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.
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.
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.
Courtesy of NBA-TV via YouTube, recently I discovered what I am hereby designating as the coolest two minutes and 12 seconds of basketball footage I'm ever likely to behold: the 10 greatest dunks by Clyde Drexler, the Hall of Fame guard for the Portland Trail Blazers.
While writing this, I just turned away from the computer a moment to glance at the autograph picture I have of Clyde on the wall here at the office of BJL Enterprises. In this shot, he's doing more of a finger-roll. But he could slam the ball as well as about anyone, even the two principal dunk-rivals of his generation: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Michael's free throw dunk? Check. Dominique's windmill slam? Present and accounted for.
And without further ado, I give you these gems from #22...
#10: Against the dreaded Lakers, after a James Worthy miss, Glyde catches an alley-oop one-handed and slams it at Memorial Coliseum.
#9: This time he dunks on the Pistons’ Bill Laimbeer, possibly in the 1990 NBA Finals. "He just exploded down the right base line,” says commentator Dick Vitale. (Vitale's done NBA?) This is a nice consolation prize for losing the series. Wish he could have dunked on Isaiah too.
#8: Clyde dunks on 7-foot-7-inch Manute Bol of the Warriors, the tallest player in NBA history. “Clyde’s not going to enter the Slam Dunk Contest this year,” the commentator says, “but the way to win that thing would probably be to bring Manute Bol and dunk over him, because that is incredibly impressive.”
#7: On a breakaway against San Antonio with no one within 10 feet, Clyde does an exquisite windmill dunk. Commentator: “He’s got 27. What a show by The Glyde!”
#6: Against the Lakers, Drexler drives right down the middle of the lane, squeaking between Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Nice.
#5: After intercepting a pass on the other end of the court against Houston, Clyde drives the length of the hardwood and weaves between three defenders, finishing off by dunking on former #1 draft pick Ralph Sampson. “There’s only two or three athletes in the NBA who can make that play,” the announcer says, “and Clyde Drexler is one of them.” Mmm-hmm.
#4: While playing for the Rockets (something I usually try to block from my mind), a now severely balding Drexler, once of the sweet Afro, takes a last-second fast break pass on the right wing and stuffs over the hometown Spurs. I do appreciate that there's a 9-to-1 ratio of Blazer/Rocket dunks in this list. Thank you, NBA-TV.
#3: Also against the Spurs but thankfully black in a Blazer uniform, in the blink of an eye, Drexler takes a pass from Jerome Kersey at the top of the key and delivers a thundering slam over The Admiral. “In your face David Robinson!” the announcer says.
#2: This one is particularly satisfying because of the context. In the 1992 NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s mighty Chicago Bulls, Drexler dunks so hard over Bill Cartwright that the ball bounces off the aging center’s head. Marv Albert of NBC describes it with his signature phrase for such occasions: “Serving up a facial!”
#1: I get chills watching this one from the sheer physical artistry. It also doesn’t hurt that Clyde’s ducking in The Forum against the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers, and in the red away uniforms that I prefer. But really this one is all about the fact that Drexler takes off from the corner of the free-throw line and sails to the basket, his feet tucked under as if it’s part of some Olympic high dive. This judge gives it a 10.
On those rare but special, sublime occasions when a sports team I love has something extraordinary happen, one of my favorite moments comes awhile later. It's after I've forgotten about the good fortune for awhile and then experience feelings of surprise and happiness all over again - the euphoric next day leftovers, you might say.
For example, I was standing in my kitchen this morning, making my first cup of coffee, when it suddenly hit me: "Oh yeah, we've got the #1 pick in the draft!" We, of course, meaning the Portland Trail Blazers.
It's been several days now since the Blazers won the NBA draft lottery, and I still find it something to savor. We haven't had a chance to potentially blow it yet, like we supposedly did in 1984 by not drafting Michael Jordan, so one is free to feel nothing but optimism. Besides, there are extra reasons to feel good. In some down years, having the #1 pick means getting the rights to pick Michael Olowakandi or Andrew Bogut - mediocre players who never have come remotely close to greatness. However, there have also been a lot of great players drafted first, like Tim Duncan, Shaq, and Lebron James. Portland has the good fortune of there being two players viewed as can't-miss prospects in Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Whomever of the two isn't picked first in this year's draft probably would have been the #1 pick in numerous drafts past.
