THE SECOND COMING OF THE BILLY GOAT CURSE (A.K.A. THE PORTLAND JINX)
Synopsis: On February 26, 1978, the Portland Trail Blazers escaped Chicago Stadium with a 100-99 win. Making the game even more exciting, Portland guard Lionel Hollins banked a 30-footer at the buzzer for the victory. Led by MVP-candidate Bill Walton, the “Blazers” were the prohibitive favorites to repeat as NBA Champions. However, the team’s fortunes changed that night due to a series of fateful events after the game. The story may sound far-fetched, but it really happened. At least, I heard it did.
ORIGIN OF THE PORTLAND JINX
Initially, everything seemed normal for a February 1978 match-up between the Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls. True to form, cold winds blew off the shores of Lake Michigan to provide a crispness in the air. Inside Chicago Stadium, however, the narrative had changed. Of note, the home team held a 99-98 lead against the best team in the league with seconds remaining. As if restoring order to the universe, Portland’s Lionel Hollins hit a buzzer beater to secure a 100-99 victory.
With the victory, the Trail Blazers improved their record to 49-10 and their lead in the Western Conference had increased to 12 1/2 games. Excited beyond belief, Hollins headed back to the locker room without noticing a fan in tow. In fact, no one noticed the ebony feline until Bill Walton tripped over it coming out of the shower 30 minutes later.
PORTLAND JINX – OMEN #1: THE BLACK CAT
Walton quickly forgot about the discomfort in his twisted ankle as he raced back to his locker. You see, Big Red eagerly awaited listening to a Grateful Dead bootleg from their recent February 1st show at Chicago’s Uptown Theater. For the last month, he had played the January 22nd show from McArthur Court on a loop. He was excited to change it up with the present he received from a buddy prior to the game.
Beginning with Samson and Delilah from the 2nd set, Walton drifted away thinking about his time in college.
UCLA 2014-15 SPIRIT SQUAD
Already dressed for a while, Portland forward Corky Calhoun got bored waiting for his teammate. While wandering the bowels of the arena, he came face-to-face with a billy goat. Always the prankster, Calhoun grabbed the presumably abandoned animal and took it on the bus. Teammate T.R. Dunn was the first to discover the prank when he awoke to the sound and smell of the goat hovering over him.
Once Head Coach Jack Ramsay became aware, he ordered the driver to get off the Dan Ryan. Dr. Jack didn’t care how or why the animal got on the bus, but he wanted it off immediately. Despite being from Springfield, Otto (the bus driver) conveniently knew about a nearby farm.
As Otto pulled into the bumpy dirt driveway, Lloyd Neal woke up and saw a mailbox with the name O’Leary on it. For a quick moment, he wondered, “Where have I heard that name before?” However, before he could finish the thought, he began to doze off to the soothing melody of Wharf Rat.
Surprised by the sight of a bus barreling down her driveway, Mrs. O’Leary came outside to intercept the uninvited visitors. After exchanging some pleasantries, the nice old lady agreed to take in the goat. At the same time, she worried that her cow might not respond well to a city animal.
As the bus pulled out, Hollins looked back and noticed a commotion in the barn. He thought he saw a lantern get knocked over, but convinced himself otherwise. After all, he wanted to get back to thinking about his game-winning shot and enjoy the sounds of Sugar Magnolia drifting over from Walton’s direction.
PORTLAND JINX – OMEN #2: MRS. O’LEARY’S COW
Despite the detour, the team made it to the airport in plenty of time for its flight back to Portland. While walking to the gate with only a slightly noticeable limp, Walton was approached by a woman who asked, “Do you play for the Bulls?” Unwilling to wait for an answer, she blurted out, “Can I get an autograph for my baby boy? He’ll be five months old on Wednesday.” Chuckling while telling her that he played for the Blazers instead, Walton acquiesced and asked for the name of her son. She replied, “Just make it out to Stevie.”
Stevie’s mom reached into her purse to grab a pen and something for Walton to sign. She apologized beforehand but asked him to autograph a baseball because her boy really loved the Cubs. She even let Walton know that her boy would be a star at Wrigley someday. Stevie reached out and tried to grab the ball, but it fell to the ground and rolled away. Oblivious to what he had done, Stevie just continued to stare blankly. At least, he looked really adorable in his Cubs cap.
PORTLAND JINX – OMEN #3: STEVE BARTMAN
While Stevie’s mom retrieved the ball, Walton lamented about missing the Dead’s Oregon show and sang to himself:
Stephen prospered in his time
Well, he may and he may decline
Did it matter, does it now?
Stephen would answer if he only knew how
Not much of an original poet himself, Walton wrote,
Stevie, may you catch all of your dreams.
Blazin’ Bill Walton
Just at that moment, an announcement came over the loudspeaker,
Mrs. Bartman please come to the United Airlines courtesy desk.
Mrs. Bartman to the United courtesy desk.
The next thing Walton knew, Stevie’s mom grabbed the ball out of his hand, and took off down the concourse hurdling obstacles as if she were O.J. in a Hertz commercial.
PORTLAND JINX – OMEN #4: AND BABA BOOEY TO YA’ALL!
Unbeknownst to anyone, Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sinias had been apprehended during the game. In particular, the Chicago Stadium 5-0 nailed him for sneaking his pet goat into the game. After being released, he looked all over for his prized mascot.
When the goat didn’t turn up, Sinias hexed the presumed culprits. He thought he would be cursing the home team but didn’t realize that the Trail Blazers were responsible for his misery instead. Right at that moment, Walton felt a throbbing in his ankle that he couldn’t explain. All he could think was,
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on.
Two days later, the Philadelphia 76ers came into Portland for a match-up between the two best teams in the NBA. Portland stood at 49-10 while Philadelphia had a record of 41-18. A few minutes into the game, Walton felt more throbbing in his ankle and asked to come out. Even without Walton for the rest of the game, the Trail Blazers won to extend their record to 50-10. Regardless, Sinias’ curse (a.k.a. The Portland Jinx) had started to take effect.
The initial diagnosis of a mild ankle sprain seemed woefully understated. Specifically, Walton was forced to miss the remainder of the regular season. Portland collapsed and went 8-14 over the final 22 games without its star. For the entire season, the Blazers won 48 out of 58 games (83%) with him, but only 10 out of 24 (42%) without him.
Based on those numbers, I don’t know if there has been a more deserving league MVP. Generally, the honor goes to the best player on the best team. That year, Walton not only fit that description but also proved to be the most valuable player to his team’s success. The voters got it right that year by giving him the award even though he missed over 1/4 of the season.
Given that the Trail Blazers received a first-round bye in the playoffs, Walton rested for another week before starting Game 1 of his team’s match-up with Seattle. In his first game after a seven-week layoff, he limped noticeably but still contributed 17 points. Despite the contributions from its star player, the team still lost by a score of 104-95.
In Game 2, Portland won the battle but lost the war. Specifically, the team won the game by a score of 96-93 but lost Walton to another injury. This time, he had a broken foot.
PORTLAND JINX – IN ACTION
Without their MVP, the Trail Blazers lost three of the next four games to get beat 4-2 by the eventual Western Conference Champions. More importantly, Walton never played another game for Portland. For those keeping track, he played in three games and got injured in two of them after that fateful trip to Chicago. What was Calhoun thinking taking that billy goat on the bus?