A joyous jam: Oden's first dunk! (And Rudy's first between-someone-else's-legs pass!)
Until last night, not once in my life had I followed a preseason NBA basketball game with much interest. But the Trail Blazers' first exhibition game of the year had me jumping up and down with joy in the living room as I watched the highlights.
A professional sports fan can spend an entire lifetime rooting for a team without feeling something really special is in store. Look at the poor Milwaukie Brewers fans, whose team just made the pro baseball playoffs for the first time since the early 1980s, and quickly got swept. Or fans in Cleveland who haven't had a major sports championship since the 1950s.
The Portland Trail Blazers have given fans much to cheer about in the past: a world championship in 1977, NBA Finals appearances in 1990 and 1992, the league's best record in 1991, a 20-year streak of playoff appearances that continued into the first part of this decade, and numerous other trips to the Western Conference Finals.
But watching the 2008-2009 Blazers take the court for the first time last night--even if it was only on video replay, with no live coverage--I saw a team with more than enough talent to go all the way in the very near future. This team is ridiculously young; all its best players are 25 or younger. But dear God what talent!
And that was true even before Greg Oden took his center's spot on the court after a year delay. Seeing him in there at all would have been a treat. But the guy dunked with tremendous authority in the first two minutes of the ballgame. Then he dunked again. And blocked shots. 13 points in 20 minutes, on a team surrounded with All-Star and All-Star-caliber talent.
At every single position the Blazers have talent, depth and flexibility.
Brandon Roy is already an All-Star as a shooting guard after one season, and yet he's equally talented as a ball-distributing floor leader. Behind him is Rudy Fernandez, also new to the Blazers and making his debut last night. Rudy was the high scorer for Spain in the gold medal Olympic basketball final against the United States: maybe the most talented basketball team ever assembled in the history of humankind.
At the point is Steve Blake, a more workmanlike player who is solid at best. But Roy can and does often take over the point, and that'll be even easier now with a virtuoso like Fernandez. Did I mention Rudy not only dunked numerous times last night, but had five assists and a pass through the legs of an opposing Sacramento player?
Then at power forward you have LaMarcus Aldridge, who was the #2 pick in the draft a couple years ago and averaged 17 points in just his second year last year. You have Travis Outlaw, who is tall and fast enough that his quick-release jump shot is virtually un-guardable. You have Jerryd Bayless, the rookie point guard who was the MVP of the Las Vegas NBA summer league and turned pro from the University of Arizona after just his freshman year. There's sharpshooter Martell Webster. There's Joel Prizbilla, who has played well as the starting center for Portland the last couple of years and now will back up Oden. Channing Frye, a former lottery pick, could be starting for some teams at power forward. Sergio Garcia is another Spanish phenom who, although he stagnated a bit last year, seems all the more determined and polished now; he was actually the leading scorer last night and also had several assists.
Should something change, the Blazers have in Kevin Pritchard a general manager who has quickly become known throughout the leage for the slurry of moves assembled this astonishing blend of young talent. See his six draft-day trades in 2006, including getting Aldridge, Roy, and the rights to Fernandez. Then there's the trades that netted Bayless this year. Then there's Nate McMillan, who seems to be a disciplinarian coach that, quite crucially, is able to balance that hardness with a bond of affection with players. Hell, even Maurice Lucas, Portland's leading scorer in the '77 championship season, is the assistant coach working big men like Oden!
Believe me, I'm all too painfully aware of how having promise far from guarantees a trip to the promised land. The memory of Dennis Dixon and the Oregon Ducks, #2 in the nation last year with the leading Heisman Trophy contender until Dixon's injury and an ensuing tumble, is still a sensitive bit of scar tissue. And so, of course for all of us Blazer fans, was Oden's injury last year before the season even began. But it's all the more because of that kind of sports tragedy, that it's so wonderfully satisfying to see Oden dunking in the Rose Garden with power, grace and ease.
When I think of #52 slamming home the basketball in a manner that at once recalls Shaquille O'Neal's muscle and Hakeem Olojuwan's grace, all in the context of a young team that was already 41-41 a year ago before adding Oden and Rudy Fernandez, it's a lot more cathartic and joyous than you could ever rightfully hope to feel about an exhibition game. It was nothing less than a revelatory moment, as if that first slam-dunk two minutes into the game was thrusting not only the ball but an era of Blazer basketball from one era to the next.