Waiting and Watching

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments of the Greg Oden thread just a couple of posts below.  Knickfan, who was lamenting people’s snap judgments of Oden in particular and of other things in general, seems to have struck a chord.  I know it has with me, as this is something I’ve been noticing and feeling for a long time now.  I’ve just not been able to put good words to it.  But since Knickfan kind of opened the door, I’d like to share something with you.

 

See, I remember 1978.  No, I’m not botching up the Blazers’ championship year.  That was 1977.  I was a little kid then and as many of you know that was the first year I started watching basketball.  I’ve never known basketball without the Blazers.  I didn’t even know what the game was before I saw Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas running up and down the court.  Everything came from that for me.  But that was 1977.  I remember 1978.

 

1978 was the year that the Blazers started 40-8 and then Walton hurt his foot and basically went down for the year.  I didn’t understand it.  I mean, I understood the foot thing…even as a kid I knew what happened when people were hurt.  But we had other centers, right?  And Lucas was still there and Gross and Twardzik and everybody else.  It wasn’t that bad.  We’d still win the championship.  It would be harder, but we’d still win it.  I didn’t know any basketball without championships either.

 

May 1, 1978.  That’s when my heart got ripped out…the basketball/sports version anyway.  Seattle Supersonics 105, Portland Trail Blazers 94.  4-2 series.  It wasn’t even that close.  The closing seconds of that game were cruel…watching a clock tick down to something bad happening, wondering what was going to come along and change it, suspecting that nothing would and being right about that.  I was a kid.  I didn’t have much perspective on basketball or life.  I couldn’t even cry.  I just sat there with my mouth open, staring at the T.V.  I walked around in a daze the rest of the day and in some kind of weird other-world for a couple days after.  I’ve since experienced things like death and divorce and other Really Bad Things in life and I can tell you now--as an adult who helps people deal with the feelings that come from that kind of thing--that the kid version of that weird off-kilter funk, while not as intense as a full-blown tragedy, was pretty much parallel.  It was my first blush with things not going as you expected with something your heart was invested in.  My first experience with the world turning upside-down so fast you couldn’t follow.

 

May 1, 1978.  By my calculations that was 30 years, 6 months, and 13 days ago.  That’s how long I’ve been waiting and watching. 

 

And May 1st, ’78 wasn’t the last heartache either.  People make cavalier comparisons between Oden and Bowie almost as if it were some kind of funny joke.  I lived through Bowie, as did a lot of you.  I lived through that ’84 draft.  After six years of trying to pretend like Kelvin Ransey and Kenny Carr could take us to the Promised Land if we could only get a center, I was way into it.  “The Blazers are going to get a high draft pick!” The town was abuzz…and this in a time before sports talk radio and the internet.  Let it be…just one coin flip.  Oh…Houston got it.  That’s OK, there are two centers in this draft.  Rumor has it that the Rockets may even go for Bowie.  They’re supposed to like him better.  You never know!  Oh…they didn’t.  That’s OK, he’ll still be good for us.  We didn’t need that much help.  Just a center.  The naïveté makes me a little sad and wistful even as I type this out.  Bowie breaking his leg and coming back and doing it again and again…seeing his fist pound down on the floor repeatedly on the evening newscast, as if he could drill the brokenness out of his bones in that expression of frustration and hopelessness and despair.  I think we all knew that the grand dreams of his career were over at that point, even though he went on to have a respectable one anyway.  It settled like a cloud over the heart.  It wasn’t going to happen for him or the Blazers, not at any time we could foresee anyway.  This wasn’t it.  More watching and waiting.

 

I cannot describe to you…words can’t even touch it…how it felt to see the Detroit Pistons celebrating on our floor in June of 1990.  That after the marvelous playoff run and Porter in the Phoenix series and the overtimes against San Antonio and the Hillsboro airport and the win in Game 2 despite Laimbeer’s shooting.  A friend and I had gone out to a bar right after Portland came back to town tied 1-1 in the series.  A few Detroit fans were there and they said they were going to sweep us three straight.  Against Clyde and Terry and Buck and Duck and Jerome?  They didn’t know squat about us.  The lady who said it to me was blonde and looked confident and well into her third drink.  I looked her straight in her eyes and told her she was drunk.  She said, “No I’m not.  Well, yes I am, but I’m not that drunk.  We’re…going to beat you…three straight...right here.”  My friend and I shook our heads, half in incredulity, half in pity.  Darned if that isn’t exactly what happened.  Echoes of ’78.

 

But this time we wouldn’t have to wait so long to make up for it, right?  1991-92.  Best Blazer season ever.  We started out the season winning 19 of our first 20.  I was at the Coliseum for many of those.  Perfect First Quarter.  Unstoppable starters, marvelous bench.  We never lose!  We finished the season 63-19.  Beat the Sonics in Round 1.  (Revenge!  It must be a sign!)  Flattened the Jazz in Round 2.  L*kers in the Conference Finals.  Could it get more perfect?  After years of getting destroyed by Magic and company it was their turn.  Lost Game 1 of the series at home.  Minor glitch, right?  RIGHT?  Game 6, hard-fought comeback, ball through Uncle Cliffy’s hands, Terry Porter’s game-winner caroms high off the rim, Magic rebounds, hurls ball down court.  This was worse than maybe all of what had come before.  This was mature pain, complete with knowledge of the implications.  If you can’t win it after 63-19, when can you?  Plus it was the L*kers.  Echoes of ’78 with Tabasco sauce and battery acid in the wounds.

