Although the canvas isn't completed yet, Jack Ramsay's basketball masterpiece in red, the Portland Trail Blazers, already is being measured for a place in sports' Hall of Great Teams.
In less than two seasons, Ramsay has created a juggernaut so efficient that it now loses about as frequently as the Harlem Globetrotters.
Ramsay's Trail Blazers perform so well that almost any of their game films could be used as teaching aids at coaching clinics. And from fans and peers alike, he is receiving the compliment a coach usually strives a life-time to hear: his club plays the game the way it was meant to be played.
It plays with the unselfishness of the old Boston Celtics, with the explosiveness of the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers and wit the consistency and enthusiasm of, well, probably no other great NBA team.
On their home court, the Trail Blazers are as impregnable as Ft. Knox. On the road, they are merely awesome. That combination has resulted in a 32-5 record that has made a mockery of what was supposed to be a tight race this year for the league's highest winning percentage.
Unlike previous NBA giants, the Trail Blazers do not overwhelm opponents with unrelenting talent. Bill Walton is a superb center, presently the best in the league, and Maurice Lucas has brought a new dimension to the big-forward spot, but the rest of the cast would be lucky to win an NCAA title.
Yet put them within the framework of Ramsey's motion offense, in which Walton's passing and Lucas' steadiness serve as catalysts, and suddenly Portland becomes an explosion of layups and high-percentage shots that make the game see almost simple.
Point that out to Ramsey and he smiles and glances skyward like an inventor still discovering the power of his new creation.
"The talent we have blends so nicely with all the things I've ever wanted to do in basketball," he said yesterday on the eve of Trail Blazers' 8:05 game tonight with the Bullets at Capital Centre. "Theory is always nice bug you do what you have to win. It happens that what we have to do with this team is exactly the way I want to play."
There were hints of this Portland style on the teams that Ramsay coached in Philadelphia and Buffalo. But neither had the blend of players - a passing center, quick guards who can play defense and combine of forwards who can run and pass - to executive his offensive thinking to the full extent.
When Ramsay came to Portland last year, he inherited Walton, whom he says is "the best passing center in basketball." There was also plenty of talent in underrated guard Lionel Hollins, forwards Bob Gross, Lloyd Neal and Larry Steele and former ABA guard Dave Twardzik, who was added to the roster just before Ramsay arrived.
"With Bill, I knew what I could do if I could surround him with certain players," said Ramsay. So the Trail Blazers picked up Lucas from the ABA dispersal draft to fill in the one missing link in the starting lineup and picked up Corky Calhoun, Robin Jones and Herm Gilliam to increase the flexibility of the bench.
Ramsay, also wanted another guard "who had great quickness, played tough defense, was able to run the break, penetrate and shoot the perimeter shot." The Trail Blazers filled those requirements by drafting Dayton's Johnny Davis on the second round after picking Virginia's Wally Walker on the first.
In the process of executing this player turnover, the Trail Blazers, who had never had a winning season, wound up shedding themselves of two unhappy, longtime stars, guard Geoff Petrie and forward Sidney Wicks. Critics questioned how the club could improve by losing 40 points on offense and then assembling a squad dominated by second- and third-round draft choices. Ramsay, who didn't earn a doctorate in education without gathering some wisdom, told them to be patient.
Now, a season and a half later, he is being hailed as a genius. There have been a few more personnal switches (Tom Owens for Robin Jones, T.R. Dun for Wally Walker, the waiving of Gilliam) but the early nucleus has remained the same. And the sweet music Ramsay can produce some nights from his basketball instrument would make Beethoven envious.
He claims his team has played only 10 particularly good games this year. Yet the Trail Blazers haven't lost at home winning streak is 30, six short of the NBA record) and they have fallen only to Indiana, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston and Chicago on the road. A swing of 19 points and the five defeats would be reduced to one, a 22-point blowout by the 76ers in Philadelphia.
Is Ramsay afraid his steamroller will run out of power before it becomes the first team in nine years to repeat at NBA champion?
"No," he said. "We still have a lot of potential and we still can play better. I don't think we are peaking. We've been through peaks and valleys but we managed to win most of the games in which we haven't played well. These players are pretty tenacious. They don't like to lose."
