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Lost & Found: Tony Perez on David Halberstam
I wrote this Lost & Found piece for our “Games People Play” theme issue (on newsstands now!) right on the brink of the season. The playoffs start this weekend, and if you followed the NBA this year, you’ll know life hasn’t gotten any easier. (If you’re not familiar with my agony, please scroll down for a collage of woe.) -Tony Perez
Why Disney has not turned the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers’ championship season into one of its inspirational sports movies is beyond me. David Anspaugh would direct, Jerry Bruckheimer would produce, and Alan Alda would give a spirited performance as hard-assed coach “Dr. Jack” Ramsay. Obstacles would be overcome, egos put aside, race relations glossed over. A shaggy redheaded center would espouse leftist politics and listen to the Grateful Dead, and players from And1 mix tapes would sign on to depict the rival 76ers. Guards Lionel Hollins and Dave Twardzik would cut down the nets to an uplifting and very Forest-Gumpian Alan Silvestri score while Bill Walton tossed his massive jersey into the crowd. The box office numbers would be fair; cable syndication would be excellent. The Academy would, rightly, ignore it, but youth league coaches would point and nod. People would be inspired.
But three seasons later, I suppose, that source material becomes a bit problematic—my hypothetical script a bit complicated. By the time David Halberstam embeds himself in the 1980 Blazers to write The Breaks of the Game (a departure from his political writings and war correspondence and, to my mind, the greatest book ever written about basketball), the stars of that movie are hardly recognizable. Walton, the literal and figurative center of the team, has cut his hair, rebranded himself a “born-again capitalist,” signed with the Clippers, and moved to Southern California. Power forward Maurice Lucas, the team’s enforcer and spark plug—the player who got himself kicked out of game two of the ’77 championship for picking a fight on his teammates’ behalf—has refocused his scrap and aggression on contract negotiations. Dr. Jack, in his plaids and patterned suits, seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown and can no longer control the play, or soul, of his team. “Portland,” Halberstam writes, “in its short ten-year history had known mostly the frustration of defeat and then in one magic year, briefly, the absolute joy of championship. That championship had come, and then almost as quickly been lost again.”
To comprehend why a single championship would mean so much, and why the squandering of that talent would feel so devastating, a rough understanding of the region is essential. Northwesterners, of my generation anyway, have grown accustomed to minor victories among more prevalent defeat. We have a nuanced view of accomplishment. Our successes and celebrities, by major-market standards, are B-list or lower. And on the brink of superstardom, our local heroes—those who don’t move themselves to New York or LA—blow out a knee or their brains. We resent them and we adore them. We are, Halberstam writes, “accustomed to losing and accustomed as well to loving [our] losers.”
Reared on the franchises and college teams of Oregon and Washington, this has been my burden to carry. Born half a decade after our one, true shining moment, I’ve never had the privilege of a victory parade. Close calls have come—Super Bowl XL, the 2001 ALCS, the Blazers in ’90 and ’92—but I own no commemorative mug.
“A spiritual crusade,” Ron Culp, the team’s trainer, called the ’77 season. “Unselfish players playing with great generosity and moral conviction, who were close off the court as well as on and who . . . seemed to symbolize athletic and racial togetherness.”
For Culp, that team transcended mere sport. Halberstam tells us that “he did not merely minister to these athletes, he believed in them, not just their victories, but in their larger purpose.” But where Halberstam picks the story up, Culp is at the center of serious—though likely exaggerated—allegations. Walton had accused the Blazer management and medical staff of pushing him toward the needle and thereby causing long-term damage to his chronically injured foot for their short-term needs. Having considered Walton one of his closest friends, Culp quickly grew jaded: “He realized that he had been wrong—that what he thought he had been a part of, and had not, simply did not exist . . . . He was not, as he had once believed, part of some spiritual community.”
With Walton gone, the center could not hold. Or rebound. Only one team in the league averaged fewer points per game. The driving concern wasn’t advancing in the playoffs, but advancing individual careers. Lucas endlessly speculated about where he’d be playing next—he wanted a large market, a stage to increase his fame. He obsessed over publicity (what he called “the pub”). Older players worried about where they’d retire. Mychal Thompson, after a promising rookie year, sat out the whole season with a broken leg. Hollins spent a good portion of the year on the bench nursing a knee injury, its degree of seriousness a point of contention between coach and player. Ramsay’s famous structure and discipline ceased to provide a winning framework.
Halberstam, of course, sets his sights higher than providing color commentary to a disappointing season. The real subject, thank God, is something greater. The Blazers’ problems are a microcosm of a certain breakdown in the NBA, and the NBA stands in for a certain breakdown in modern American life. Not unlike the film and publishing industries, Halberstam says, the league had devolved—its active impulse no longer quality of product, but simply the bottom line. “For in American Sports in 1980,” Halberstam writes, “there was no God but Madison Avenue and A.C. Nielson was his prophet.”
