I never stopped loving the Portland Trail Blazers. Ever.
Not when they were ridiculed as the “Jail Blazers” for a string of crimes and misdemeanors. Not when they lost a 13-point fourth quarter lead in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and a probable world championship along with it (Indiana would never have beaten us that year). Not when they went seven years without an all-star, or posted the league’s worst record.
The Blazers and Ducks are different from any other sports-team loyalty I have. The rest are friends. These are family. It's not that they can do no wrong, but that I refuse to abandon them under any circumstances. They're my teams.
But it’s a lot more fun to be a Blazer lover now than it was a few years ago. Or three months ago.
This is without a doubt the most entertaining, skillful, promising and likable group of players since the glory days of the Clyde Drexler-led squads of the early 1990s. They are an absolute joy of a team, comprised of likable personalities with great talent. As a fan, I'm pinching myself.
The late David Halberstam's magnificent book The Breaks of the Game, in which the Pulitzer Prize winner chronicles the Blazers' 1979-80 season, includes a passage about how the NBA championship winning team of three years prior symbolized a certain type of basketball. In 1977, the ABA had merged into the NBA, and with it had gome the ABA's greater propensity for street-style basketball: dunks, one-on-one play. I always loved watching players like that, particularly Julius "Dr. J" Erving, a poster of whom was pinned to my childhood bedroom wall for several years.
But the '77 Blazers represented the enduring beauty and unity of a basketball team that played together and unselfishly with precision. For example, then-Indiana University coach Bob Knight, whose 1976 Hoosiers had gone undefeated to win the NCAA title, was a huge Blazers fan. Despite the presence of a superstar like Bill Walton, Portland had a little bit of the still-to-come movie "Hoosiers" in them.
Admittedly, the current Blazer team hasn't risen to the level of the other three great Blazer eras/teams: Walton's in the 70s, Drexler's in the early '90s or Pippen's at the turn of the century. But after this second-youngest squad in the NBA won 13 in a row and 19 out of 21 after starting the 2007-08 season with just five wins and 12 losses, with reigning rookie of the year Brandon Roy emerging as not just an all-star caliber player but maybe even hall-of-fame worthy, the Blazers “Rise With Us” marketing slogan this year doesn’t seem far fetched at all.
It was ironic recently when Portland played New York. Earlier in the day Roy was named to the all-star team, which was celebrated that night at the game in front of Zach Randolph. The last four years, Randolph led the Blazers in both scoring and rebounding (something no one else in team history has done). His average of 23 points a game a couple years ago is higher than Roy’s 19 this season. But no two players better illustrate how there’s more to one’s game than stats. Roy is the leader of this team in ways that Randolph never could have been.
Still, I thought it was unfortunate that Blazer fans booed Randolph upon his return. If I were booing anybody in that building last night, it would have been Knicks coach Isaiah Thomas.
The success Portland has had this season is of course particularly astonishing given how tragically it began, with #1 draft pick Greg Oden out for year with a knee injury. I was so depressed a few months ago when it happened that I wanted to sob. But now, it’s almost as if Oden’s injury could be good for the franchise. If he’s even close to as good as he looks, Oden could be the Patrick Ewing or David Robinson of his time. Before then, though, the Blazers are learning to win without him, and showing the league that this will not be a one-man team. Or if it is, it’ll probably be Roy’s.
I haven’t even mentioned my favorite current Blazer yet: Travis Outlaw. Of course Brandon Roy is the MVP, and LaMarcus Aldridge would probably get the second-most votes. Yet Outlaw’s game is so exquisitely silky-smooth, the way his lanky frame can sink jumpers and dunk and play defense with the outstretched but effortless look of the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. Add that to Outlaw’s rural Mississippi aw-shucks background, perhaps the best anecdote of all to Rasheed Wallace’s tantrums.
There's a TV commercial for the Blazers running currently in which Outlaw describes his game-winning shot against Memphis, which ignited the winning streak. Grooved into my memory banks and repeating whenever I think of the current Portland team is Outlaw recalling his winner: "Ooh my, there go the game!"
Again, even though I along with everybody else supporting the Blazers sheds no tears for Wallace, Wells and other malcontents being gone, it’s not fair to vilify them, because I would have been so jubilant had they won that 2000 championship. And they arguably had the best chance of any Blazer team that hasn’t won it all; even though Clyde’s teams advanced to the Finals twice, they were clearly the second-best team both those times. The 2000 Blazers were as good as any team in the NBA that year, and the only team that stopped them—the Lakers—went on to win three straight league titles after beating Portland by a hair’s breath. Wallace may have been getting technicals in those days, or threatening refs in the Rose Garden parking lot, or Damon Stoudamire might have been getting busted for drug possession. But the team’s leader Scottie Pippen was having a brilliant last flash to a hall of fame career with every aspect of the game—shooting, ball handling, defense, leadership—at full tilt. They probably never will, but I’d love to see Portland retire Pippen’s jersey someday. He was the MVP of that team, and he put up with a lot from his Jail Blazer teammates.
Even so, I knew there was something special about this team several weeks before the season began. In a move unheard of in Portland or any other NBA city, every member of the Trail Blazers voluntarily showed up weeks early to training camp. That might be what cost Greg Oden the injury to his knee, but it’s also what gives me reason again to hope for one of only two things in sports besides a Ducks football national championship that would for me connote paradise on earth. (And after the Ducks suffering their most tragic season in 113 years, the Blazer optimism is perfectly timed.)
Roy and company are still almost all in their early 20s, so there’s no pressure to jump through the window of opportunity as if from a burning building just yet. In fact, it’s the patience of general manager Kevin Pritchard that will be required in Portland rather than any smoking trades. Just let this team keep doing what they do, and the joys seem perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. In fact, it’s well under way.