It is playoff time in the National Basketball Association. Sign in, please. Willie Norwood: waived twice by Detroit, waived once by Seattle, played for the Rochester (N.Y.) Zenith in the All American Basketball Alliance until it folded in February. Jacky Dorsey: waived by New Orleans, waived by Denver, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Eastern Association. Dale Schlueter: appeared in the uniforms of six teams in nine years, picked up from the terrific Portland city-league team that won the Oregon AAU championship. The team's name is Claudia's.
What's their line? They are, of course, the amazing front line of the world champion Portland Trail Blazers. At least they were while the Blazer locker room was reminding everybody of the hospital in the movie Coma. You may have read about the epidemic. No sooner would one member of the NBA's best and brightest team be afflicted with whooping cough than a teammate would come down with terminal acne. For a while it seemed as if somebody was poisoning the Blazers' boysenberry and arugula salads. Or that Bill Walton was paying off on a pact he had made with the Devil and Marvin Webster.
What really happened was that fate and the law of averages ( Portland was all but injury free in 1977) had decreed that the runaway Blazers come back to the rest of the NBA. So they did.
After 60 games the champions had a resounding 50-10 record and were threatening to break every record the Montreal Canadiens hadn't already disposed of. Then Walton was hurt and in a month Portland had lost its top four re-bounders and Nos. 1-2-4-5-7 scorers. The Blazers limped out of the regular season with only eight victories in their last 22 games. "Of all times to happen," said Walton, fastening his Tenzing Norkay memorial knapsack onto his 48-speed dual cam, everything-on-it-but-a-wagging-doggie-head-on-the-handlebars bicycle. "This is terrible."
Terrible for Portland. Wonderful for the rest of the NBA as well as CBS-TV, which, if the Trail Blazers had remained healthy, would have been forced to trot out Barnaby Jones reruns during the Blazers' stroll through the playoffs. They were that good.
While some of the champions' ills may be cured by the time they begin play in the second round, the suspicion lingers that Portland's chances of becoming the first team to repeat as NBA champion since the Celtics of 1968 and '69 are nil. More than any team, the Blazers depend on timing and repetition to be effective in their passing, cutting offensive flow. It is possible that this week's bye will enable Portland to regain its conditioning but it is hardly likely.
Not only has its predicament enhanced network merriment, but it has set up the most interesting NBA tournament in years, with the focus being the Pacific, which in 1977-78, top to bottom, furnished one of the strongest divisional lineups in the history of the NBA.
After one considers the reasonable arguments in support of the Eastern Conference champions—the Philadelphia 76ers of the Atlantic Division and the San Antonio Spurs of the Central—a couple of obvious questions remain.
If the media-darling 76ers are so talented and—where have we heard this adjective before?—"to-ge-ther," why, when they had the simple task of passing the crippled Trail Blazers for the season's best record, which is worth a $50,000 team bonus and the home-court advantage in all playoff series, did they fold up, losing four in a row and six of their last eight?
Moreover, if the (as comedian Steve Martin might say) craaaaaaazy Spurs are so good, why ain't they making big bucks? And why does everybody insist that the first time George Gervin and Larry Kenon et al. receive an elbow in the ribs, the Spurs will jingle and jangle, pack it in and head back to the Alamo?