In February 1978, the Portland Trail Blazers appeared on their way to repeating as NBA champions.
Future Hall of Famer Bill Walton starred at center for the Blazers as they dominated the league for three-quarters of the 1977-78 season with a 50-10 record. A second consecutive championship—and with it, a legitimate claim to a dynasty—seemed possible.
But on Feb. 28, 1978, Walton decided the pain that plagued his feet and legs was too great. He took himself out of a game against the Philadelphia 76ers, whom Portland had defeated to win its 1977 championship, after playing just 13 minutes and scoring five points.
He sat out the final 22 games of the regular season. The Blazers went 8-14, limping into the playoffs.
"Without him, a brilliant team became a less-than-ordinary team," David Halberstam wrote in The Breaks of the Game, his seminal 1981 book about the Blazers' 1979-80 season.
Walton would never play another regular-season game for Portland. And Portland would win no more championships.
The Blazers' loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1978 Western Conference semifinals wasn't the worst of it. Walton, who had been shot up with painkillers, sued the team doctor, demanded to leave Portland and irreparably shattered a unit that Halberstam considered a "team of destiny."
The Blazers and their fans have endured many accursed moments since—the collapse of Brandon Roy, the disastrous decision to draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007, and the choice of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984.
But Bill Simmons' encyclopedic The Book of Basketball puts the Walton injury in its proper context. He sums it up as "the drive-by shooting of the Blazers" and writes, "Walton was blessed with a gift and cursed with a body that couldn't handle that gift. The curse trumped the gift.''
Blazers fans have suffered since. Suffering, in fact, has come to define us.
Hank Stern was managing news editor at Willamette Week from March 2005 until April 2011. He has been a Trail Blazers fan since the team's inception in 1970 and assiduously saved his money from lawn-mowing and babysitting to afford part of a season-ticket package during the 1977-78 season.
From the Archives:
November 4, 2009: "My PDX: Bill Walton"
1974: Mt. Hood Freeway Killed
1978: Bill Walton Sits Down
1995: Bicyclists Sue Portland
2009: Sam Adams Admits Lying
2011: Occupy Portland