Blazer fans (myself included) are also very high on new general manager Kevin Pritchard. A combination of relentless research-oriented study and unteachable chutzpah, Pritchard got his start in the San Antonio front office and engineered the six-trade draft day in 2006 that brought Brandon Roy and LeMarcus Aldridge to Portland. Even before we got the #1 pick, one felt like he had the team headed for future prosperity, more so than at any time since the team got Scottie Pippen a decade ago - ironically, Jordan's sidekick, courtesy of a trade with Houston. (Someday people will more fully recognize the Scottie Pippen-led Blazers as the franchise's third-best era after the ones Walton and Drexler led in the late 70s and early 90s.)
With Oden and Durant in a two-man race to become the pick (no one else is close), dissected continuously in sports media, I find it ironic that conventional wisdom seems built on the same logic that saw the Blazers take Sam Bowie 23 years ago.
Back in 1984 when Portland picked second in the draft, the team already had a future Hall-of-Fame guard in Clyde Drexler, and the consensus among fans and media was that the Blazers needed a center. Bowie was All-American at that position for Kansas. (Remember him on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline "Sam Bam!"?) So we ignored the flashy scorer in Jordan and took Bowie. Who fucking knew? As I've said so many times before, the real tragedy came when Portland lost the coin flip for the #1 pick with Houston, who promptly took the Blazers first choice: Hakeem Olajuwan (then "Akeem"). If only the Rockets, who already had center Ralph Sampson, the #1 pick from the year before, would have taken Jordan. Then the Blazers could have taken Olajuwan and, chances are, the Portland version of Phi Slamma Jamma would have had some of MJ's rings.
And yet, even with Durant averaging 25 points per game as a freshman at Texas and Oden averaging 16, and the hindsight of history indicating a truly great scorer is invaluable, my gut still says to go with Oden. He was shooting mostly with his left hand all season following surgery (he's right-handed), and he still led his team as a freshman to the NCAA title game. Walton, by the way, thinks we should take Oden. Plus, this is one bad-ass 19 year old. Look at him - he looks like's 40!
After watching both players, reading about them and hearing comparisons to past/present players, I like to think of this as a choice between Patrick Ewing and Kevin Garnett. I might take Ewing by just a nose, but if they both reach that kind of potential, aren't we looking good either way?
I wish it were that easy.
The Bowie albatross notwithstanding, the Blazers have had the #1 pick three times before, with a spectrum of bad, great and middling results. LaRue Martin in 1972: bad pick. Bill Walton in 1974: great pick, even if the glory and the feet were fleeting. Mychal Thompson in 1979: middling pick. Although he was a solid pro and team leader for the Blazers for several years, he played in maybe one or two all-star games. Magic Johnson, by comparison, was the next year's top pick. Thompson would later wind down his career as part of Magic's supporting cast on one of the team's (yawn) last of their five championship runs in the 80s.
For now at least, though, I'd like to imagine that Walton is more the connecting thread to Oden. And besides, why spoil the fun of imagining a limitless future? I'm no expert on these things, but I think "Oden and Roy" has a nice sound to it, not unlike "Magic and Kareem" or "Shaq and Kobe". Only without the foul stench of Lakerdom. They've had a succession of great teams and enough rings to open a jewelry store. Could it maybe, possibly, eventually, mercifully, rapturously, sorta kinda, pretty please, just one teensy weensy time day be our turn to be champions again?
A couple weeks ago the Portland Trail Blazers held a celebration downtown at Shrunk Plaza across from City Hall to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the team's 1977 NBA championship. The actual 30th anniversary is June 5, 1977, but the ceremony was held on the occasion of the jersey-retiring ceremony for the point guard on that team, Lionel Hollins, and held at halftime of the of current Blazers' last game.
