Sept. 24, 1970-
This Week In Trail Blazers History: September 26th - October 2nd
The Portland Trail Blazers first game as a franchise was played in Longview, Wash. Ending in a 119-118 loss to the San Francisco Warriors, the final score doesn’t tell the full story, as is usually the case in close games. The Trail Blazers came out on fire and surprisingly led the veteran Warriors through three quarters. Mark Morris High School hosted the matchup and 2,800 Trail Blazers fans witnessed the young team give the experienced Warriors a run. Wayne Thompson, the first Trail Blazers beat writer for The Oregonian
, reminisced about that first game in his story Remembering that first game in Longview
. (Yes, Sept. 24th is technically “last week,” but I didn’t want you to miss Thompson’s spectacular recollection. It’s definitely worth a read.)
Remembering that first game in Longview
Sept. 26, 1970-
By: Wayne Thompson (updated for the 40th anniversary of the Trail Blazers)
It was the first game the Portland Trail Blazers ever played, 39 years ago next month. It didn’t count in the standings and only a few Blazer fans over 50 will remember it.
Nevertheless, the Blazers’ inaugural performance in the National Basketball Association—a 119-118 exhibition loss to the veteran-studded San Francisco Warriors—earned a special place in my book of memories.
It was the start of something exciting, perhaps even grand: Oregon’s first major league sports franchise making history at Mark Morris High School in Longview, Wash.
It was a stage rehearsal for and entity that was to separate Portland, Oregon from Portland, Maine, on the national news wires and give the city some much-needed market identity nationwide.
An estimated crowd of 2,800, mostly curiosity seekers, crammed into the gym’s bench seats to watch NBA all-stars Jerry Lucas, Nate Thurmond and Jeff Mullins measure the potential of the fledgling expansion team from Portland.
Most everyone expected a Warrior rout, but it didn’t happen as Portland shocked the Warriors from the opening tip, building a 14-point first quarter lead, 39-25.
It was run-and-gun basketball the likes of which were rarely seen in these parts—or anywhere else west of Kentucky, for that matter.
Former Duck gets first basket
Former Oregon Duck, Jim Barnett, who spent his rookie season with the Boston Celtics in 1966-67, then three more solid years in San Diego, scored the first-ever Blazer field goal less than 30 seconds into the game.
He didn’t miss again until his fifth shot. By that time, Coach Rolland Todd’s motion offense had run the Warriors into three breath-catching timeouts.
Todd’s offensive theory was simple: Shoot soon and often. He implored his players to take the first open shot they got, hopefully within the first 12 or 13 seconds of the 24-second clock. The idea was to strike before opposing defenses could set themselves and respond.
It wasn’t just fast break basketball in the conventional sense. In Todd’s system, the delayed fast break, with the trailing player often getting the open shot, was a lethal weapon.
Failing that, the Blazers, when sharp, produced constant movement on the half court: a player with the basketball, usually point guard Rick Adelman, and four others setting screens and running patterns all over the court. In Portland’s 39-point first quarter blitz at Longview, Adelman had five assists, as the Blazers connected on 15 of 30 shots.
Portland regularly put up more than 100 shots a game and was second only to the Boston Celtics in field goal attempts that season.
It was fun basketball to watch
It was fun basketball to watch and Todd’s dynamic offense, in some cases, overcame Portland’s anemic defense and lack of talent overall.
Moreover, Todd’s offense gave the Blazers and their fans confidence (however false it was) that winning was just a shot or two, or a player or two away. Never mind that exuding such confidence for an expansion team proved to be self-indulgent. It was just wishful thinking—a “hope springs internal” kind of thing and, as the Blazer beat writer for The Oregonian, I got caught up in it, too.
After Portland’s first quarter, todd sent into the game two of his better offensive players—rookie Geoff Petrie and guard Stan McKenzie, a three-year NBA vet and one of the league’s headier players.
In his NBA debut, Petrie hit his first four field goal tries. He and McKenzie, who had 23 points on the night, helped maintain Portland’s advantage. They each scored eight points in the quarter, as the Blazers carried a 68-55 lead into halftime.
The halftime buzz at courtside, though, was about two other Blazers—Gary Gregor, the power forward the Blazers had acquired in a trade with Atlanta, and eight-season NBA journeyman LeRoy Ellis, who was selected by the Blazers in the May, 1970 expansion draft.
On this opening night in Longview (the equivalent perhaps of a Broadway-bound play opening in New Haven), Gregor was punishing all-star Jerry Lucas, while Ellis, to the surprise of Warrior Coach Al Attles, dominated the great Nate Thurmond, arguably one of the five best centers in NBA history.
