For virtually any Portland Trail Blazers fan, the 1999-2000 season is a bitter memory despite it being technically one of the team's most successful runs. That’s because of the way it ended, with Portland squandering a fifteen-point fourth quarter lead over the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
For five years that game has haunted me. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ve been haunted by the lost NBA championship that I believe the Blazers would have gone on to win had they held on to win that game in Los Angeles. (The Blazers, led by Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace, and the Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, were clearly the two best teams that year. Portland would have beaten Indiana for the title almost as easily as Los Angeles did.)
Even though Portland had won two series games in a row going into the game (rebounding from a 3-1 series deficit), as the road team going into Game 7, I didn’t expect the Blazers to be ahead late in the game. Yet there they were, leading 73-58 with eleven minutes left. To have the brass ring within your grasp and lose it is the worst of sports tragedies.
Now, with this year's Western Conference Finals concluding last night, for the first time in these five years I find myself wanting to take back the memory of the 1999-2000 season as something more than tragedy. After all, that fourth-quarter meltdown came in the seventh game of a playoff series that followed two other long playoff series, which of course came after a 72-game season. As their 59-23 record indicates, Portland’s successes dwarfed its failures that year.
I don’t want to whitewash what happened in Game 7. I don’t want to deny it. Hell, I can’t deny it. The game still angers and depresses me all too regularly: when I see Rasheed Wallace winning a championship with Detroit, for example. Or when I see Scottie Pippen’s jersey retired in Chicago and his tenure in Portland already forgotten by most people who follow the NBA. Or when I see Damon Stoudamire all but told “good riddance” as his contract expires.
But there’s got to be a way to savor that season, or at least certain aspects of it, without the memory of Game 7 rearing its ugly head at every mention.
My best memories of 1999-2000 revolve around Scottie Pippen. Although admittedly a little past his prime, he could do almost everything well. When healthy his stat sheet routinely had points, rebounds, assists and steals—a rare feat in a game of specialists. And with Pippen essentially a hybrid between small forward and point guard, Damon Stoudamire was allowed to flourish as a scoring point guard, penetrating or shooting three-point jump shots.
As for power forward Rasheed Wallace, Most Blazer fans (and especially the media) only seem to remember power forward Wallace’s technical fouls and off-court problems. But he was a tremendous scorer who could hit turn around jump shots on the post that were at times almost undefendable. And Wallace often hit clutch three pointers, as evidenced in a Game 5 road win against the Lakers in the West Finals.
The other power forward, Brian Grant, was arguably the only player whom the community has unequivocally embraced since the Clyde Drexler era of the early 1990s. Grant was a tenacious rebounder whose gutsy play inspired the team. And often stuck on the bench was a future All Star for another team: Jermaine O’Neal. If only we’d kept him.
And Pippen wasn't the only over-the-hill player whose game could still inspire. Arvydas Sabonis, Portland's center, was more than a decade beyond his glory days as part of the Soviet national team. But while his body often failed him, Sabonis was perhaps the best passing center the NBA has seen since another Blazer center, Bill Walton. His behind-the-back passes often made me laugh out loud with wonder.
To expect non-Blazer fans around the country to remember anything about that season but Portland’s infamous choke would be swimming upstream. Sports history, perhaps like history itself, is told in shorthand. But at least in my own mind I want to remember more to the eight or nine-month season than those horrific few minutes at the Staples Center.