Pioneer Courthouse Square would have been a much more visible and practical choice for the event, but Shrunk Plaza was where the original championship parade concluded. For history's sake, it was the right call. But Shrunk Plaza has only a small brick-paved area and the rest is mostly a grassy gently-sloping hillside occupying one city block. This was an early spring day, and not only was it showering, but the ground was very soft and muddy from lots of rain that already had fallen. The ceremony was held at noon, and there were hundreds of us - including lots of business people on their lunch hours - getting our feet and pant legs submerged in mud. One poor guy fell down on his butt and slid about 15 feet down the wet slope. He got totally covered in mud. But you know what? He still stayed until the end of the ceremony. There was also a woman who seemed to be in her early 40s who was trying to control her toddler, who also managed to get covered in mud. "I know this doesn't mean much to you at your age," the woman said to obvlivious little girl, "but it does to Mommy."
The team members from '77 who attended the event came by bus with a police escort down Broadway to the plaza, in a recreation of that day, in which hundreds of thousands of people mobbed the victorious team as it made its way down Broadway. They were a little late in arriving, however, so keeping the crowd warmed up fell on two disparate parties: emcee Bill Schonely, the much beloved longtime Blazers radio announcer (his call of the winning championship moment is a Pavlovian tear-inducer for Blazer fans like myself) and the Blazer dance team. It was pretty embarrassing to behold, seeing these cheerleaders rocking out to Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls" while the septuagenarian Schonely encourages them (I hope I detected a tongue-in-cheeck look in his eye) by saying, "Do it, girls!" I laughed to myself thinking how hard the Blazers' PR department is trying to generate a family-friendly image after the "Jail Blazers" era, and yet the cheerleaders are dancing to a song that had its music video set in a strip club.
It was really endearing, though, when the team arrived and got introduced by Schonely one by one. I remember noticing this sort of blue-collar guy in front of me video taping the whole thing with his friend. He recognized all the players (all 30 years older now) at once. "Oh my god," he said, "they even got Corky Calhoun!"
This was a case of two polar-opposite emotions coming through simultaneously, though. Seeing all these now pretty every day looking guys in their fifties and sixties hailed as conquering heroes was a sincerely beautiful scene. In one particularly heart-tugging case, current Blazer players Joel Pryzbilla and Ime Udoka helped carry Robin Jones in his wheelchair down the terraced steps onto the stage.
All the while, though, Schonely's microphone kept going in and out. Even thinking about it now, my eyes squeeze shut and my nose shrivels in full-on cringe. He carried on, either not realizing the mic was failing (my bet) or choosing to ignore it. Thankfully, his microphone seemed to kick in for good just as the championship trophy was brought to the stage by two season-ticket holders whose subscription dates back to before the championship some 35 years.
There was a problem bigger than the mud or the faulty public address system, though: the missing presence of Bill Walton. "The big redhead's not here," Shonely announced. Apparently Walton couldn't get out of an existing assignment doing commentary for an NBA telecast on ESPN. I felt pretty angry Walton wasn't there. Although this was a real team in the most basic sense, with a disciplined offense that shared the ball and a very strong defense, Walton was clearly its superstar. He's a powerful enough figure now (a kind of star broadcaster, love or hate his boisterous style) that I believe he could have gotten permission from his teacher to skip class for a day. But the Blazers also seemed not to have planned things very well - it was all a bit hasty - so I wonder if the real fault lies in asking Walton too late. Schonely did say that Walton asked him to remind the crowd that he poured a can of beer over the mayor's head during the championship celebration. What if someone did that to Tom Potter now? They'd probably be looking at hard time.
At the same time, though, I was shocked by how little Walton was mentioned in the ceremony other than Schonely's announcement. I mean, you don't have to be a Blazer fan to acknowledge that however short his career may have been, Bill Walton was one of the handful of greatest centers to ever play the game, along with Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwan, Robinson and O'Neal.
