How the West was won part II: The generation gap, how coaches adapted, Seattle vs Portland. April 4th, 1980.
In the other opening-round competition out West, the foundation for what the decade of the 80s would bring was taking shape. In the late 70s, with the absence of big market teams like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles at the top, several small-market teams rushed in to fill the gap in competition. These included Golden State, Seattle, and the Portland Trailblazers. Each of these teams was a strong, well-coached club. But only one would capture the NBA consciousness long after the tide turned against them. Which one? None other than the Portland Trailblazers. How did this happen? Well, in three words “The system coach”.
The generational gap
The mid-1960s had profoundly reshaped the American consciousness. The quadruple influences of the student revolt, black power, the age of recruitment, and the increased medium of television had changed the American athlete’s mind, perhaps forever. Gone was the image of the “do-gooder” athlete, humble as pie, who sought to endear themselves with the larger public. Now, a shameless, arrogant, “me first” athlete appeared on the scene. While the new athlete was more gifted, they were also less disciplined, angrier, and self- absorbed. But, they were also deemed necessary, so the new style owners were willing to pay top dollar no matter the price in attitude in behavior. As a result, the coach’s executive authority was seriously undermined(the expectations, however, remained the same.) Thus, the new coaching fraternity would either adapt to the new age athlete or forever perish. So what did they do? Well, some (like the well-regarded Richie Guerin) would perish. Others, like Elgin Baylor in his brief tenure, would adjust but not totally adapt. But, there was another class of coaches that would totally adapt, and they would become the most common type of coaches in the 80s. Welcome, to the “system coach.”
The system Coach
The “system coach” was a leader who leaned on a brand of play that would become his trademark of sorts. Whether it was a free-flowing, fast-breaking offense, or a slowdown grind set style, for this breed of coaches the “system” was everything. They preached forever the “xs” and “os” of basketball and sold themselves as thoroughly prepared, focused leaders. Thus, if the team was successful, it was because of the “system”. If the team wasn’t, it was because the players did not fit the system. Either way, the coach was well prepared. Of course, this was built in protection both from personal responsibility and failure. But, in an increasingly market-conscious society, this was an ingenious strategy. And no one, in the late 70s, was a better salesman in the NBA than one John Travila Ramsey. Ramsey, known as “Dr. Jack”, had captured all the above traits brilliantly. Ramsey also “accidentally” bumped into the NBA. After leading the St. Joseph Hawks (based in Philadelphia) for a decade, a detached retina had forced his retirement in 1966. Impressed, the local Philadelphia 76ers would hire him as general manager. In his first year, the Wilt Chamberlain-led squad became one of the greatest teams in the history of the NBA. But Ramsey wasn’t really happy with the outcome. For starters, he didn’t care much for Chamberlain, regarded as the godfather for the problems of the emerging athlete. Second, he himself wanted to coach, and a disappointing 1968 playoffs led to the departure of incumbent coach Alex Hannum and the dissatisfaction of Wilt( with careful help from Ramsey). Ramsey got the job, and he envisioned a smaller, faster, 76er squad without Wilt(shipped to LA). For several years, the Ramsey 76ers remained competitive, but he was ready to leave home. He went to the then Buffalo Braves(in 1980, they were the San Diego Clippers), and unleashed the undersized Bob McAdoo on the NBA. But Buffalo was a small market operation with an unstable fan base(they cared more about football and OJ Simpson), and so Ramsey left there and joined the Portland Trailblazers in 1976. Like Philly, his Blazers would win it all in their very first season, and the great college center Bill Walton had become the ideal player in the Ramsey system. Walton was intense, highly intelligent, fundamentally well-schooled, and was the best passer in history from his position(A legit white hope, praised Kareem Abdul Jabbar). But Walton couldn’t stay healthy, and he would leave in 1979 amid bitter recriminations against the organization and Ramsey himself. Without Walton, Ramsey tried to retool with Mychael Thompson, and production-wise it was a minor success. But, Thompson would suffer a season-ending injury(like Walton), and miss the whole 79-80 season(Walton and Thompson reappear in the decade in drastically different roles). So, now, Portland had two centers selected first in 5 years, and both had foot problems( this would be a pattern for the Trailblazers, with the worst to come in 1984). For now, the TrailBlazers would finish the season 38-44. This meant they would face the Seattle Supersonics, the defending NBA champions who ended the Blazers run as the NBA’s best back in 1978. Seattle had risen to the top after its former coach evened the proxy war with his old rival. Let’s find out how.
The Battle: Chamberlain vs. Russell, the proxy war
The battle of Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell is the greatest rivalry in NBA history and the best sports rivalry of the mid- 20th century. What is almost never mentioned is that the on-court battle was the physical portion of the rivalry. Teamwise, Russell dominated hands down. The emotional one Wilt got the upper hand, and his victory in this area would cause Russell to (a.) Become a forgotten relic (b.) go virtually in seclusion until Chamberlain passed away when he reinvented his personality and rivalry with his old frenemy. But, to get to that point, he had to learn this through his stint as a coach (1973-77).
When he left the NBA, Russell was the most revered NBA athlete. It was with this knowledge he took the Seattle job. But, black power and heavy recruiting had altered the 70s athlete, and Russell was a thoroughly old school man. He was an activist and an assimilationist, and his controlled anger had propelled his marvelous NBA career. He had a purpose, and he quickly saw that the players he was now coaching only cared about their cars, women, and stats. In short, though Russell captured their admiration, Wilt was the player they related to and emulated. Russell hated this, and even worse, they had Wilt’s flaws but none of his strengths( gentle, hardworking). They were entitled but not adaptable, and Russell, in particular, targeted John Brisker, the former ABA forward.
Brisker had been a big scorer, once getting 47 points in a game. But his focus was cars and women and minks, and he paid little attention to rebounding and defense, despite the fact that he was an extraordinary leaper(this really galled Russell). Moreover, he was a quick-tempered fellow, the product of his hardscrabble Detroit upbringing. While this temperament was becoming in vogue, Russell felt it signaled a lack of toughness, and he sent a goon named Joby Wright to attack and confront Brisker in practice, and Brisker left Wright in a pool of blood, with he exiled. It was a brutal display, and Russell won the right to change the culture, but it came at a high price. The price was his job, as he was dismissed in 1977. His cousin, Bob Hopkins would coach for 22 games, and then he was replaced by the antithesis of Jack Ramsey, Leonard Randolph Wilkins. Wilkins was not a self-promoter. He was, however a highly effective coach, and he would pattern his style based on his personnel. In short, good ole fashioned no-frills leadership, and the Sonics immediately got better. In 1978, they would dethrone Portland, and in 1979 they would win against the defending champion Washington Bullets in 5 games. Now, as defending champs, they won 4 more games ( 52 to 56), but it had been overshadowed in the West by the revival of the Los Angeles Lakers (who will appear in the installments to come). So, in the second game between Seattle and Portland, the “system” won. Portland would win, on April 4th, 1980, 105-96 in overtime. It was a highly emotional win for Ramseys crew, as they were severe underdogs. Portland forward Calvin Natt would have 27 points along with 11 rebounds, which offset the great guard play of Dennis Johnson(24 points) and Gus Williams(20 points). Ramsey’s “system” would live to fight another game.