'Old' Blazers reunite
Once upon a time — sometime after the days of Dr. Naismith — Bill Schonely was calling radio play-by-play for the Trail Blazers, Rolland Todd was coaching and Geoff Petrie and Jim Barnett were filling up the basket.
On Tuesday night, they convened at Memorial Coliseum, their home for that very first season of Blazer basketball.
This being the 50th year of the franchise, team executives invited all the members of the inaugural club to be part of the preseason opener against Denver in the old facility, located right next door to Moda Center.
Schonely, Todd, Petrie, Barnett and Shaler Halimon — a useful reserve who averaged 8.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists and started 23 games after being acquired from Chicago for a second-round draft pick during that 1970-71 season — took them up on the offer. They signed autographs and posed for photos before the game, were introduced at halftime and then did a roundtable discussion at halfcourt after the game.
For Schonely, it was a nostalgic night, with a return to the venue where he worked for 25 of his 28 seasons with Blazer Broadcasting.
"This is a great building," said Schonely, 90, who lives in Portland and works as broadcaster emeritus and ambassador for the Blazers. "We had some wonderful times here."
The Schonz is indefatigable. For the others, it was hard to fathom that a half-century has gone by since they first played pro ball in Portland.
"No. No. No and no," said Petrie, 71, the sweet-shooting 6-5 guard out of Princeton who was the Blazers' first-ever draft pick that year. "Fifty years? Good Lord." Then he laughed. "But yeah, we've grown old. Nobody wants to hang out with old people because, well, they're old people."
"I just can't believe that 50 years have passed," said Barnett, 75, the No. 2 scorer behind Petrie on the first Blazer team.
Petrie was an immediate sensation, averaging a team-high 24.8 points and earning co-Rookie of the Year honors, shared with Boston's Dave Cowens. Petrie would go on to play in two All-Star Games and average at least 18 points for each of his six seasons in a Portland uniform before knee injuries ended his career at age 28.
"I guarded all the great players of my day," said Barnett, who starred collegiately at Oregon. "Had he not gotten hurt, Geoff would have been one of the 50 greatest players of all time. He was by far the greatest Blazer in that early era."
The 6-5 Barnett averaged 18.5 points during his one season with the Blazers and was the poster boy for Schonely's "Rip City" call that has become synonymous with Portland throughout the NBA. After his retirement as a player, Barnett has embarked on a legendary broadcasting career with the Golden State Warriors.
(my profile on Barnett from 2017)
The Blazers were 29-53 that season, much better than the other two expansion franchises (Buffalo was 22-60, Cleveland was 15-67).
"We were the best expansion team," Barnett said. "We averaged 116 points a game. We might have given up 120 (they did). We were a run-and-gun team. Rolland's offense was innovative."
"We were entertaining," said Petrie, who would later serve four years as the Blazers' general manager before a 20-year stint running basketball operations with the Sacramento Kings. "We had a lot of fun, a group of great guys and we got the franchise off on the right foot.
"It was an expansion franchise in a city that hadn't had much exposure to pro basketball. The perseverence and foresight (former team president) Harry Glickman had to bring a team here was remarkable. It was about trying to sell the idea that the team would be successful and the product would be entertaining. To a large degree, we accomplished that."
Part of that was due to Todd, hired by Glickman and director of player personnel Stu Inman out of Nevada-Las Vegas for that first Blazer season.
(My profile on Todd from 2017)
Todd lasted only a season and a half on the job before being dismissed midway through the 1971-72 campaign. He would never again coach in the NBA. He spent 10 years coaching at the community college level in California. In 1986, he founded Todd Team Coaching, working not only with executives of college sports administrations but also with those of business organizations.
At 85, Todd — who lives in Phoenix — looks terrific.
"I have a pacemaker, which is working fine," he said. "I had a check-up last week, and my blood pressure was 120/70. I run six days a week. At my age, I figure that's pretty good."
Todd, known as "Mod Todd" for his splashy attire when he was coaching in Portland, wore a conservative suit Tuesday night at the Coliseum.
"I realize I had something to live up to, in an era when fashion was in the toilet, and I thought about wearing something like that," he said with a grin. "But then I thought, 'Nah, I'm going to go a bit more conventional way.'"
Barnett started 74 games but didn't play as much the second half of his one season in Portland. He thought it was because Todd "didn't like me. He thought I played with too much emotion."
"He told me five times already since I've been up here," said Todd, grinning again. "It wasn't that at all. There were certain things I needed to have happen, and there was no wiggle room on that. He was on the edge of testing that a lot. But he started. That should tell him something. He could have been sitting next to me on the bench."
Todd and the former players joined Glickman and current Blazer coach Terry Stotts for dinner at El Gaucho on Monday night.
"I sat next to Terry, and we talked the whole time," Todd said. "He's very nice. It was great to get to know him."
Barnett enjoyed the interaction with the fans Tuesday night.
"There was so much enthusiasm on the concourse when we were signing autographs and posing for pictures before the game," he said. "The support for the team here is amazing. It's always been that way. This is a very special city."
Petrie, retired in living in the Sacramento area, keeps tabs on his old team.
"I made a lot of good friends during the years I was here," he said. "What happened in those years as a player in Portland was responsible for what turned into a career (as an executive) in the NBA for me.
"It's great that the Blazers have been stable with their ownership over the years and fought through some difficult times and have continued to improve. They've been putting a good product on the floor for some time now. That's not an easy thing to do."
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