"The basketball of purity had beaten out the basketball of materialism and selfishness."
So wrote the recently deceased and renowned journalist David Halberstam about the Portland Trail Blazers' shocking defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1977 NBA title in The Breaks of the Game, inarguably the best book ever written about professional basketball.
The Breaks of the Game came out in 1981, right before the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird rivalry rescued the NBA from fan and network television indifference. It's hard to believe now, but the sporting public cared so little for the NBA 25 years ago that CBS used to air playoff games at 11:30 p.m. on a tape delay!
Halberstam, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Vietnam War, spent the 1979-80 season with the Blazers and caught up with a dispirited franchise still reeling from Bill Walton's controversial and litigious departure. Head Coach Jack Ramsay and several members from Portland's 1976-77 championship team had hung on, but the glory had vanished and old school Blazer fans can expect to experience serious agony after reading how pedestrian the team and front office had become only two years removed from winning the title.
Ramsay seems desperate to win, so desperate in fact that at the end of the season as injuries decimate his players and the playoffs loom, he literally turns the Blazers over to a totally obscure, one-on-one, playground specialist imported from the Continental Basketball Association, a supreme dunker who could barely read, an untamed shooting guard who modeled the antithesis of everything Jack Ramsay believed about basketball. The player's name: Billy Ray Bates. Remember him, Portland fans?
The Breaks of the Game is most superb when reporting the business of professional basketball in the 1970s. The NBA ranked strictly small time in the public and media's cultural zeitgeist back then, as evidenced by CBS' decision to cut away from the Blazers' locker room celebration to broadcast the final round of the Kemper Open. (A corporate choice that infuriated Portland fans that Halberstam explains in fascinating detail.)
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league as rookies in 1979-80 and they, along with Michael Jordan's arrival a few years later, changed everything. Professional basketball would never be the same. Salaries soared. Super agents and conglomerates shook up the business. Marginal players signed multi-year, million dollar contracts and endorsement deals. Thus, what makes reading The Breaks of the Game incredibly revelatory is realizing that virtually none of the 1976-77 Blazers made enough money during their NBA careers to live on for the rest of their lives. Several became coaches in college and the NBA, but others went on to work as a UPS delivery driver, an IRS agent, and a real estate developer. The point is, back in the late '70s, most pro basketball players, white and black, were still part of their communities, and especially so in their retirement. No entourages, pit bulls, seven Hummers, and vanity music projects.
The Breaks of the Game is a veritable gold mine of Blazer anecdotal nuggets. Even a partial listing would consume too much space here. My current favorites are: 1) How some of the black players bitterly resented the management's decision to cut Herm Gilliam the summer after the championship and retain two obviously inferior (white) guards, Dave Twardzik and Larry Steele; 2) After signing as a free agent with the San Diego Clippers in 1979 and shipping out to Southern California, Bill Walton appeared on Hollywood Squares; 3) The poignant story of center LaRue Martin, the Blazers' (and NBA's) first pick in the 1972 draft (over Bob McAdoo), who flopped as a pro.
Halberstam scored a bestseller with The Breaks of the Game and any pro basketball fan should seek it out. But it also deserves the attention of those interested in how this country's entertainment culture has dramatically changed during the last 25 years. Reading the book today makes you wonder: what does the exponential growth of televised professional sports say about us as a people?
The Breaks of the Game has been out of print for a long, long time, but, I bet Powell's has at least one copy. They always do.
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Matt Love is the founder and publisher of Nestucca Spit Press; author/editor of the Beaver State Trilogy: Grasping Wastrels vs. Beaches Forever Inc.: Covering the Fights for the Soul of the Oregon Coast (2003), The Far Out Story of Vortex I (2004), and Red Hot and Rollin': A Retrospection of the Portland Trail Blazers' 1976-77 Championship Season (2007); and also Let It Pour. He is a regular contributor to the Oregonian, columnist for the Bear Deluxe and In Good Tilth magazines, and teaches English and history in the Lincoln County School District. He lives at the Oregon Coast, where for nine years he has served as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge.