We come together today to honor an era most unusual, now forever etched in the annals of Portland Trail Blazers history. Few get the privilege of defining an era in its contemporary setting. Seismic movements and their characteristics are easier identified through the lens of time. One can only appreciate a mountain from a distance. Standing on it, the eye sees but common ground. Not so with the Blazers' recently-departed Resurrection Era. We can precisely identify its opening and closing moments. We knew enough to mark our trail carefully as we traveled it. We've lived and debated and chronicled each instant as it passed. For better or worse, we have been treated to something we're unlikely to see again in our lifetimes: history unfolding before our eyes in a way that was clear to all as it was happening.
No Blazer fan will forget Draft Day, 2006. The Trail Blazers were just emerging from the darkest period in their history. The Jailblazers era had decimated both fan support and win totals. The vast majority of villainous names from the past--Wallace, Patterson, Wells among the more famous--had departed. With them they took their talent and most of Portland's victories. For the third time in three years the Blazers attempted to make good use of a lottery pick...this time the fourth overall. Their record had merited higher but ping pong balls had robbed them of the draft's summit. Still, fourth was nothing to sneeze at. Before the Blazers even selected Tyrus Thomas with that pick rumors were flying that he was on the move. These proved true as the Blazers staged their first coup of the evening, pilfering second overall pick LaMarcus Aldridge--the best standard-issue big man in the draft--from the Bulls. And then came the wheeling and dealing. A half dozen trades later the Blazers also had their hands on Brandon Roy, widely considered the most NBA-ready player available that day. The quantity of moves alone provoked a flurry of excitement.
The excitement trebled and then leapt exponentially in July when Blazer fans got a first look at their young players in Summer League. Roy was breathtaking in his scoring ability, Aldridge silky-smooth in every motion. This was going to be special. The ensuing season confirmed the prediction as the Blazers added 50% to their past year's win total and a Rookie of the Year trophy for Roy's bookshelf. The astonishment reached a crescendo in May when Portland also pocketed the first overall selection in the 2007 draft which would bring them star center Greg Oden. This would turn out to be the single most defining positive moment of the era, the last which could be met with unqualified cheers. Cheers came loud and lusty. For Blazer fans this was like waking up on Christmas, looking out the window, and seeing a Ferrari stacked on top of a Lamborghini in the driveway. Forget special, this was going to be unprecedented.
The Lamborghini ended up in the garage for a while as Oden's knee required microfracture surgery, taking him out of action for his inaugural season. But Blazer fans had, and continued to acquire, plenty of other toys to play with while waiting for their biggest present to make good. Roy was scoring 20 nightly. Aldridge's great play had made bad boy Zach Randolph expendable. Exotic European players like Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, and Nicolas Batum would eventually add spice and intrigue to the mix. The late-game heroics of Roy and Travis Outlaw need no recounting here. Jerryd Bayless came along to provide scoring punch. Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake played their roles to the hilt and to the Blazers' benefit. At no time did the pieces fire on all cylinders but it was easy to envision a time when they would, when the road would belong to Portland alone.
The Blazers added to their win total again and yet again in the ensuing seasons, culminating with a long-awaited return to the playoffs in 2009. Even a drubbing by the more experienced Houston Rockets couldn't dim the sunny outlook. Oden was back, Roy was All-NBA, Aldridge was Aldridge, the roster was stacked. The Blazers earned 54 wins without really knowing what they were doing. Nobody had ever achieved so much at such a young age. Winning was about to be proven this team's birthright.
Then those glorious early verses of the Resurrection Era gave way to its oft-repeated chorus as potential turned sour, buried under an insurmountable pile of injuries. Oden was the most prominent victim, again missing most of the season. Batum...Fernandez....Outlaw...everybody not named Andre Miller (notorious Iron Man of the league) fell beneath the scythe of the fairly-grim reaper. The cruelest blow came when Roy's knees gave way. The extent of injury was unknown but the timing couldn't be worse, scuttling a planned playoff victory versus the Phoenix Suns despite Brandon's return mere days after surgery.
