Sunday, September 7, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blazers' Buckwalter Retires With Countless Tales To Tell


PORTLAND - He has crawled through tall weeds, the sound of gunfire and barking dogs piercing the night, as he waited for Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell to leave a run-down Virginia house so he could sign a teenager named Moses Malone.

As an interim NBA coach in Seattle, he wasted no time inserting John Brisker into a game after Brisker's brother pulled a gun and ordered the substitution.

And he dodged the KGB for a 3 a.m. rendezvous with Arvydas Sabonis in a failed attempt to get the big Lithuanian to the NBA.

Across millions of miles in the name of basketball, Bucky Buckwalter has some stories to tell.

Since 1978, Buckwalter has worked for the Portland Trail Blazers, rising from assistant coach to vice president for basketball operations. At 63, after easing out of the front office in recent years to a low-key job as senior scouting consultant, Buckwalter is leaving the Blazers.

Buckwalter was a chief architect of the fast-breaking, athletic Portland teams that advanced to the NBA finals in 1990 and 1992. He plucked obscure college players Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey with late draft picks, then pulled off the trade for Buck Williams that transformed the Blazers into a contender.

Named the NBA's executive of the year by The Sporting News in 1991, Buckwalter was a pioneer in bringing European players to the NBA, drafting Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic in 1986.

Since Buckwalter's days as a star player at La Grande High

School, basketball has served as the avenue for a small-town boy from Eastern Oregon to see the world.

As a player at Utah, he twice helped the Utes advance to the NCAA tournament, only to be eliminated by the Bill Russell-led University of San Francisco. He served as an assistant coach at Utah and head coach at Seattle University before, in 1972, he joined the staff of Tom Nissalke of the Seattle SuperSonics.

Nissalke was fired the next January, and Buckwalter became interim head coach.

When the Sonics made a stop in Detroit, Sonics player John Brisker asked Buckwalter for tickets for his two brothers to sit directly behind the Seattle bench.

"I said, `John, what do they do?' and he said, `Well, Jerry just got out of jail for shooting a cop.' and I said, `What about Jim?' `He just got out of the state pen for manslaughter. He shot two people.' "

The game wasn't going well and the two brothers, with increasingly menacing language, called for the coach to put Brisker in the game.

Finally, Buckwalter had enough.

" `I turned around to tell them to cool it, that I was going to get him in the game. I turned around and one brother pulled back his coat and pulled out his .45, and I said, `Brisker, get in the game!' It seemed like a very good time for a substitution."

In 1973, Buckwalter switched to the Utah Stars of the fledgling American Basketball Association, and set off for Petersburg, Va, where the 17-year-old Malone was living with his mother.

The night before the signing, with the Stars' millionaire owner in tow, Buckwalter crawled through a field to a bluff overlooking Malone's house to wait out Driesell, who was trying to get Malone to play college basketball.

Up ahead, dogs were barking and some men were shooting guns.

"We kept our heads down pretty good," Buckwalter said.

The Stars were offering Malone $100,000, and Buckwalter had a hard time explaining to the teenager just how much money that was.

"I got $5,000 in $100 bills and placed on his coffee table, which was actually an orange crate," Buckwalter said. "I said `Moses, when you get ready to sign, I want you to have this walking around money. This will buy hamburgers for everybody in town for a month.' Then I said, `Moses, you know that car you've got rented out there, that's not what you should be driving.

"I pulled out this picture of a Lincoln Mark IV and I said, `This is what you should be driving, and it has a phone in it.' He looked out the window for a while, then he said, `Can you get a color TV in there?' I said, `You've got it,' and he said he'd sign."

Buckwalter was hired as an assistant coach and scout for Jack Ramsay in Portland in 1978 and moved full time into the front office in 1986.

"My feeling was we had to go athletic and up-tempo, get good runners and athletes who could develop into basketball players," Buckwalter said.

He imagines just how good the team of Clyde Drexler, Kersey, Porter and Williams could have been with Sabonis, in his prime, at center.

The Blazers had selected Sabonis with the last first-round pick in 1986, a move widely ridiculed around the league.

Buckwalter made numerous trips to Europe, shadowing the secretive Soviet national team and trying to make a deal that would bring Sabonis to America.

It took the fall of the Iron Curtain before Sabonis came to Portland in 1995, a hobbled shadow of his former self but still capable of slick offensive moves and dazzling passes.

Buckwalter has accumulated more than 2 million frequent-flier miles in travels to more than 40 countries. Retirement from the Blazers won't change his travel plans.

He will work with basketball organizations around the Pacific Rim, and plans to bring international basketball teams to the United States Basketball Academy, a state-of-the-art camp and retreat center opened this summer in the Oregon Cascades.

This month, Buckwalter was off to watch a few games in Istanbul, followed by a Mediterranean cruise. When the weather turns cold in Oregon, he will head for Australia to help the small city of Cairns land an Australian professional team.

The frustrations and big egos of the NBA will be left behind. The memories, like Buckwalter, will travel first class.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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