With Walton gone, though, the crowd could have more fun with the role players from the championship team, so many of whom seemed to rise above their individual potential. Larry Steele led the NBA in (appropriately) steals that year, for example. Steele, by the way, was the best dressed at the ceremony, wearing a nicely cut suit. Bobby Gross, as Schonely noted, "had Dr. J running all over the place" in the championship series. And then of course there's Maurice Lucas, the power forward who not only was the team's high scorer, but also was a hugely intimidating presence - an ideal combination with the ultra talented but highly injury-susceptible Walton. In one famous moment during the '77 playoffs, he actually grabbed a referee's whistle while still around the guy's neck and said, "I wouldn't blow that again if I were you." Of course today "The Enforcer", now an assistant coach with the current team, is quite the teddy bear.
Luckily given Walton's presence, coach Jack Ramsay (also an ESPN commentator) was at the ceremony. When he was introduced, the burly video-camera-toting guy in front of me said to his friend, "I love this dude!" And Ramsay was all about simple sincerity in his brief comments.
A continuing theme of the ceremony was the connection between the '77 team and the current one, which certainly seems to be headed in the right direction with Brandon Roy and company. But you just never know. The Blazers have been tantalizingly close to winning the championships on at least four other occasions, 1990-92 and 2000, but always wound up without the ring. I don't want to let myself get heartbroken again.
One bit of bitter personal irony is that, as much as I cherish the 1977 championship, I really was too young to appreciate or remember when it happened. I was five years old. I remember a blur of Blazer mania, but I can't visualize where I was or what it felt like when the moment was won. That has always eaten away at me, of course. But as we filtered out of Shrunk plaza, to the predictable canned blare of Queen's "We Are the Champions", I felt emboldened as part of a family of people who deeply cherish that day in June thirty years ago.
As I see what I've written, it feels embarassingly earnest, but that's precisely why the couple of sports teams I follow mean so much to me. They're an escape from all the complexities and ambiguities of life. There's nothing left to wonder about the 1977 Trail Blazers championship. They won it. They were absolutely positively the validated best basketball team in the world as of June 5, 1977. Nobody can take that away.
It's enough to make me get choked up standing the rain and mud through a bush-league ceremony broadcast with faulty speakers.
I was so sad to hear the Trail Blazers traded Sebastian Telfair last month. He was my favorite player on the team for the two years he was here. So let me get this straight: the Blazers haven't traded Darius Miles but the were willing to part with a prodigal point guard whom people have already made a movie and written a book about at 19?
Although undersized and at this early stage in his career soft on defense, Telfair has an amazing ability to pass and score. He’s also got some Magic Johnson-esque razzle-dazzle. I was really looking forward to thousands of no-look passes over his Blazer career, not to mention a few hundred behind-the-back ones. Then there’s his real specialty, throwing alley-oop plays.
He also came to the Blazers already a star at 18. The likes of Jay-Z were attending Telfair’s high school games in New York just to see the kid. I once saw him at the Adidas Originals store, and he had this amazing outfit on, a kind of Kanye West preppy look. Yet he was also a hard worker in practice, and a nice guy. I interviewed him last year for a magazine article, and came away impressed with ‘Bassy’. I just really cringe thinking of him becoming a star in Boston, although I still wish him success.
Meanwhile, the most experienced point guard left on the Blazers is Jarrett Jack, whose rookie season was last year. One thing I do have to concede is great about the trade: we used the pick from Boston to pick Brandon Roy, who also seems poised to be a star.
But considering that Roy was taken with the 7th pick and LeMarcus Aldridge the 2nd, we could conceivably have gotten Roy without giving up Telfair. I’d rather have Telfair than LeMarcus Aldridge. Chances are Aldridge will be a good player too, but Portland now has a stockpile of power forwards/centers: Zach Randolph, Joe Pryzbilla, Raef LaFrentz, Jamaal Magliore.
With the league’s worst record last year, one can’t blame Portland for being active. They made six trades on draft day (including Telfair for the #7 Roy pick) and another since. It just always hurts when someone you held out a lot of hope for is suddenly gone. And when your team is a losing one, hope for the future is what you cling to.
But luckily my favorite sport, college football, is looming a lot more closely on the horizon than basketball.
By the time Rasheed Wallace was traded to Atlanta midway through last season, he had more than worn out his welcome here. Wallace’s off-court behavior was often an embarrassment, from threatening a referee on the Rose Garden loading dock to being cited for marijuana possession.
And on-court he was often worse. Wallace twice set a league-record for technical fouls in a season. He infamously threw a towel at one of his teammates, Arvydas Sabonis. And despite being arguably as talented as any power forward in the NBA, countless times Wallace refused to lead his team at the ends of games by acting as the go-to scorer.
But watching Rasheed Wallace go to the NBA finals for a second straight year as a member of the Detroit Pistons, one has to admit that for all his downsides, he remains a very special player.
Wallace is a top-notch defender, and I would not be surprised one bit if he shuts down the Spurs’ Tim Duncan for large stretches of the Finals (he's done it before). He also has exceptional shooting range for a 6’10” player. Wallace routinely hits 3-point shots and his turn-around jumper from the baseline can be impossible to stop. And while Blazer fans know all too well that Wallace’s temper has gotten him into a lot of trouble over the years, it also means that he plays with a matchless competitive fire.
I’ve been fascinated by Wallace, both the player and the man, ever since he emerged as a star in college at North Carolina, where as a sophomore he and teammate Jerry Stackhouse led the Tar Heels to the 1994 Final Four. I was ecstatic when the Blazers traded for him from Washington. And while I was just as frustrated by his behavior as a lot of other Portlanders while Wallace wore red, white and black, seeing him succeed elsewhere is bittersweet. Beyond the on and off-court issues, Rasheed is also such a theatrical personality. In a movie he'd be described as "the good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules".
The scars of Wallace's years in Portland still need many more years to heal, but I hope there will come a day in the future when his time as a Blazer is remembered for the good as much as the bad. Wallace was the star of a Portland team that made it to the Western Conference Finals two years in a row, and he routinely stood toe to toe with the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnet, and any of the league’s best power forwards.
I don’t blame the Trail Blazers one bit for trading him last year. It was inevitable and desperately needed for both sides. But in the long run I think Wallace should rank with Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Clyde Drexler, Geoff Petrie, Jerome Kersey, and Terry Porter as one of the best to ever wear a Blazer uniform.
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.
At noon today the NBA’s trading deadline passed. With a record of 21-31, a handful of players due to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the year, and others with bad character reputations, the Trail Blazers were expected to be one of the teams most likely to cut a deal. But when the clock struck noon this afternoon, no deal was done. And I couldn’t be happier.
It’s not to say Portland doesn’t need change. Deservedly or not, coach Maurice Cheeks probably will be gone after the season ends. The team has two legitimate starting power forwards, Zach Randolph and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the latter of whom is sure to sign with another team as a free agent this summer and could have brought an outside shooter—something the Blazers desperately need. Starting shooting guard Derrick Anderson has been streaky and mostly ineffective. Although he’s been the most consistent player on the team this year, point guard Damon Stoudamire is clearly expendable, not to mention being another free agent at season’s end. And despite signing a contract extension last summer, an outburst against Coach Cheeks has confirmed may people’s fears that even with enormous talent, small forward Darius Miles doesn’t have the character to be a valuable player in this league.
Still, I’m glad Portland didn’t make a deal, because what was available to them right now was just a mirage of help. The main deal Portland reportedly considered would have sent Abdur-Rahim, Travis Outlaw and another player (possibly Ruben Patterson) to the Milwaukee Bucks for Michael Redd and Keith Van Horne. Redd is a free agent at the end of the season as well, and Van Horne has a big, long contract that doesn’t match his value as a player. And I'd hate to see us give up Outlaw, whose career is in its infancy (we did that with Jermaine O'Neal and it bit us in the ass) or Patterson, the scrappy defensive specialist whose insertion into the game always provides a much-needed burst of energy.
