"Blazermania?" said Kathy Singler, a cocktail waitress in downtown Portland, before the season began. "I've still got scars from Blazermania."
In the bewildering world of the National Basketball Association, which began its 32nd season last week with wholesale personnel changes, bitter free-agent compensation disputes, mad economic wanderlust, a handful of crumbling franchises and one huge punch in the head, it is marvelous to report that love and spirituality and Blazermania continue to run rampant in the wilds of Oregon.
You may remember Blazermania. While other pro basketball teams were staying alive by begging for handouts on telethons or—ugh—moving to New Jersey, Blazermania was making for an embarrassment of riches. Because the Trail Blazers received requests for 18,000 season tickets, while Memorial Coliseum seats only 12,411, the team arranged for its home games to be shown on closed-circuit theater TV—and sold 300 season tickets for that. While fans in other cities were becoming disaffected by bewildering player transactions and tedious financial bickering, Blazermania caused 10,000 Portland school kids to sign and send their favorite team a telegram the length of the bridge between Portland and Vancouver. While players on other teams shave their heads, pierce their ears and leave the slammer on their way to jam-dunking immortality, Blazermania requires its hired guns to pass the ball.
"Teamwork is preached so much," says Portland's Lionel Hollins, "that when one of us turns an ankle, we all limp."
Blazermania was the force behind the Trail Blazers winning their final 18 games in the Coliseum, including 10 in the playoffs, including, of course, the world championship. Run a lap. Kiss a fir tree. Throw away an aerosol can. Chug-a-lug boysenberry-kumquat juice. And root for Bill Walton. You've got Blazermania.
What Blazermania demonstrated beyond anything else was that in an age when pro sports is so often the dull child of dismal bigness, a team by its style, character and wholesome ways can still manage to personalize itself, enchant its audience and make everybody feel good. The Trail Blazers didn't simply win the NBA championship. They related. They shared. They got down to their people. In the peculiarly accurate street vernacular of the NBA, the standard opening greeting of "Wha's happenin'?" finally can be answered:
" Portland is, what is."
While it is true that Portland is small (400,000 population) and that there is not much to do there in the winter unless you are a duck, the only-game-in-town theory is not enough to explain the sheer intensity of Blazermania. Portland was, and is, a city genuinely moved by its transient basketball representatives as well as by its hometown pride. At first, the town fell head over heels for the team simply because it was going to make the playoffs. "That would have been enough for us," says General Manager Harry Glickman.
But then the Blazers knocked over Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia on the way to the championship. When the team returned home after winning the fifth game of the final series, 5,000 people met the Blazers at the airport. It was 4:40 a.m.
By the next morning, June 5, V-J day (Victory over Julius), 16 dozen roses and 20 pounds of crab from a cannery on the Oregon coast had been delivered to the Blazer offices. The Oregonian splashed a banner headline across Page One: WE'LL WIN IT TODAY. The beach at Salishan, a popular oceanside resort, was deserted. At the Christ Church Parish in Lake Oswego, the Rev. John A. Bright kept consulting his watch during the service. He followed the choir down the aisle, said the dismissal by the door and, at the crack of noon, roared "Go, Blazers!"