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That confidence will be sorely needed if Portland expects to approach the level of the '77 championship squad. Seven of the 12 men from that team are no longer playing basketball, most notably Walton, whose present NBA employer, San Diego, recently collected a claim for $1.25 million from Lloyd's of London on the grounds that Walton's chronically damaged left foot has rendered him permanently unfit for play. Walton still has a $5.6 million suit pending .against the Blazers for injuries incurred during the 1977-78 season and playoffs.
Except for Bob Gross, now the third forward for the Trail Blazers, the active players from the championship team now play elsewhere in the league. Substitute Wally Walker was released after the championship season and now plays for Seattle, while Johnny Davis was traded to Indiana for the first pick in the 1978 draft, which Portland used to take Thompson. Maurice Lucas and Guard Lionel Hollins were traded to New Jersey and Philadelphia, respectively, last year after ongoing contract wrangles.
Survival, not championships, became the Portland goal. "We had to change." says Ramsay. "To make our old, deliberate system work, you need rebounders and every player has to be a good passer, especially the centers. Our guys do a good job, but they aren't Walton. We have different players with different skills now, and you have to play the cards you're dealt."
Late last season that meant giving the ball to Billy Ray Bates, then clearing out and letting him do all the dealing. A refugee from the Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association, the 6'4" Bates played in four different leagues last season before becoming a deity in Portland. His offensive explosions got Portland into the playoffs, and his 25-point average in the miniseries nearly led the Blazers to an upset of defending-champion Seattle. With each game, with each quote, the Legend of Billy Ray Bates, the kid from the backwoods of Mississippi who made it big, grew and grew until people, all around the world it seemed, were asking, "Is this guy for real?"
This year it is Ransey, not Bates, who is running the show, but as Billy Ray says. "I'm still known to go one-on-one against six guys. I guess I'm not the hero I was last year, but times change, people change. Last year I just got the ball and went to the basket. Now I'm learning to play under control. But when we get down 12 or 13 points, Coach knows he can call on me to fire it up."
That he does. Billy Ray averages just 19� minutes a game but has become that valuable NBA commodity, a sixth man who can give his team instant offense. And when it comes to the three-point bomb or crowd-pleasing dunking theatrics, no one on Portland does it better than Billy Ray.
The harnessing and unharnessing of Bates is a kind of microcosm of the entire Portland team. When under control, the Trail Blazers' fast-break style works well, but too many times Thompson or Washington finds himself in the middle of the break. When that happens, the ball is tossed about haphazardly and bounces off Portland hands like a pinball off bumpers. That's when Jack Ramsay takes one of his pointy-toe boots, thinks of the Walton days and, well, kicks himself.