The Portland Trail Blazers' No. 2 physical-fitness zealot rolled out of bed after a nap last Friday afternoon in Los Angeles and ordered his fruit salad to be served beside the hotel pool. But hadn't he looked outside? The sky was spitting cold rain, so 54-year-old Coach Jack Ramsay settled for rope jumping instead of his usual half-hour swim.
The Blazers' No. 1 physical-fitness zealot, Kermit Washington, a weight lifting and swimming buff, had barely even been to bed. The Blazers had played in Utah the night before, after which Washington had stayed up late with his insomniac roommate, Jim Brewer.
When it came time to meet the powerful Lakers at The Forum, the Blazers—all nine—piled into a small van. "There are a lot of cities that would like to start a franchise with the players we have injured," said Forward Larry Steele.
Indeed, the Blazers rolled off without forwards Maurice Lucas (broken knuckle), Mychal Thompson (broken leg) and Bob Gross (bad back), and guards Lionel Hollins (strained knee) and Dave Twardzik (back spasms). That is most of the starting lineup of the 1977 NBA titlists, plus last year's runner-up for Rookie of the Year. Another starter from that championship season, Bill Walton, is, of course, gone, too. But because Walton is with San Diego, the Trail Blazers have Washington, who was awarded to Portland by Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien as part of the compensation for the Clippers' signing of Walton. There's no getting around it: the Blazers were 4-0 going into the game against the Lakers in large part because of Washington.
After Washington's superb defensive work helped stun the Lakers 99-82, Ramsay said that these Trail Blazers, patched up like a leaky dam, are "the best defensive team I've ever been associated with." In their first six games, the unbeaten Blazers held their opponents to 84.5 points per game.
"We have unselfish players of good character working hard," says Ramsay, explaining his team's success. "We spend a lot of time practicing fundamental things."
In the L.A. game, Washington had 12 rebounds and two blocks, forced his man—Spencer Haywood—into 4-for-13 shooting and jumped off Haywood often enough to help Blazer Center Tom Owens cause Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to miss 11 of 16 shots.
"It's unusual for a forward to be the hub of your defense," says Ramsay, "but Kermit is. He's everywhere. I mean he's everywhere."
When the Lakers made a run late in the third quarter, Ramsay sent in Kevin Kunnert and the journeyman Brewer for Owens and Washington. He also inserted rookie Guard Jim Paxson and first-year Forward Abdul Jeelani into the lineup. The Lakers and their fans relaxed. "Hey, Jeelani!" one of the fans yelled. "Didn't your name used to be Dale Schleuter?"
No way, as Jeelani proved, flipping in an 18-foot jumper, driving for a three-point play and igniting a 17-3 Portland burst that put away the Lakers. What the 6'8" Jeelani used to be was Gary Cole, and as Cole he scored 20.6 points a game at Wisconsin-Parkside a few years ago, before going to play in Italy and then arriving in Portland this fall as a free agent.