate.
The day after the franchise was granted, Glickman hired Stu Who? and it was Inman who made up the list of player preferences that led to Petrie's first-round selection. The choice was considered a good one by basketball men but was disconcerting to those Oregonians who had never heard of him and who were aware that UCLA's John Vallely and Niagara's Calvin Murphy were still available. Portland's second choice, Walt Gilmore, was even less reassuring. A promising 6'6" package of unpolished muscles and speed, Gilmore played for Fort Valley State (Ga.), a school that sounds as if it might have been Charlie Weaver's alma mater. "We promised ourselves we wouldn't lose our guts after we got into the draft," says Glickman. "In both the college draft and the expansion draft we decided to take what we thought were the best players, regardless of where they were from or who they were."
Substantially the same philosophy applied in finding a coach. Unlike most college coaches, who sneer at pro jobs until they get one, Todd admits that he had been looking for one all along. His teams at Nevada-Las Vegas played a high-geared pro-style offense, and the school earned recognition as a rapidly improving power in the NCAA's College Division. Still few of the Blazers had ever heard of him before arriving in Portland. "I did know about him, but it was only by accident," says Petrie. "He was on a recruiting trip in the East last year, and he came to Princeton to see us play. After the game he went out with the coaches. They came in the next day and said, 'Hey, you gotta see this wild guy from Nevada. He was wearing high-heeled boots and a mink coat!' "
Although his mink is only imitation, Rolland Who? is quickly becoming Mod Todd in Portland. A handsome man of 36, he is likely to develop into something of a local idol. Last week he figured the weather was not quite cold enough to break out his furs, so in his off hours he wore buckskin trousers, a brocaded vest and a full-length leather coat. For Friday's game in Seattle he put on a black blazer with red piping, black patent-leather boots and black-and-red bell-bottoms. On the bench his cool is downright uncoachly—on occasion he has fallen asleep waiting for a game to start. When the action begins he rarely does more than twist a towel in his hands.
Long before the end of the season he may need the towel to mop up the tears. The Blazers will not win many games, although by beating Cleveland twice last month they proved they are not the worst of the expansion teams. But hockey-oriented Portland fans will have trouble adjusting to any kind of a loser, since their Western Hockey League Buckeroos have had the best record in professional hockey over the past 10 years. Coming to watch the Blazers will require a major switch in attitudes. "They'll have to change from looking forward to seeing the home players to seeing the visiting stars," says John White, who handles public relations for both hockey and basketball teams.
The crowds at Blazer games so far have been surprisingly unself-conscious in the sparsely filled 13,000-seat Memorial Coliseum. Oregon basketball, on the high school and college levels, has been dominated for years by the deliberate style of former Oregon State Coach Slats Gill. The faster pro style won quick converts during the Blazers' first game, when the team used four consecutive fast breaks to take the lead in the second period and then go on to defeat Cleveland. The cheering has been throaty and sustained ever since.