When Jeff Pendergraph went down on Thursday night with a season-ending ACL injury, it was a story all too familiar for Blazers fans. Big man on the floor, writhing, suddenly confronted with a sharp career turn that is shaking his life upside down.
Already a marginal NBA player, Pendergraph now must grapple with an uncertain future here in Portland given that he's in the last guaranteed year of his contract and that he is set to make less than $1 million dollars this season. If Rich Cho decides he needs to increase his roster flexibility, releasing Pendergraph is the easiest, cheapest way to do it.
That would be a tough call, because Pendergraph has added value through the power of his hard-working, fun-loving personality. Pendergraph has embodied the "family" atmosphere that One Center Court management is so keen on cultivating. Endlessly available for interviews, Pendergraph has danced with the Rockettes and given out his X Box Live gamertag to fans, and he responds directly to messages on Twitter on a daily basis.
That accessibility made Thursday's injury even worse. Here, in a brash, hungry, happy young man, Portland fans had the latest example of one they lovingly call their own. And when the biggest single moment of his entire NBA took place on Thursday? When Pendergraph possibly -- hopefully not -- played his last minute in a Portland Trail Blazers uniform, it happened in front of an audience of zero. The game, like every preseason game last year and every preseason game so far this year, was not televised.
For decades, Portland fans have made essentially the same promise to their team's role players: If you play hard and keep your nose reasonably clean, you're good to go here. If you have a quirk -- say, an unusual last name, a propensity for dancing in pre-game huddles or own snakes as pets -- you'll see so much love you'll probably want to settle down here for the rest of your life.
But before the snakes and before the tweets, it's about the rebounding. It's about the occasional backboard slapping dunk. It's about the hard fouls. It's about watching those plays, watching that player in a Blazers uniform. That connection between fans and player isn't just about high moments. Portland has patented and perfected group catharsis when players go down. It's ritual. Prayers, words of encouragement, a respectful hush, followed by a roster re-analysis and an unwavering desire for every detail about the player's status, surgery date and rehabilitation timeline.
A huge part of that process is watching the injury over and over again, Zapruder-style. Where did the sequence go wrong? Exactly how bad is it? Of course, no one wants to watch injuries. But injuries happen, and when they happen to Blazers players, Portland fans would rather watch them than not watch them, knowing that the collective act provides comfort to themselves and also, by extension, to the player and organization.
Jeff Pendergraph might as well have torn his ACL in a black hole. That patented process described above couldn't even begin without a television broadcast and with no widely-available replay. The result on Thursday night was panic and fear and sadness and, in the end, disconnect.
One would hope the executives at Blazers Broadcasting and its partners are feeling a little shame this morning, knowing that it's their job to provide a meaningful, profitable connection between the team and its fanbase and that they failed miserably once again. This time it wasn't just an "ordinary" preseason game though; The stakes for Pendergraph were at an all-time high. It's no wonder he took so quickly to his Twitter account, posting Bible verses, responding to fan inquiries and breaking the injury news on his own. At a moment like that you want to be surrounded by people who care about you, not isolated and in pain somewhere in the middle of Utah, receiving distressed calls and messages from everyone wanting to know what happened because they hadn't been able to watch the play in question.
An organization that claims to have global marketing goals shouldn't be solely relying on a free social networking service to connect fans to players for an entire month of its schedule. Best practices from international soccer to the NFL are pretty simple: more televised games = more fans and more passionate fans. And for the players this seems like it should be a simple trade-off. If you dance with the Rockettes to help us reach more fans, we promise to display your highs and lows, all of them, back to those same fans. Instead, the player hand washed the corporate hand. And not vice versa.
The team's web department thoughtfully and quickly linked up up a page on Blazers.com for fans to leave well-wishing messages to Pendergraph, but it should have been accompanied by a clear apology: We apologize to Jeff for leaving his fans in the dark and we apologize to Jeff's fans because they were not able to watch him in this time of distress.
Now, Jeff Pendergraph rehabs, and tweets, and waits for the news that his roster spot has been re-assigned. Here's hoping for a full, speedy recovery that sees him, in an ideal world, ready for Blazers training camp next season. And here's hoping that 2011 is the year that Blazers Broadcasting and its partners finally figure it out so that Portland fans are able to cheer Pendergraph's preseason return to the court.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter