In the six games he has started, Roberson has also helped Portland's offense with his scoring (16.7), his rebounding (14.1) and his quick outlet passing, which has stepped up the Blazers' fast break. Passing, in fact, has become a whole new fancy in Portland. John Johnson has been a notable executant here, and so have the team's top scorers. Guard Geoff Petrie (25.2) and Forward Sidney Wicks (20.2), who in the past often played as if they thought passes were something used to get into the movies for free.
Petrie was the first favorite of the Portland fans and the NBA's co-Rookie of the Year when the Blazers were founded in 1970-71. Wicks arrived the next season and became a Rookie of the Year himself. Yet in their first two seasons together the Blazers won a grand total of 39 games. Particularly in Wicks' first year they often seemed at odds with one another on the court.
"We each felt threatened by the other and we were childish," says Petrie now. "By the end of that season I hated Sidney. I guess if you wanted to boil down the problem, it came out that Sidney didn't think I gave up 'the ball enough and I thought Sidney took too many bad 25-foot jumpers."
Wicks, who retains an understandable affection for the way things were done at UCLA, says he was not specifically critical of Petrie. "I was aiming higher," he recalls. "If Geoff was playing wrong, it wasn't his fault. It was the fault of the coach, who should have told him to stop it and play the right way."
The summer following their first season together Wicks and Petrie went to Israel to give clinics, and the two weeks there helped settle their differences, especially after Wicks, a strong swimmer, suffered cramps in the Sea of Galilee and Petrie pulled him to safety.
Still their games did not begin to blend until the Blazers' recent successes when their passes, often to one another, fired the Portland break. That kind of play fired up the fans, too. Along with Seattle and Phoenix, which are also basketball-only cities, Portland has been one of the few places where a losing team has received lavish support. "People here were dying for a major league team to cheer for," says Jerry Miesen, one of the club's most rabid fans. "But now that we're winning, it's really gotten to be something special. Like last Saturday against the Knicks. It was the height of the elk-hunting season and that's pretty big around here, but we had a record crowd and they all stood and cheered for the last seven minutes. Never saw anything like it."
Indeed, the Blazers came into last week with successive home wins over the Lakers and Knicks, and then extended their streak with a 122-108 victory over Buffalo, which put Portland in sole possession of first place for the second time this year. In that game Wicks scored 31, Petrie 29 and Roberson 12 with 16 rebounds. The next night the Blazers fell out of first by losing to Chicago 106-104. Still, they battled the Bulls right to the end even though Wicks and Roberson were in foul trouble much of the time. And when it came to the deciding basket, Portland's defense was faultless, stymieing the Bulls' patterns for 23 seconds before Jerry Sloan threw in a desperate 25-foot heave with one second showing on the shot clock and six on the game clock.
The Chicago loss left Portland's home record at 7-2, but to prove they are playoff contenders the Blazers must improve on the road, where Roberson has not started and where they are 0-3. They will have an opportunity to do just that this week and next on a testing five-game trip. If they win a few in such places as Milwaukee, Detroit and Atlanta, then the Blazers could truly be cruisin'.