The Blazers epitomized team basketball. Ramsay and Walton represented a perfect meld of coach and center, with Walton the center in every respect. And it is significant that the championship came in Walton's first and only healthy season in the NBA. His first two years, 1975-77, were marred by an almost constant series of injuries—including a broken nose, wrist, foot and leg—which caused him to miss 78 of 164 games. The severity of these injuries—at times, the injuries themselves—was questioned by the press, fans, even some of his teammates and team officials. Because he didn't believe in the use of pain-killing drugs, Walton was called a malingerer. He was also criticized for his radical politics and a counter-culture life-style that was alien to the professional sports Establishment; everything from his clothing to his hairstyle to his diet was harpooned. "I've been accused of being a Communist, hiding Patty Hearst and taking LSD before a game," he said recently. He became suspicious of strangers and stopped trying to answer critics.
With the championship, his past was suddenly forgotten. Walton became the cynosure of exuberant Oregon. Nearly everyone who had hated him loved him. Some of his "eccentricities" were even celebrated; his independence was regarded as being consonant with that of all red-blooded Oregonians. He triggered that wonderful disease that became known as Blazermania. Fourteen months later, he may have snuffed it out. Or rather, the "mania" snuffed itself out.
Blazermania gathered steam in the 1977-78 season. Memorial Coliseum's 12,366 seats were sold for every game, and the spillover was lining up to watch on theater TV. By the All-Star break the Blazers were 40-8 and had won 44 straight at home. They were a good bet to break the NBA record of 69-13 and sweep through the playoffs to become the first team since the 1969 Celtics to win back-to-back titles. And they were being compared with the all-time great teams.
Through Feb. 28 they were 50-10, but that night, while the Blazers were beating their archrivals from Philadelphia 113-92, Blazermania went into a holding pattern. Walton fell heavily on his left ankle, aggravating an earlier injury, and had to leave the game. Later it was learned that Walton actually had been bothered by pain in his right foot.
In the very next game, on March 2 in New York, Forward Lloyd Neal collided with teammate Maurice Lucas and fell writhing with an injury to his left knee, which had already been operated on twice to repair torn cartilage.
On March 5 Dr. Bob Cook operated on Walton's right foot for an ailment called interdigital neuroma. Four nerve stems were removed between the second and third toes. The Blazers announced that Walton was expected back in "one to three weeks," but 10 days later Walton still could not walk without limping on his left foot. At the same time, the team announced that Neal would be sidelined until the playoffs. As things turned out, so would Walton.
Soon other Blazers were going down left and right. Lucas missed six of the remaining 19 games with a strained tendon in his right hand and a dislocated finger on his left. Forward Larry Steele missed six games with tendinitis in his right foot. Guard Dave Twardzik was nagged by injuries to his hip, tailbone, wrist and ankle during the stretch run.
On March 23 the Blazers suffered another blow. In Milwaukee, Forward Bob Gross sustained a severe stress fracture of his left ankle. Gross was out for the season, and the Blazers' medical practices became the subject of public speculation for the first time.
Gross' ankle had begun bothering him two weeks earlier. His problem was diagnosed by Cook as tendinitis. No X ray was taken. Cook told Gross to return to Cook's office for an X ray if the symptoms persisted. "Almost without exception we get an X ray before medication is given," Cook said last week. This turned out to be one of those exceptions.
By March 18 Gross still had not had an X ray, but the pain in his ankle was so severe that he needed an injection of Xylocaine to play against Atlanta. That injection was given by Dr. John Hazel, an associate of Cook's who was covering while Cook was away. Three nights later, when the Blazers played Seattle, Gross needed three injections—one before the game, one at halftime and another during the third period. By the time the Blazers reached Milwaukee, the pain was even greater. Hazel switched to Marcaine, a longer-lasting anesthetic. According to Gross, Hazel had to shoot three times before he found the right spot to deaden the pain. Then, his foot numbed. Gross played. "I didn't feel anything when the bone fractured," Gross said last week. "I only heard the noise."