Contest Entry: The Welcome End of an Era

I wrote this over the last couple of days. I've been really enjoying reading everybody's essays so far and I hope you guys enjoy mine.



In my mind, the most pivotal move the Blazers have ever made was not a question of adding a key player. This trade was more about making a statement, about closing the door on the worst period of the team’s entire existence, and one of the most regrettable stretches experienced by any team in the history of professional basketball.

On June 28, 2007, the Portland Trail Blazers traded star power forward Zach Randolph to the New York Knicks for Steve Francis and Channing Frye. All of the usual factors one considers when deciding whether a trade is “good” are not relevant to this deal. The trade wasn’t important because of the players the Blazers brought in. On the contrary, Francis’s contract was bought out right away, and while Frye was solid off the bench in 2007-08, he was essentially a non-factor the following year and left in free agency to sign with the Phoenix Suns this offseason. The reason that this trade is so important in the Blazers’ history is simple:  getting rid of Randolph marked the official end of the so-called “Jail Blazers” era.

Outsiders do not understand how desperately a move with this finality needed to be made, but Portland fans know very well the pain and suffering of those six years or more (there is no clear starting point for this era; for me, the writing was on the wall in 2000, when the Blazers traded fan favorite Brian Grant for washed-up coke addict Shawn Kemp). The Jail Blazer era was unique for one reason: the media punchlines and general fan disillusionment had almost nothing to do with the Blazers’ record on the basketball court. Up until 2003, well into the Jail Blazer years, this was still a team that made the playoffs every year. Of course, starting in the 2003-04 season, they didn’t even have that going for them.

But by that time, at least to me, winning games wasn’t even the main point of frustration. Every team has years where they aren’t good, and the fans learn to suffer through them. Anybody who watches sports knows that’s just part of the deal. My problem was that I just wanted a team of guys I could respect. As a kid growing up in Portland in the mid-to-late ‘90s, I fell in love with the Blazers teams that featured Arvydas Sabonis, Brian Grant, and Steve Smith. Hell, you can even throw Damon and Rasheed in there, because as much as they are now associated with the Jail Blazer era, they still were key players when the Blazers were one of the elite teams in the West in the late ‘90s, and I still have a soft spot for both of them. But these new guys? They were a bunch of thugs, and not very smart or likable ones at that. There was Qyntel Woods, who was arrested for running a dogfighting ring long before Michael Vick and once showed a cop his basketball trading card as ID when pulled over for driving high; registered sex offender Ruben Patterson; Bonzi Wells, who told Sports Illustrated in 2002 that the fans don’t matter to the team; and Randolph, a locker-room cancer who had been busted for drug possession and broke Patterson’s retina with a sucker punch during a team practice.

Eventually, it seemed like every other week the Trail Blazers were making negative headlines for things that had nothing to do with their performance on the court. If they had sucked but also been a hard-working group of guys that you could feel comfortable rooting for, then the lack of winning could have been easily forgiven. But they were just an embarrassment to the entire city of Portland by that point. Every time I went to a game during those years, the arena was half full, and two thirds of the people who did show up would leave at the start of the fourth quarter because it was too painful to watch. In 2005, my parents went to a Paul McCartney concert at the Rose Garden, and they told me that somewhere in his stage banter, Sir Paul made reference to Portland being “home of the Trail Blazers,” and many people in the arena started booing. You know there’s something wrong when a former Beatle giving a shout-out to the local team is taken as an insult.

Of course, in the next couple of years, after some front-office personnel shifts, things started turning around. The worst offenders were mostly phased out and replaced by young, talented “character” guys like Martell Webster. A major turning point came in the 2006 NBA draft, when GM Kevin Pritchard somehow scored Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge without drafting either of them. Given that Roy has a very real chance of becoming the best player in this franchise’s history, that trade could easily have been the subject of this essay.

But it isn’t, because that was merely the beginning of the end for the Jail Blazers, not the actual end. Even with Roy’s Rookie of the Year performance and Aldridge’s emergence as one of the most promising young power forwards in the league, the Blazers only won 32 games in 2006-07, and at that point Zach Randolph was still considered the most important player on the team. For a team trying to change its image after years of being the biggest joke in the NBA, that was not a workable situation. Randolph was and still is a talented player, but he needed to go if this team was to move forward with its young, likable core. With Bonzi Wells and Ruben Patterson long gone, and chronic underachiever Darius Miles sidelined with what we thought at the time was a career-ending knee injury, the culture of the team was changing, and there was just no place for a guy like Zach Randolph. He was the last high-profile link to a time in this team’s history that any fan would love to wipe from memory. As long as he was on the team, the “Jail Blazers” jokes could still be made.

And so he was dealt, in a draft-day trade to the Knicks. In the buildup to the 2007 NBA draft, the biggest story in Portland was, of course, the debate over whether the Blazers would take Greg Oden or Kevin Durant with the No. 1 overall pick. The general public consensus favored Oden, whom the Blazers ended up picking. But the far more telling event of that day was the Randolph trade. I still remember when the news broke. “This is it,” I said to myself, “now we can finally close the book on the Jail Blazers forever.”

One of my best friends is a die-hard Knicks fan. Shortly after the draft, we were talking about basketball, and he was thrilled that the Knicks had gotten Randolph. “Yeah,” I said, “have fun with that. He’s your problem now.”

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “He averaged 23 and 10 this year.” I told my friend to talk to me in a year and see if he was still psyched about having Zach. Sure enough, the Blazers, who went 32-50 in 2006-07, finished at .500 for the first time since 2004 the following season, their first year without Randolph. The Knicks, meanwhile, had gone 33-49 in 2006-07, and dropped by 10 games to 23-59 after acquiring Z-Bo. Less than a month into the 2008-09 season, the Knicks traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers and finished the year with a record of 32-50, an improvement of nine games over the full season Randolph spent with them. Zach wasn’t long for LA, either, as was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies this offseason. He has two years and $33 million left on the contract we gave him in 2005.

All the while, the Blazers have continued to improve without Randolph. They followed that .500 finish by winning 54 games in 2009 and earning the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, clinching their first playoff berth in six years. Now, with the strong young core of Roy and Aldridge (who would not have been able to fully realize his talents if he were still competing with Randolph for minutes at the 4), along with the continued improvement of rookies Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Fernandez (who, coincidentally, the Blazers acquired from Phoenix using the trade exception they got from New York in the Randolph trade), the Blazers stand to be a playoff contender for years to come. And the best part is that now I get my wish from the Jail Blazer era. Not only are the new Blazers winning games, but I can look at every single guy on the roster and say, “I don’t have to feel guilty about rooting for this guy.” Simply put, I’ve never had more fun watching the Blazers or being a fan. And none of this would be possible had we not traded Zach Randolph.

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