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CAN IT EVER BE THE SAME? : Injuries to 7-Foot-1 Center Sam Bowie and Others Have Somewhat Cooled Spark in Portland Called Blazermania

January 24, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — It's been popular to believe that this is the little team that could, except that, ever since 1977, when it last won a National Basketball Assn. championship, it's been the team that never does.

Bad break (left leg) after bad break (right leg) after bad break (oh, them bones), not to mention the odd playoff swoon, have cooled Blazermania all the way down to a sizzle.

Oh, sure, they still sell out the Coliseum--462 straight as of today, believed to be a record for pro sports--but that is not quite the trick it might be somewhere else. There is not, as they say, a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar.

"Only game in town," shrugs Maurice Lucas, returned to the Trail Blazers this season to remind patient locals of the glory year.

With that in mind, Lucas is properly skeptical of this apparent loyalty, so-called Blazermania. He senses, in fact, an impending consumer backlash as ticket prices go up and the Blazers keep, uh, not going up.

"They've tasted the waters at the end of the river," he explained, employing a metaphor that is all too appropriate for this moistness. "They relished it and enjoyed it. And . . . "

They're thirsty again?

It's been more than a decade since Portland last had use of the ol' metaphorical dipper.

In that time, Lucas has gone and come. An entire team--five players, anyway--was once traded for a player who simply could shoot from beyond 10 feet. A franchise player, the calcium-low center who was supposed to be able to post up Mt. Hood, will have averaged little more than 25 games a season over four years.

And the Lakers keep leading their division. Every year.

If this is the only game in town, it had better start getting better.

Club officials argue that the Trail Blazers sold out quicker than ever this season, largely on the promise of a 49-win season a year ago under new Coach Mike Schuler. That was the same number of wins as in the last championship season, which was Jack Ramsay's debut. Parallels were drawn.

But another 1-3 showing in last spring's playoffs and subsequent disappointments this season--still injury-prone, they linger well below the Lakers--have given ticket-holders pause.

"I came here at the tail end of Blazermania," says Jim Paxson, a nine-year veteran. "I remember when they'd be on their feet at the introductions. They're waiting for us to excite them. They keep seeing ticket prices go up and yet they never see us get beyond the first round."

A guy comes home from a hard day logging and he doesn't want to be reminded of lumbering, you know what we mean? Come the playoffs, these guys go down faster than fir trees on non-government land. The last two seasons, they've failed to survive the first round.

Let's put their particular failure another way: This team boasts of the fifth-best winning percentage among NBA teams over the last 10 seasons, yet is 16-28 in playoff games those same years.

"It's always something," says Kiki Vandeweghe. "First year I get here, Sam (Bowie) is hurt. Then someone else. Every year there are at least three to five players out. Now, when most of them are healthy, I'm hurting."

Vandeweghe, who has averaged 25 points a game since coming to the Trail Blazers in that five-man swap with the Denver Nuggets, was practicing his famous jump shot before a game recently. Corner to corner he'd go, sinking every one.

Come game time, though, the bad-backed Vandeweghe puts on street clothes. He remains on the injured list.

"We've just never been able to get it together," he's saying, between the swishing sounds. "We've been chasing the Lakers, in contention so to speak, but just haven't gotten over the hump."

There is little secret as to why.

"We've never had that center, the big center the team was built around," Vandeweghe laments. "He never plays."

Sam, Sam, Sam.

Sam Bowie, 7 feet 1 inch, has played in just 119 games during his Portland career. Just 5 games last season, 38 the year before. If he hadn't played so well his first season, it might be easier to write him and his fragile bones off. But there was that first season, the last time the Trail Blazers had a real center.

It was Jerome Kersey's first season, too, and he remembers the promise it seemed to have. "We're in the first round of the playoffs and Sam blocked a shot that we returned for the winner," he says, almost sighing at the memory.

It was the last season Portland has advanced beyond the first round and some folks sense a connection.

"You've got to have that big center in the playoffs," Vandeweghe insists. "In playoffs, a big center makes all the difference. Very few teams win without one."

Vandeweghe was brought to the team to offset opponents' habit of packing it inside. In fact, a shooter like Vandeweghe does expand the court. But with nobody bigger than 6-10 Steve Johnson inside, opponents are now profiting by doing the opposite.

"They just slough off us (inside)," says Kersey.

It is a recurring theme among the Trail Blazers. Life without Sam, and when's Sam coming back?

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