Seven months ago, this was the home of the most talented and most lauded team in the National Basketball Association. The Trial Blazers were so efficient, so spirited and so young that they appeared to be on the verge of becoming the league's next dynasty.
Now basketball fans here don't talk of dynasties. They talk of survival.
The club has been besieged by so many medical problems and personality conflicts that Marcus Welby should be its coach and Sigmund Freud its general manager.
Who would have thoughtd a year ago that Portland's starting lineup for tonight's game against the Washington Bullets (11 p.m., WTOP-1500) probably will include two rookies and not one of the team's top seven players from last season? Or that on its roster would be five first-year athletes? Or that its front court from the championship squad of two years ago would now make up the most talented injured reserve list in the league? Or that Portland would be 1-4 coming into the contest?
Trappings remain from the wave of Blazermania that swept Oregon. Only four season ticket holders asked for refunds this summer and their tickets quickly were bought, guaranteeing the Trial Blazers another string of sellouts. Players are subjected still to intense hero workship and Coach Jack Ramasay is regarded as a sort of resident basketball genius throughout the Northwest.
Yet even the most fanatic Blazer fan has noticed how much quieter the home crowds have become - and how everyone seems to be searching for valid reasons to explain why their erstwhile joy has turned so horribly sour.
The fans' most emotional love-hate relationship exists with center Bill Walton, the wandering Mountain Man who spent the training camp period in Egypt with the rock group Grateful Dead. Mention of Walton's name causes anguish among Blazzer partisans; if he ever shows up in a Portland uniform again, team officials says, rooters will welcome him back with unabashed enthusiasm.
In private moments, the scholarly Ramsay must wonder what happened to the splendid club that was rampaging through the NBA last season, spreading the gospel of teamwork, winning and good times as it traveled the league circuit.
With Ramsay as a basketball Billy Sunday and Walton as head cheer-leader, the Trial Blazers played to near perfection and even rival crowds applauded their performances. Since then, everything has collapsed.
Walton's decision to leave was bad enough. But Ramsay also has had to live with a string of injuries that make the Bullets' physical problems of last season appear mild in comparison.
Starting forwards Maurice Lucas and Bob Gross began the season on the injured reserve list Lucas, who has a fractured bone spur on his right hand, practices left-handed. Gross, who has come back slowly from a March ankle fracture, also is working out and could be activated tonight.
Guard Dave Twardzik was sidelined early in training camp with a kidney bruise. He recovered only to bang up the heel on his right foot. He is playing, but at less than full ability. The other usual starting guard, Lionel Hollins, sprained both ankles in a game a week ago, but may suit up to retire after undergoing a third knee operation but, despite heavily taped legs, has played some the first five contests.
T.R. Dunn, the 11th man on last year's roster, and rookie Ron Brewer have been starting at guard. Journey-man Tom Owens is the center while rookie Mychal Thompson, the youjg phenom from the University of Minnesota, and veteran Larry Steele, who broke a wrist in a summer one-in-one game against Geoff Petrie and missed training camp, are the forwards.
The once-deep Portland bench now looks like that of a downtown AAU squad. Guard Willie Smith, who couldn't catch on with either Philadelphia or Chicago in previous tryouts, is joined by rookie Clemon Johnson, a late second-round pick from Florida. A & M, and rookie Kim Anderson, who took one look at the team's roster last year has started two games this season.
But the Blazer problems enter on Watton. There shouldn't be hope in Portland that Walton will ever rejoin the any team. After finally demanding that the club fire everyone from Ramsay to trainer Ron Culp, it would seem irrational that he would want to return. Yet in the topsy-turvey world of the Big Redhead, nothing can be ruled out.
He still has his borken left foot, the basis of the injury conroversy, in a cast and no one knows for sure if he will pay again this season. And if he comes off the injured reserve list, no one knows what team he will embrace.