 

We’d get to the Finals again in ’92.  We fought back from a pounding by the Bulls.  Remember Game 6 in Chicago, trying to force a Game 7, taking a substantial lead into the fourth quarter and coughing it up?  Pain.  Everybody knew it was over then.  The window was closing fast.  Clyde was traded in ’94-’95.  He had asked to be.  More pain.  An era was over.  More watching, more waiting.

 

I won’t even get into 2000 and the Game 7 Western Conference Finals loss, again against the L*kers.  Most everybody remembers that one.  It created a new generation of kids watching and waiting.  I’ll tell you the truth.  It hurt, but not as bad as the old times for me.  Maybe I was used to it.  Lament for a while.  Then watch more.  Then wait more.

 

I refuse to speak about the Jailblazer era and what that did to me and Blazer fandom in general.  I mention it only to say that if you can continue watching and waiting and believing through all of that you can do it through anything.

 

This last year…waiting a year for Greg to recover and get healthy after the celebration of the #1 overall pick and what that meant.  That was hard too.

 

30 years, 6 months, and 13 days.  That’s how long I’ve been waiting and watching, hoping and believing.  There’s a little kid still in me somewhere who hasn’t gotten over that daze…who would like the chance to cry again like he should have the first time, except this time to make them tears of joy over a victory…something gone right in a world where (as he now knows) things don’t always go that way.

 

Then I read stuff about people being impatient with Oden now even though I’m pretty sure he’s going to be really good later.  (You do learn a few things watching and waiting.)  I read people who are ready on the basis of a couple losses to throw away their hopes for the season and the team and the coach.  I read people who on the basis of a couple wins are ready to declare a deep playoff, or even championship run.  (That one is hard.  Part of me is going, “That’s nice…yeah.  Enthusiasm!  It’s cool.  It’s cool.”  Another part of me is going, “No we’re not!  My God, do you even know what that means?  After 30 years plus...coming close with great, proven teams and not being able to quite make it...you’re going to declare this now, because of that?  It was that easy all along and we just didn’t get it?  Silly us.  Silly Clyde and Terry and Rasheed and Scottie.)  I read all of this stuff and while I staunchly defend and encourage people’s desire to express themselves truthfully and say what they see and feel, I also find myself thinking:

 

“30 years and counting and you can’t wait two months to let Oden stretch his legs and get his bearings before you declare him a bust?”  Or…

 

“30 years and counting and you can’t wait one season to actually see Rudy play before you insist he’s the Ultimate Answer right now?”  Or…

 

“30 years and counting and you can’t be patient enough with the coaching staff to let [insert the name of your favorite young, budding player here] develop for a season or two before they throw him out there, let alone make him the starter?”  Or…

 

“30 years and counting and you can’t lose ONE GAME without calling for Nate’s head because he obviously did this or that wrong?”

 

I mean, I’m down with the conversation and all and this isn’t all of what I think--it may even be an exaggeration of what I think in order to make the point--but it’s kinda still there.

 

In general, I hate the snap judgments.  I hate the rush to predict things.  I hate the sports culture that can't think of anything to say unless it is predicting things.  I dislike the over-hyping and the following angst-ridden crashes.  I dislike the overdrawn, over-simplified, nuance-free generalizations that sprout like weeds over the conversational landscape because accuracy and fairness and truth don't fit as neatly between commercials or quote as easily around the water cooler.  I dislike these things because if they were true there would have been no need and no point to watching and waiting 30-plus years.  We could have known everything on Day 2 and just come back 30-x years later when the Blazers were ready to win it all again.  There would have been nothing to learn about basketball or heartache or life through any of this.  Lacking patience and thought and complexity and thoroughness we miss out on so much of what makes this all worthwhile.  We miss out on much of the beauty of the game and its players as well.  It’s hard to get through 30-plus years like that.  Heck, it’s hard to get through two weeks like that.

 

I don’t find the game lacking in drama or emotion or excitement so that I need a roller coaster to add to it.  There are ups and downs aplenty without intensifying them by rushing to judgment now and suffering the consequences thereof later.  I believe enough in the integrity and importance of this season and these players to be able to watch and grow through the year without demanding the payoff of next season and tomorrow’s players right now in order to satiate me.  I don't find it necessary to try to make players what they're not, nor do I think it insulting to be honest about what they are.  I'm not enthralled with the idea that I said something first, nor do I find it enriching to summarize the whole of my fandom and enjoyment of the game in the sentence, "I got it right!"  Bragging and shame mean little.  No self-satisfaction can substitute for the feeling that your team is taking steps forward on a journey towards greatness and that you get a chance to walk alongside.  That’s all we wanted in the first place, right?  A little reminder that greatness and joy do exist and that every once in a while we get a chance to see and touch them and be touched in return.  That’s worth watching and waiting for.

 

Maybe I’m odd thinking this way.  But then you have to be a little odd to do this for three decades and counting.

 

Still counting.

 

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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