Larry Weinberg, the Trail Blazers’ owner, “had entered professional basketball thinking it would be fun, and it had become, in his own sardonic word, interesting.” Halberstam explores that euphemism. The changing economics of the league—due in no small part to the growing dependence on TV executives and the leverage of the newly created players’ union—played a major role, as did race relations, as did class. Though he paces the book with the Blazers’ schedule, Halberstam crafts perfectly arced backstories—seemingly anecdotal at first but quickly claiming your total focus—to provide context for the characters and the history of the league. The reader forgets he’s reading about a specific year and a specific team until the page break comes and he’s back in the Blazer locker room, only now pretty much equipped to fill out forward Kermit Washington’s tax return and medical history forms.
For contemporary fans, The Breaks of the Game shouldn’t provoke a smug look-how-far-we’ve-come attitude. Anyone who thinks race now only plays a part in the sports commentary of Rush Limbaugh, count how many times a white point guard is described as “smart” while a black guard is characterized as “instinctual.” Red Aurbach’s fear that ballooning guaranteed contracts would diminish the drive of talented players is personified by Tracy McGrady. The Knicks are once again playing the ugliest, most self-indulgent basketball in the league. Still, at the time of his death (a car accident) in 2007, Halberstam was on his way to interview a Hall of Fame quarterback for a book about the 1958 NFL Championship. He recognized that there was something special in athletics, even after witnessing everything that was not.
Victory parades end, and deep down I understand that seeing my team win would provide no lasting spiritual nourishment. Satisfaction is the end of desire, et cetera, et cetera. But in sports, as in other entertainments, we need a certain suspension of disbelief to properly enjoy the built-in drama of a game, the arc of a season. We need to believe momentarily that we are the good guys and the Lakers are the bad guys. With five seconds left and the ball in our stars’ hands, we need to believe that no size of signing bonus would lure him to Miami, or Houston. And we do.
By 1980, the playoffs had been expanded to include twelve of the twenty-two NBA teams, “one more example of the league’s cheapening of a product in order to get instant revenues.” Ramsay knew this. Still, when his 38–44 Blazers secured that last playoff spot, he refused to accept his friends’ suggestions that they weren’t really a “playoff team.” Sitting in a motel room, watching Walton’s Clippers play the Golden State Warriors on a tiny television set, Ramsay snapped at a reporter who suggested that Walton had lost a step. The reporter pushed, insisting that Walton seemed a bit slow. “‘No one playing understands the game like he does,’ Ramsay said flatly. When he finished the silence in the room was complete. The lesson was clear: criticize Walton’s game and in a primal way you were criticizing Ramsay. The championship season lived.” In spite of all the evidence, he had to believe that Walton was special, that his team had been, somehow, different.
The 1980 playoffs didn’t last long for the Blazers. Portland lost the three-game series to Seattle, a team coming off its own, and only, championship season. (They went on to lose as well—their stars complained and moved, and eventually the whole team relocated to Oklahoma City, leaving Seattle’s basketball community bitter, wet, and with nothing to follow but college kids—like Nirvana fans left with nothing but Pearl Jam.)
“It was,” Halberstam writes, “a long season for a troubled team in a troubled league.”
Why did The Breaks of the Game slip out of print for so many years? Maybe the book-buying public subscribes to George Plimpton’s “small ball theory” of sports literature: the smaller the ball as its subject, the better the book produced. (While his theory is itself an argument ripe for a graduate thesis on class bias, Plimpton did grant Halberstam a place on his “slim basketball shelf.”) Maybe it was just the invisible hand; our small market didn’t demand more copies than our denizens could find on Amazon Marketplace. Or maybe it was a desire to romanticize history, an athletic equivalent of a first-grade Columbus Day lesson plan. We want to remember our underdogs tearing down the nets and spraying champagne, not tearing their ligaments and crying over their paychecks.
But what of those of us who know better? Like Halberstam. Like Ramsay. Like me. Every October I come back looking for 1977. I write this on the brink of another season—my hopes pinned on the back of another injury-prone center and a Northwest native son who can’t quite break the glass ceiling of our region—and I can’t help but suspend that disbelief. A fair quid pro quo for eighty-two games and, with some luck, the playoffs. The sentimental underdog stories, the narratives of team unity and epic seasons—I know it’s the stuff of hack screenwriters. I know it’s bullshit. But even so, with full knowledge of how interesting professional basketball was and is, I can’t help but believe it’s also fun.
BONUS: A RUNDOWN OF OUR SEASON!