He had agreed to move to Golden State, but that arrangement apparently fell through because the Warriors' were reluctant to trade players to Portland without knowing if Walton could play this year. Likewise, the rest of the NBA is waiting on him to heal before bidding for his services.
Walton, who is on the last year of a $440,000 contract, consistently has said he wants to leave Portland because of the team's medical practices. But club officials are convinced the matter is more complicated than that.
"Of course it is (a smoke screen)," said Frank Rothman, an attorney for owner Larry Weinberg. "There is no truth in the medical teatment claim. It's unfair. It's not true."
Walton, however, sticks by his original statements, although he since has added to his list criticisms a management's attitude toward players and alleged undefined mistakes by management.
Other theories have been advanced by knowledgeable team observers: that he was frustrated by the series of 25 major injuries that have disrupted his career and he would like to start over in another town; that he was upset that the team would trade guard Johnny Davis, one of his favorites, to Indiana and keep Twardzik; that he was miffed because teammates voted on last year's playoff shares without him and decided to give team trainer Culp a half-share.
Walton offered to give Culp the $2,500 difference between that and a full share. Then, just a few weeks later, he lashed out at both Culp and the team doctor, Robert Cook, over their medical practices. He charged that both men, who were considered to be among his close friends, with putting pressure on players to take injections to ease the pain of injuries.
Waltons's left foot was injected with a painkiller before the second playoff game against Seattle last April. During the contest, he broke a bone in another part of the foot. He says the injection led to the broken bone, the Trail Blazers say he is wrong.
Still, Ramsay has left the door open for Walton's return. "The Bill Walton I thought I knew has a great desire to play basketball," said Ramsay. He loves to play the game. When he's injured, he really gets depressed. Then he starts to wonder if he is ever going to play again.
"I think he'll want to play again and I think he'll want to play with Portland."
Before Walton's walk-out, his relationship with Ramsay was one of the rarest in the league. There appeared to be genuine love and respect between the health-fanatic, intellectual coach and his quixotic center.
Walton's happiness, in turn, radiated to the rest of the Trial Blazers. Here was the NBA's most versatile big man doubling as a full-time emotional leader, turning some just-average player into a legitimate power-house.
"He had a super way of preparing himself for a game" said Owens. "It was actually an ordeal he put himself through (jumping up and down, psyching himself) and it was fun to watch. Bill had a way of getting everybody ready to play.
"I would be sitting and watching him play and just seeing the intensity Bill brought to games made me want to play. When it was my turn to go in, I was ready."
Now the Trial Blazers are hoping that Walton's inspiration will be continued through the efforts of such veterans as Twardzik, Owens and Lucas, who also make up for loss of the hub of your best passer and, when necessary, your most accurate shooter?
Rasay says Owens has improved greatly and will lessen the blow caused by Walton's absence. Thompson has enough ability to not embarass himself at center, although ideally the Trial Blazers would like him to develop as a forward.
"Just think," said Owens, "about the kind of team we would have with Walton here."
Those thoughts scare the rest of the NBA. With Walton, Portland would seem to be almost unbeatable Brewer, the Arkansas rookie, gives the Trial Blazers much-needed outside shooting and Dunn is developing into a solid defensive guard. If Nearl's legs get better, he and Thompson would be an imposing pair of reserve forwards. Toss in swingman Steele and the bulky Anderson and Ramsay would be able to call on an impressive combination of depth and talent.
Before the injuries and before Walton left, Ramsay said he thought his club's best days were still far in its future. Not until the players had fully absorbed his complex offense and not until the club could use its numerous high-round draft choices to increase depth his he think the league would see the real Trail Blazers.
Nowd that day may never come. Once he gets everyone healthy this year, his current squad will be no disgrace. It will have quickness, fire-power and reserve strength. If Owens can play better and if Thompson has a sensational rookie season, it is reasonable to expect Portland to make the playoffs.
But the team Ramsay once dreamed of may never take the court. Without Walton in the middle, there is no more Camelot in Portland.