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Luckily for Blazers, Buckwalter found his niche

Former Blazers executive to enter Oregon Sports Hall of Fame

By Matt Calkins
Published: September 27, 2011, 5:00pm

Priority one for Bucky Buckwalter in 1972 was befriending John Brisker.

Brisker, in his first year playing for the Seattle SuperSonics, had an annoying habit of coming to practice with a knife in his sock in case a teammate or coach irked him.

Buckwalter, in his first year coaching the Sonics, figured that charming the guy who came to practice with a knife in his sock was a wise investment.

So one day before the season began, he pulled Brisker into his office and explained that, while Brisker would not be starting, he could help the team tremendously as a member of the second unit. Brisker graciously complied, and a couple weeks later in Detroit, introduced Buckwalter to his two brothers — both of whom had just been released from prison and were seeking tickets.

Buckwalter provided them with two just behind the Sonics’ bench, but quickly regretted the decision as the brothers bombarded him with complaints about Brisker not being on the court.

“Settle down!” Buckwalter snapped. “He’ll be in in a second.”

That’s when one of the brothers pulled back his jacket and revealed a gun.

“I looked down the bench and said ‘John, get in,’ ” Buckwalter recalled. “It was about then I realized head coaching was a perilous job.”

Morris “Bucky” Buckwalter would not a spend another season as an NBA head coach, and no team benefited more from his career choice than the Trail Blazers. It was in Portland, after all, where Buckwalter engineered one of the franchise’s most prominent eras as the vice president of basketball operations.

In other words, you won’t hear too many gripes about the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and Museum inducting the 77-year-old into its 2011 class Wednesday.

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“Stu Inman (a former Blazer executive) said that, ‘When Bucky talks, I listen,’ ” former Portland general manager Harry Glickman said. “He’d been around the block.”

Buckwalter was born in La Grande, Ore., and earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Utah. His Utes reached the quarterfinals of the 1956 NCAA Tournament before falling to the Bill Russell-led University of San Francisco.

He earned a job as an assistant coach for the Utah freshman team not long after college, then moved on to Seattle University, then eventually to the Sonics. But it was in 1975, as coach of the ABA’s Utah Stars, that Buckwalter made his first major imprint on the pro basketball scene — luring Hall-of-Fame center Moses Malone to the club directly out of high school.

It was a signing of things to come.

Buckwalter spent several years as an assistant under Blazers coach Jack Ramsay before taking over as vice president of basketball operations in 1986. It was that same year that he made his boldest and most frustrating draft choice, selecting Arvydas Sabonis from the Soviet Union with the final pick of the first round.

As most Blazers fans know by now, the Hall-of-Fame center would not arrive in Portland for another nine years.

But that delay did not derail the Blazers’ growth under Buckwalter’s watch. With Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter developing into All-Star guards, the Blazers acquired center Kevin Duckworth in 1987 to shore up their front court. And in June 1989, Buckwalter orchestrated perhaps his most significant move as a Portland executive, trading center Sam Bowie for power forward Buck Williams.

The Blazers reached the NBA Finals the next season, finished with the league’s best record the year after that, and went back to the Finals in 1992.

“The thing that allowed us to be that good was that final acquisition — trading Bowie for Buck,” said Buckwalter, who earned NBA Executive of the Year in 1991 and retired from the Blazers in 1997. “Buck was a very focused, terrific guy in the locker room. I think he made many of the players around him better.”

Of course, while Buckwalter pulled the strings, he never won the rings. The Pistons downed the Blazers in 1990, the underdog Lakers ousted them in 1991, and Michael Jordan won his second title at Portland’s expense in 1992.

For that, Buckwalter looks back on his career like a traveler who saw the pyramids but missed the Sphinx — his emotions a mix of satisfaction and regret.

But as Wednesday’s presentation at the Multnomah Athletic Club draw near, the positive memories seem to be pushing their way to the top.

“My father gave me a basketball when I was 8 or 9 years old,” Buckwalter said. “I had no idea I’d end up in the NBA with a wonderful franchise. It’s been an incredible basketball odyssey.”

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com