General manager John Nash probably felt a lot of pressure to pull the trigger on a deal. Many fans surely felt we didn’t have anything to lose considering that this season is a sinking ship. But I’d like to think the Blazers’ having stood pat as the trading deadline passed is an indication that Nash is willing to take the long view and eschew stopgap trades that happen for little more reason than the sake of doing something. It’s better to steadily, consistently build the right team the right way, even if it takes years.
I also think there’s a larger lesson here. When things aren’t going the way one wants, it’s natural to flail about in search of a fix. To a large degree that’s a good inclination, but there’s also genuine prudence in just waiting and watching until the right opportunities come along. Being in business for myself, I’ve faced that with the inevitability of ebbs and flows in the amount of work I’m getting: Sometimes it’s too much and sometimes it’s not enough. And while I do believe that the modicum of success I’ve had has been due to a certain amount of tenaciousness, I also see that there is virtue in patience. In basketball the cliché is “letting the game come to you”, but clichés become oft-repeated clichés because there’s some elemental truth in them.
In TV and print media coverage of sports, broadcasters and writers love to talk up every potential for professional sports dynasties, be it those of the 49ers in football during the 80s, Yankees in late 90s baseball, or in a current case, the Lakers in basketball. The assumption is that this is something extra special to behold as a pinnacle of excellence. But as a fan, I get so sick of it.
I like competition, especially when it breeds situations where a number of teams not only can, but do win titles--even those from small markets. And while outright parity can be a bore if no truly great teams are able to come together, it is at least a relief sometimes to not have a case of one rich, big-market team or another continually grabbing the ring year after year.
Granted, my hatred of the Los Angeles Lakers is born from jealousy and resentment. The PortlandTrail Blazers (my team) have suffered a lot of very bitter defeats at their hands. So I'm not exactly objective about this. Nevertheless, I believe Laker titles in this era have long since begun inevitable. (Yes, even though the Spurs won last year.)
First, the Lakers wooed Shaquille O'Neal from Orlando as a free agent, made easier with LA's financial and cultural appeal. But what really brings out the conspiracy theorist in me, is the story of how Kobe Bryant came to Los Angeles.
An article in today's Oregonian by John Canzano recalls the 1996 NBA draft, in which current Blazers general manager John Nash was then the Nets' GM. Nash is from Philadelphia and had heard all about how a 16-year-old kid there was holding his own against Jerry Stackhouse in pickup games. Nash wanted to take Bryant with the 8th pick. But the Lakers also wanted to take Bryant. Allegedly adidas wanted him to be in Los Angeles as well, so as to make their signee a bigger star. Then Bryant's agent began to insist that Kobe would refuse to play anywhere but LA. So Nash was pressured by the Nets into not taking Bryant, which allowed Charlotte to take him at 13 with the intention of trading him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Kobe now says he would have played anywhere.
If Nash's version of that story is true, it goes to show that a mild sort of conspiracy theory is actually true. There is no small handful of people pulling the strings in the sports entertainment industry, but in some subtle and not so subtle ways, the system is conducive to teams like the Lakers winning championships. (I'm deliberately setting aside the issue of Kobe's sexual assault trial -- a discussion for another time.)
Now, traditionally I've been a New York Yankees fan, which seems very inconsistent. And it is. But I became a Yankee fan as a child years before I understood their unfair advantage. Does that make me exempt? No, but this was never about questioning whether people had a right to root for those teams for other reasons, such as living in the teams' home cities or an affinity for a particular player. Besides, in a pure basketball sense I love Kobe Bryant's game more than that of any other player. It's just seldom that I can look past the uniform.
Anyway, this is all written an hour after the Lakers came from behind to win Game 2 of this year's Finals. Detroit had a six-point lead with a minute left and choked, letting LA force overtime and eventually losing the game to them. So often it seems the Lakers have been on the ropes over the years, to Portland or Sacramento or San Antonio, and come back to win. And win. And win. And win. Ah, I long for the brief days of Nick Van Excel and Eddie Jones leading LA to a first or second-round playoff exit. A brief respite between Magic and Shaq.