It’s been a summer to remember for the NBA. The top three players of the free agent class, including one who may one day be considered the best player in history, all signed with the same team, we watched a General Manager be released within an hour of the draft and still perform the draft for his team (and doing a pretty good job of it if I may say so myself), another superstar indicating he wants to be traded then un-indicating it a week later, all of this in the shadow of what looks to be an unavoidable 2011 lockout. And that is just what may be considered FrontPage news.
Many of the sports sites that report on the NBA are filled with blogs, posts and editorials about the great character flaws of Professional Basketball. Namely, the players are greedy, self-centered, and lack any sense of loyalty to the teams, cities and fans that made them who they are. Perhaps more then the sites themselves we hear fans and everyday people lamenting the ridiculous antics of the NBA players. Cleveland fans talk about Lebron James like an angry ex who can’t get over the fact that the love of their life left for a better looking, sexier option. Toronto fans seem to be falling closer and closer to and Eeyore-esk depression after the Chris Bosh fiasco. All while New Orleans fans can now never be sure if their lone Star (isn’t weird we now have to almost pity teams with “only” one star?) will go Nova right in their faces. Many people outside of the lines of fandom lambaste the NBA as a whole for being filled with ego driven punks out for their own, setting terrible examples and just generally being creeps.
A few weeks ago my girlfriends parents found out that I am an NBA fan and they seemed disappointed if not a little disgusted by this “admission”. They told me many of the things I explained above (and this was before the infamous Decision) and that they could never be Pro Basketball fans. Out of almost morbid curiosity they asked me who my favorite team was, unabashed I responded, The Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland fans or people otherwise familiar with the history of the Blazers could see, like my girlfriend’s father did, why this might be particularly embarrassing given the thoughts above. For those not familiar the Blazers went through a time where nearly every player on roster was a part of some kind of scandal. Ego driven stunts ( the player card used as an ID with a police officer) drugs (the yellow hummer), continuous run ins with the law (Stoudamire) and a litany of team chemistry issues (Randolf) and general head slapping moments (Shawn Kemp). These “Jail Blazers” were a public relations disaster, alienating even the notoriously devote Portland fans. Truth be told they just didn’t care, admittedly even, in 2002 Bonzi Wells told Sports Illustrated, “they [fans] really don't matter to us. They can boo us every day, but they're still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street."
Luckily Portland turned things around drafting players with high character like Martel Webster, Brandon Roy, and LaMarcus Aldridge. It was the fall of 2008 that I became a fan. Yes, I am a convert having been born and raised in Spokane Washington I was a de facto Super Sonics fan, if I could be called a basketball fan at all (I wasn’t). My conversion was due to 5 years living in Portland and sharing a home with a lifetime Blazer fan (here’s to you Keager). Even though I was not a fan through the turmoil I felt the need to defend my team, confessing like a parent of a misbehaving child, that what they did was wrong, but I love them. I wanted to prove them wrong about the league and by extension my team, but having no really hard evidence I had to let the point slide. The next week didn’t help much, what with “The Decision” and all, but I still had to believe some players get what makes us love this game, I was right, but it took a few more days to know it.
That weekend three friends and I headed down to Las Vegas not for the sights not to gamble, not to drink to great excess, no, we went to see our Blazers play some summer league. Our team consisted of Paul, a college friend of mine and a life long Blazermaniac, Jeff another convert like myself who I met at school, and my high school friend Brandon who has loved the Blazers since living in Portland as a child. We stayed near Cox pavilion so we could walk to the games and learned quickly to second-guess the wisdom of this choice.
I can only guess what the temperature was that weekend in the Sin city but it had to be somewhere between an oven and the surface of the sun. Luckily our first Blazer game was an evening one (win over the Timberwolves) and we were spared the worst of the heat for the walk home. The next day was slightly more painful however, after lunch we started our 2 mile trek down Tropicana Ave towards UNLV for our 3 pm tip off and it was hot.
A few cars honked at us on the way to the pavilion we figured it was likely an even split between fellow Portland supporters and people gawking at the stupid tourists who were on the verge of heat stroke. Either way, through sheer guile or the desire to see our boys play against the Chicago Bulls we made it more or less unharmed. It was a great game Luke Babbit had a coming out party as a go to scorer and for the second game in a row Dante Cunningham showed on court leadership and endeared himself to a crowed of Portland fans. After the Portland win they stood at 4-1, a team record for the Blazers we thought about sticking around to see Sacramento play, but decided to get the walk over with and headed out.