And he has given them plenty of ammunition to survive when defeat threatens.
From their basic offense, which he calls his "turnout" set, the Trail Blazers have 25 options from which they can score. Things become so intricate that Ramsay can sit back and ponder, without sounding cynical, whether the NBAs' best coaching minds "have grasped the complete depth of what we do. Do you think they've figured out our 25 options yet?"
If they have, it doesn't show. Portland's perpetual-motion system, which functions off Walton's low-post passing, produces so many layups that the Trail Blazers rarely have to fire outside 18 feet.
As a result, the team shoots almost 50 per cent, and has five players who are shooting better than 50 per cent, led by Twardzik's league-best 67 per cent. No Trail Blazer is in the top 20 scores but all but Dunn have scored at least 20 points in a game.
"People should remember that we don't fall off when we go to our bench, either," said Ramsay. "We use 10 people every game and only once, against Philadelphia, have the reserves given away points."
No Blazer averages more than 34 minutes a game. Ramsay is convinced that the injury-prone Walton is staying healthy (he has missed just one contest) by getting sufficient rest every time and that the liberal use of reserves "helps to keep our offense fresh and in motion."
But if you want to tell quickly whether the Trail Blazers are playing well, Ramsay advises that you look beyond the layups and examine their defense.
"People forget that we are an extremely good detensive team," said the coach of the league's No. 1 defense. "When we play well, everything starts with our defense. We put good pressure on the ball and we rebound well.
"We want to run and you can't run if they keep putting the ball through the net. If we can force missed shots, Bill can rebound and trigger the break. He's the best around at doing that.
"If we fill the lanes and execute the break, we are going to score. But you can't win alone on fast breaks. So we need to have good ball movement, good passes and good motion.We aren't a run-and-gun team. Not at all."
Ramsay is the NBA's leading proponent of quick basketball, the reason the Blazers are outscoring opponents by nine points a game. He has taken quick players and told them - "the players are going to laugh at this" - to be "relentless in our pursuit of quickness. We want to demonstrate our quickenss to our opponents for 48 minutes without a letup."
Until they yell uncle? "Yes, that would be nice," he said with a laugh.
Portland's nimble feet are overshadowed most nights by Walton's gyrations in the middle. His enthusiastic play in the post, where he can wheel and deal passes or shoot at his pleasure, allows his teammates to scout through picks and screens until someone pops open, usually inside, for a shot.
"When we have good ball movement, we are hard to beat," said Ramsay. "We fell the more passes we make, the better percentage shot we'll get because the quality of the shot seems to increase with the number of passes."
That is elementary reasoning to Ramsay but not to most NBA teams, who survive on one-on-one play and perimeter passing, instead of Portland's diet of backdoor cuts and baseline shots.
But there is no other coach quite like Ramsay, who rides a bike 2 miles a day, dresses in what best can be termed "basic rainbow" and preaches the gospel of teamwork so fervently that his players say that when one of them sprains an ankle, everyone else limps.
"They believe in what we are doing," he said, and you can almost see his players say "Amen" when he tells them, "If you move and get open, we'll get the ball to you." He has taken shooters and converted them into passers - "they all would rather pass than shoot now" - but let opponants sag into the middle and Portland will answer the sinners with accurate perimeter marksmanship.
"Everything people have tried against us hasn't worked that well," Ramsay admitted. "I hope we have an answer for everything. But we still haven't blown a lot of people out. In all but a few games, the opposing team has either been ahead or threatening sometime after the first quarter. We'll do thing better as the season progresses."
But on nights like that against Cleveland, when the Cavaliers could score only 67 points while the Blazers were hitting for 109, Ramsay is at the epicenter of the tornado known as Balzermania. During those occasions, he says he can get a good view of the whirling dervish he has created.
"It's nice to watch them execute," he said in his best scholarly mannre. "That's why I'm having so much fun."
Bullet forward Bob Dandridge, who has missed two games with a sprained big toe, is a probable starter tonight, but guard Phil Chenier (hamstring) is listed as only possible.