Jack Ramsay, Portland Perfect Match

"One night we played the Detroit Pistons when they were still downtown, in Cobo Hall," Culp said. "It was in kind of a rough neighborhood.

"Jack was a great walker after losses. And his walk was more like a jog for anyone else. We lost, so he wanted to walk back to the hotel. So we're walking down the street and some guy jumps out of the back of a station wagon carrying a spare tire.

"He'd just stolen it out of that guy's car. Anyway, the guy starts running with the tire and goes down a dark alley. Jack looks at me and says, 'Let's get him.'

"In Detroit at midnight and chasing a guy down a back alley? I looked at Jack and said, 'Are you nuts?'"

The artist

On the court, Ramsay saw basketball more as art than science. In fact, his first book, co-written with Portlander John Strawn, was called "The Coach's Art."

In it, you could find a simple assessment of the way he envisioned basketball:

What is this game that runs through my mind? It is a ballet, a graceful sweep and flow of patterned movement, counterpointed by daring and imaginative flights of solitary brilliance.

"As a coach, he has forgotten more than most coaches will ever know," Twardzik said. "He was very secure in himself. We had a system, of course, but he gave you the freedom to play outside the system -- but not to the point of being selfish.

"And he was secure enough that we'd be in a timeout and say, 'We're going to run a fist-out' and if somebody said, 'Coach, I think we can make a two-out work,' he'd go with that. He'd trust you and give you that freedom."

For many, including Bill Walton, Ramsay's teams represented basketball artistry and creativity at its very finest.

The champion

The 1976-77 Trail Blazers forever won the hearts of Portlanders with scintillating basketball. It was Ramsay's first season in Portland and the expansion team's first trip to the playoffs.

A healthy Walton was the hub of it all, as Ramsay put him often at the high post, where he was a threat to shoot, drive or pass to backdoor cutters.

Twardzik, Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis were quick, smart guards who could score and pass. Up front, Maurice Lucas was the bodyguard -- rebounding, defending and keeping other teams from roughing up Walton or Bobby Gross, the perpetual-motion small forward.

The 1977 NBA Finals matched the team-first Trail Blazers against the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers, a group that appeared destined to win the title behind stars such as Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Henry Bibby, World B. Free, Darryl Dawkins, Doug Collins, Caldwell Jones and even Kobe Bryant's father, Joe.

The Sixers took the first two games before Portland roared back to win the next four and a championship. It remains the touchstone of Rip City basketball, the one and only NBA championship in the city's history.

Rise and fall

Probably only Portland residents remember the following season. The Trail Blazers jumped off to a 50-10 start. Ramsay's system -- and the creativity it sparked among the players -- was running on all cylinders during that time, as pretty a picture as you'd ever want to see on a basketball court.

When unselfishness collides head-on with intelligence and talent, the results can be electrifying. And this was.

But injuries to key players -- Walton, first and foremost -- derailed that team, and just as the big center never recovered, neither did the team.

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