On the walk home Paul and I decided it was a great year to watch the team play, a record setting summer for them, we saw three guys who played in the NBA for the Blazers up close and to make it all better we got to cheer against two former Gonzaga Point Guards (I may be from Spokane but I am a Portland Pilot all the way). We all joked about how we wish Webster hadn’t been traded because then we stood a better chance of having someone pull over to offer us cold water (he was the one who helped a lady stuck in a freak snow storm after all). Over all, the mood was jolly for about the first quarter mile. Then our bottled water began to run low and heat up, the sun refused to set and the desert heat mixed with the asphalt’s absorption of it made it all but unbearable outside. Paul joked to us all that he would never again say “It can’t be the bad” to scenes in movies with people wandering the desert. Brandon and I laughed through dry mouths, Jeff just poured what was left of his water on his head, it seemed we all agreed. We were about half way back when another car honked at us, we were all likely going to ignore this one, as we were certain this one was not a Blazer fan, we were right about that as it turned out.
The car pulled up right beside us, I can only speak for myself but I’m pretty sure all of our hearts jumped a bit thinking someone was going to give us a ride. The window rolled down and a hand holding fabric we walked up to the window we didn’t focus on the face at first, we were just trying to figure out what was going on. A voice that seemed nearly disembodied told us “Hey guys I saw your Blazer gear and just wanted to let you know that we love that you guys come down here to see us and I wanted to say thank you, it means a lot.”
We all looked at each other seemingly all with the same thought, “Is that, I think it is….it’s Dante Cunningham.”
Jeff and I were in the best position to grab what it was that Dante was holding our for us, Jeff however was wiping either the disbelief or bottled water out of his eyes so I nabbed it first. After I grabbed it, Dante looked at us all and said, “That’s the one I wore through all the games thanks again guys.”
We mumble a conglomeration of different fan remarks, “Thanks so much,” “good to meet you,” “great game.” So forth. Dante shock all our hands, waved and said, “see you all in Portland,” And drove off
We were all in shock “Did that just happen?” was the common expression on our faces.
On the walk back we agreed on a few common things, 1. Dante was awesome 2. Far and away the best part of he trip just happened 3. Our friends were going to be sooo jealous 4. Seriously, Dante is awesome and he just earned four life long fans.
Brandon and I spoke later about what this meant to us as fans, he appreciated us, by no means did he have to stop but he wanted to tell the driver of the car to pull over to us so he could show his appreciation. I thought a lot about it later we may have gone above and beyond the call of duty as NBA fans, we did after all go on a pilgrimage that few fans do and cheered whole heartedly for our team. We walked in full Blazer gear to and from two games and were, once again in Vegas, just for them. But we loved every minute of it we got to watch our boys play, we had a great time and really little sacrifice was made by us. But I cannot help but be impressed by the action of one of our Blazer. By no means did Mr. Cunningham need to stop, or give his jersey to a group of guys in their mid twenties to say thanks. He did though, and he understood that by simply giving us his jersey he made our summers. He seemed to understand that because we love the game and this team he gets to play for a living. That small token of his appreciation meant the world to us. And he did it with no cameras or news crews around.
Dante Cunningham is a second year player not a big name in terms of the NBA but a good player and one that I know Blazer fans love to watch. He may not be well known and may never attracted major headlines, but he showed me something that was missing this summer, or at least most people were missing. There are players out there who love their fans, not just what they give them, but love them. He thanked us for coming out to see him, for making the long trip, walking through the heat paying the money, just to get joy from watching what he does, and I may be a fool but I felt like he really appreciated that.
Lebron and Bosh may have done all the bad things to their fans that people swear they did. Some players and some owners may not give a damn about anything but money and/or publicity. And indeed some may lose sight of the beauty of a game while perusing money, fame, or the honor of a championship, and I will never deny these things, but I suppose I just want to remind people of a few things before we get too carried away with the negative.
- Basketball may be a business to some but it’s a love affair for many of us, including some players.
- There will always be people who lose sight of what’s important or respectful and others who don’t. Please don’t let those who do lose sight speak for the others.
- Kind actions speak loader to individuals then hour long specials
- We are all taught to accept and derive joy out of where we are, a back up player like Dante has figured that out
- Las Vegas is Hot in July
- God showed us he loved us when he gave us the Blazers
- And even if he never becomes “NBA Famous” my grandkids will know the name Dante Cunningham because of a simple kind act and a story