Pro basketball's Blazers - the pride of Portland

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To thousands of fans who regularly follow the peaks and valleys of the National Basketball Association, the Portland Trail Blazers are about as easy to identity with as a space satellite!

But the fact is the Blazers franchise is perhaps like no other success story in the NBA. It is built on trust, loyalty, and fierce community pride that recently climaxed with Portland selling out its 200th consecutive home game, with no break in that streak expected.

In fact, ticket manager George Rickles reportedly has more than 3,000 season ticket applications on file, with a yearly availability of maybe 1 percent.

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For Oregonians unable to watch the Blazers live in Portland's 12,666-seat Memorial Coliseum, management arranges for all of their home games to be shown in a nearby theater on closed circuit television. Last year's smallest crowd was just over 1,000. But there were also three sellouts of 2,965 each for a total theater attendance of 57,722.

Unless you dig a little, it is easy to accept the obvious and give it too much credit - that Portland (with a population of around 400,000) is packing them in because it has the only game in town.

What Blazermania is really tied to is the big-league way executive vice president Harry Glickman runs his operation; the expert coaching of Jack Ramsay; and the feeling that Portland players get from the city - that they are both needed and wanted. The result is that Ramsay's squad seems to play harder as a team than other NBA franchises.

Glickman, who does not pretend to be a Red Auerbach when it comes to evaluating talent and mapping court strategy, nevertheless has few peers in the area of promotion and selling tickets. During the 1960s, Harry's Portland Buckaroos smashed every attendance record in the old Western Hockey League.

Ramsay, who many consider the best coach in the NBA, is a strict fundamentalist who teaches one of the most cleverly disguised trap-zone defenses in the league. Jack also relates extremely well to his players. His teams rarely beat themselves; seldom have dry spells on offense; and almost never give less than a maximum effort.

Portland won 38 of its final 56 games last season, made the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, and picked four players in last June's college draft who made the ball club, an extremely high percentage.

They are guards Darnell Valentine of Kansas; forwards Jeff Lamp of Virginia and Peter Verhoeven of Fresno State; and center Petur Gudmundsson of Washington.

Valentine, who is exceptional on defense for a first-year player, led the Big Eight Conference in steals all four years he was with the Jayhawks. Darnell is also a three-time academic All-America with a 3.3 grade average in pre-law.

The fact that Ramsay can play Valentine almost as many minutes off the bench as a veteran and not get hurt defensively, has allowed Jack to move Jim Paxson into a starting guard position alongside Kelvin Ransey. Up front, Portland usually starts center Mychal Thompson between forwards Calvin Natt and Bob Gross.

Even though the Blazers started the current season with seven straight victories and then faltered badly, this was due more to a succession of injuries to key players than anything the opposition was able to muster. For a while, Portland was without four of its best players.

When the Blazers were world champions back in 1976-77, Ramsay had a relatively healthy Bill Walton at center, a fierce rebounding forward in Maurice Lucas, and a guard who held it all together in Lionel Hollins.

''The ability of your players always determines how you structure your game plan, and back in our championship year we were a lot more deliberate on offense than we are now,'' Jack explained. ''At that time we had several strong rebounding forwards who could get us the ball, and we ran a lot of our plays off the pivot because Walton was such a great passer.''

''Now we're more of a fast-break team that creates a lot of its scoring opportunities because of what it does on defense,'' he continued. ''We have a great young lead guard in Ransey, and not to take advantage of his ability to either pass or shoot the ball in traffic would be a mistake. But mainly what we have is good team balance and a lot of guys who like to play.''

Whether Portland, at less than full strength physically, can catch the league-leading Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA's Pacific Division is speculation at this point. But the Blazers are the kind of team that no one should take lightly in the playoffs and whose home-game sellouts should continue to be automatic.

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