The following year brought even worse news. Roy's knee problems were chronic, hobbling him fiercely. Oden's planned return was cut short in December with the announcement of yet another knee surgery. I described the Blazers as a car trying to crest a steep hill having long ago lost forward momentum. No longer could the enthusiasm of their boisterous start carry them. Absent their best players their progress slowed and then halted. Even the acqusition of amazingly-energetic forward Gerald Wallace for a limping Joel Przybilla wasn't enough to given them a jump start. They fought gamely against the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs but succumbed again, Roy providing one more otherworldly moment by keying an impossible 23-point second-half comeback to give the Blazers one of their two wins in the series.
The NBA lockout following the 2010-11 season provided ample opportunity for knees to heal and hopes to lift. With no cap space to speak of for signing free agents, it became clear early that the Blazers would ride into 2011-12 with the same gaudy lineup intact, hoping for a miraculous resurgence. That was still the case a week ago today when the team enthusiastically announced that Roy was feeling good and that he would not be Portland's candidate for an amnesty clause release under the league's new CBA. Once more the Blazers would pile into the car, even Oden--scheduled for a January or February return--sneaking into the back-back seat. The chassis looked as good as ever. Perhaps the momentum towards that summit could be recaptured. Even seeing the vehicle move forward an inch would be a welcome sight. One inch could become two and between Roy, Aldridge, Wallace, Batum, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton, and a re-returning Oden that jalopy had some serious horsepower.
On the morning of December 9th, the day training camp opened, the Blazers turned the key. Then they watched in horror as the transmission sprayed gears all over the road while the engine dropped out, rolled down the hill, and caught fire. Brandon Roy, four days earlier talking about the possibility of starting, stumbled into medical retirement...his career for all intents and purposes over. Oden suffered yet another setback. He would not return this season. Aldridge dealing with an old heart problem--by far the most serious issue of the three--seemed like a cruel coda tacked onto the despairing refrain. Everybody got out of the car, turned, and began to walk down the hill. The vehicle will remain, if nowhere else in our memories. Dripping behind it the remaining rivulet of its life blood: the career of Brandon Roy and all reasonable hopes for Greg Oden. A hint of the once-brilliant rainbow of expectations reflects sickly in its sheen. We'll pass this spot with our grandchildren someday and tell them about glory that never was. The only time this incarnation of the Blazers will see that summit is in our dreams.
In retrospect this era ended like it had to end: with one last great burst of hope and anticipation followed by a crushing release of unwelcome news. What else could the storyline be in an era in which the tenures of Roy, Oden, Fernandez, Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, General Managers Kevin Pritchard and Rich Cho, and more followed exactly that pattern?
Some will wonder what was the point of this retelling. It's pretty simple: since this phase of the Blazers' evolution began we've been dealing with nothing but ambiguous situations. Since Oden's very first surgery we've been embroiled in a constant litany of "What if?" and "What now?" That ambiguity is now ended. This edition of the Blazers was tantalizing. This edition of the Blazers is also done. The time for holding on is past. The page turned for good last week and there's no going back. No amount of speculation will undo that. All the questions we've ever asked about the post-2006 Blazers--whether and when and how much--have now been answered.
Despite all that , the Resurrection Era also gave Blazer fans plenty of happy moments...moments we should talk about together. Looking back on this five-year run, what things stand out to you most? This has been a heartbreaking time to be a Blazer fan but also a great time, a thousand times better than the era which proceeded it. Share some of that greatness today if you would.
For those who find this post too maudlin, its assertions too final, note that this is Part 1 of the exercise. Tomorrow we're going to look at what has changed and what we can look forward to in the new, upcoming era, whatever it will be named. There are two parts to any passing: acknowledging the loss and acknowledging that life goes on and there are still reasons to be joyful, days and moments to look forward to. Don't worry, those will come. This is sports. There's always a tomorrow, another season, another game to be played. We'll soon summarize the effects of this seismic shift and figure out what that new tomorrow looks like for the team and its fans. But before we do that, let's marvel together at what we just experienced, an unprecedented ride of tragedy and triumph.
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