Ellis, at 6-foot-11, was rail thin, but at times he showed the fluid grace, quickness and agility of a ballet dancer. In his Blazer debut, he recorded Portland’s first-ever triple double—19 points, 17 rebounds and 10 blocked shots—while holding Thurmond to just 12 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.
Gregor played as if campaigning for a write-in vote on the NBA’s all-star ballot. He scored 17 points and led both teams with 21 rebounds. Fifteen of those on the defensive glass, leading to 22 Blazer fastbreak points.
Portland took a 16-point lead into the fourth quarter, but then the game turned. Even though the Blazers proved for three quarters that speed, quickness, relentless offensive motion and good shooting can offset backboard muscle, the Warriors finally took charge midway through the final stanza.
Led by Lucas (28 points, 14 rebounds) and perimeter shooters Joe Ellis (22 points), Levi Fontaine (21 points) and Mullins (20 points), the Warriors pecked away at Portland’s lead. It didn’t help that the Blazers went cold, missing 11 of 14 jump shots in a four-minute stretch. They also committed three costly turnovers—the negative offspring of fastbreak basketball.
The final two minutes though, mimicked the drama of college basketball, sans cheerleaders and the music, as the Blazers battled back from a six-point deficit.
Trail 119-113, Barnett, who tied McKenzie with 23 points and Petrie (14 points) hit jumpers to make in 119-117, and Ellis converted on of two free throws with 15 seconds to play. Warriors ball, up one.
The Blazers got a break, however, when Thurmond threw the ball away. Portland had one last chance to become the first expansion team to win its first exhibition game.
On the inbounds play, the ball went to Petrie, who almost lost it on a double team. Finally, with five seconds left, Ed Manning, father of star-of-the-‘90s Danny Manning, took a 20-foot jump shot from the corner.
It would be silly to claim that the 2,800 or so fans held their breath when the ball bounced twice on the rim before falling out.
Nevertheless, all the glory of an upset opening night bid only served to tease the Blazer faithful, and the ball fell harmlessly into Thurmond’s hands at the buzzer.
Coach Todd Pleased
Todd and most of the Blazer players and fans seemed pleased by Portland’s surprising competitiveness against the experienced Warriors. But the rookie Petrie, now the successful general manager of the Sacramento Kings, was still smarting from the loss the next day.
Slumped in an overstuffed chair at the Blazers’ Pacific University training camp facility in Forest Grove and soaking his sore foot in a bucket of hot water, Petrie was replaying the loss to the Warriors.
“We played so well to end up with such a bad taste in our mouths,” he sighed.
Analyzing the games as he watched the videotape replay, Petrie was a glass half empty: “A lot of our followers seemed happy that we did so well, but what they don’t understand is that it’s close games like this that we have to win this year. There will be games in which we get blown right off the court. But it really hurts to lose the ones in which we take 16-point leads into the fourth quarter,” he noted.
His teammates must have taken note as well, because two nights later in Roseburg, the Blazers prevailed against San Francisco, 116-113, winning the first game in franchise history.
Not many Blazers fans today know anything about these early games in Trail Blazer history, it’s like asking a teenager who won the Boer War?
Clearly, though, some trivia games emerged:
Pat Riley, a someday-NBA Hall of Fame coach (Lakers, Knicks and Miami Heat) saw 11 minutes of action for the Blazers, scoring five points. An expansion draft selection by the Blazers, Riley was sold to the Lakers two weeks later.
LeRoy Ellis’ triple-double went unnoticed, too, because NBA teams didn’t officially keep blocked shots back then. But I did.
This first-ever Blazer game grows on you. It’s like Don Larson’s perfect game in the World Series: As the years go by, more people claim to have been there, seen that.
But for the true witnesses, all 2,800 or so of us, this one is filed, if not lost, in the archives of our minds.
The Trail Blazers won their first pre-season game over San Francisco. Played two days after the close loss in Longview, the Trail Blazers rolled to a 116-113 victory at a local high school in Roseburg, Ore. Geoff Petrie rocked the nets and drained 22 points for the infant franchise and Gary Gregor cleaned up the boards with 18 rebounds.
Oct. 2, 1999-
The Portland Trail Blazers acquired Scottie Pippen from Houston. A move that contributed to four playoff appearances (‘99-’03) and the 1999-00 squad taking the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. Following his departure the Trail Blazers would endure a five-season playoff drought.
So there you have it, the first edition of This Week In Trail Blazers History. Prepare yourself for headbands and short-shorts, this is going to get fun as we move further into the year and dig up some old school highlights. Enjoy!