Wednesday, June 19, 2024

THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Missing good people, both far and near

| June 9, 2024 1:15 AM

No excuses.

More on that one later.

I WISH I had a Bill Walton story.

Everyone else out there seems to have a heartwarming one.

Most of the tributes that have poured in since his passing on May 27 at age 71 have focused on his kindness following his injury shortened basketball career.

That’s all good, though I have no personal experiences with him to pass along.

I wish I did.

So I will remember him as the big redhead who was one of the greatest passing centers the game has ever seen, the ringleader for those dominant UCLA teams of the early 1970s — the 88-game win streak and the two national titles, capped by the near-perfect 44-point performance (on 21-of-22 shooting from the field) vs. Memphis State in the 1973 title game.

It was worth it, spending those years in Salt Lake City, to stay up late Saturday night after the late local news, when they would show UCLA games on tape-delay.

And, most importantly, I will remember him, and thank him, for delivering an NBA title to Portland in 1977 — still, the Trail Blazers’ only world championship.

OF COURSE, Walton wasn’t the only reason the Blazers were “red hot and rollin’” during those days.

Maurice Lucas, the enforcer, was a big reason for Portland’s success as well. Luke squaring off with Darryl Dawkins of Philadelphia in Game 2 of the NBA finals changed the tone of the entire series.

But Lionel Hollins, Dave Twardzik, Bobby Gross, Johnny Davis and Larry Steele played key roles as well.

And, to a lesser degree, so did guys like Herm “The Trickster” Gilliam, Lloyd Neal, Corky Calhoun and Robin Jones.

But everything ran through the big fella, in part because he could pass as well as he could score. 

The Blazers passed, and cut, and hit the open man. And when Walton or Lucas got the rebound, they immediately looked to outlet the ball to a guard streaking up the sideline on the fast break.

Portland won the NBA title on June 5, 1977, two days after I graduated from Mead High.

Earlier in the series, my grandparents were visiting, and grandpa was napping in the recliner during one of the Finals games.

There was a sequence where the Blazers were on the verge of blowing the game open. Portland scored, stole the inbound pass and lobbed to Walton for a dunk that had the 12,666 in Memorial Coliseum going crazy.

Us, too, in the living room in Spokane.

Then we remembered our napping grandpa in the corner of the living room.

We fell silent for a moment, and myself, my sister and my brother looked over at the recliner.

All was well.

Grandpa must have had his hearing aid turned off.

THE BLAZERS were even better the next season, starting out 50-10 before injuries to Walton and others began to signal an end to that budding dynasty.

Walton never played for the Blazers again after that season.

Portland has made the NBA Finals just twice since, getting Bad Boy’d in 1990 and MJ’d two years later.

These days, the Blazers aren’t even competitive, and under current management, there’s little to suggest they ever will be again.

And it was a little weird watching Boston pay tribute to Walton the other night before the NBA Finals. He only played one full season there, and part of a second, but he did help the Celtics win the NBA title the year he was healthy, and was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. And Boston, at least, still knows how to build championship teams. And back then, the Celts knew how a player like that, even a limited version, could help them win.

Meanwhile, at least we have the VHS tapes, and the memories, of Blazermania in 1977.

For that, Bill Walton, we thank you.

YOU MAY have noticed I have a soft spot for Clark Fork. 

Along with Sandpoint, those folks helped “raise” me when I worked at the Daily Bee.

Patti Speelmon was one of those folks, welcoming me whenever I moseyed out to Clark Fork to cover a football game … a volleyball match … a basketball game … or a track meet on the old cinder track.

The Speelmons are part of Clark Fork royalty — Lewis, the longtime coach and educator; wife Patti; children and standout athletes Wendi and Melvin.

Patti was described by one as “the face of Clark Fork,” for all of her volunteer work.

Patti passed away recently, and we figure she’s now reunited in Heaven with her longtime “partner in crime,” Cindy Derr, making sure things run smoothly up there, just as they did in Clark Fork.

And perhaps she’s watching Melvin run again up there, a small dog once again nipping at his heels as he races down the straightaway to the finish line.

WITH ALL the “dudes” the Zags have coming back next year, in addition to the hyped transfers they are bringing in …

No excuses this time.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 208-664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @CdAPressSports.