I took a nonfiction writing class in the Spring, and decided to write one of my essays on my personal history as a Blazers fan. Dave's retrospectives encouraged me to polish it up and share my experience. I'd appreciate any feedback y'all care to leave.
Thanks for reading.
The Portland Trail Blazers ended their season by getting bumped out of the 2011 playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and somehow I wasn’t surprised. Most of the pundits said the Blazers were favored, but they said that last year too. Refrains of potential, and match-ups were repeated to a hopeful fan base. Dallas had won more games, fielded a savvier, veteran roster, and had a star player in Dirk Nowitski who regularly defied logic with fade-away jumpers that found the net as the shooter looked bound for the floor. I took the bait, and once again believed my Blazers were up for the job. They’d let me down before, but I thought this time around would be different.
Like many fans, I always give my team a shot to win, regardless of the odds. Every game exists in a vacuum for me, and I truly believe that on any given night a team can overstep their station, and pull out a win. This helps me through some tough games, but there have been times in my life when that wasn’t enough. As a teenager, I’d given up on organized sports after a childhood spent rooting for the underdog teams of the Pacific Northwest and watching the best talent go to larger cities, richer markets, and superior teams. I hated how sports were run as businesses, where the players all want to go to the wealthiest teams, who would usually win the titles. I was free and clear of professional sports for almost a decade. Then one Thursday in Corvallis, I was sucked right back in.
I visited my friend Paul most Thursdays; we shared the night off, and would often kill the evening drinking Mexican beer, playing video games, and watching television. There were two programs that Paul refused to miss on Thursday evenings: a soap opera starring a cadre of bourgeois teenagers in southern California, and NBA basketball. I could have cared less about the soap opera, and I’d come to regard the NBA as a sport populated by self-obsessed millionaire gangsters who only cared about their trade value and endorsements. The only reasons I endured it were a) to hang out with my good friend, who I pitied for being so completely suckered by pop culture, and b) I didn’t have anything better to do. By the end of that spring, I had seen enough of the soap opera to follow the plot, and was curious about a sport I’d left behind in 1995, when my hero Clyde Drexler was traded to the Houston Rockets for Otis Thorpe.
The game that rekindled my flame for basketball was between the Phoenix Suns and the Seattle Super Sonics. It was that game where I first saw Steve Nash play. I had never seen anyone like him; The Suns point guard shattered my perception of the selfish NBA star, as Nash made his living by passing the ball better than anyone in the history of the sport. The year was 2004, and it marked the regeneration of a part of my soul that I long considered atrophied. In time, my love for basketball would grow to eventually exceed the high-water mark set in the early 90s, when as a young boy I watched the Blazers make the Finals twice.
My earliest memory from that era is watching my team lose to the Detroit Pistons in Game Five of the 1990 Finals. When the horn sounded, the eight-year-old me was confused; I didn’t understand why they had stopped playing. The Blazers hadn’t won yet, so why would they go home? I asked my father when the next game would be, and he had to tell his child that there wouldn’t be another game until October. Then came the tears, followed by me running for my baseball cards, trying desperately to find comfort another sport.
Years passed, and I continued to follow the team through their playoff runs of the early 90s, until the day came that Clyde The Glide Drexler, face of the franchise, and hero to every boy in the state of Oregon, gave up on the Blazers. Drexler requested to be traded to a team that was contending for a Championship, and Portland cooperated. I was confused; I thought the Blazers were contending for a Championship. If not, why did they play? Why should I watch if there isn’t a chance that they could win it all?
I tried to pick a new favorite Blazer. In my naïveté, I thought that the player the Blazers traded Drexler for must be just as good, so Otis Thorpe was my new hero. A few months later, Thorpe was traded to the Detroit Pistons. My other favorite players, Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey, had also moved on, so I was left rooting for men that I’d always known, but never identified with: Cliff Robinson and Buck Williams. Both were good players in their own right, and represented the last traces of my childhood team. Then the hammer dropped: Clyde Drexler, and his new team, won the NBA Finals that year.
As I grew, the posters on my wall changed from Blazer scarlet to Mariner emerald as the Seattle baseball team usurped the place in my heart once held by the Blazers. The home team spirit wasn’t there, but since basketball was the only professional sport in Oregon, I had freedom to pick whatever baseball or football team I liked without being labeled a traitor or, even worse, a frontrunner. I liked the Mariners because my cousin Jeff was a fan, and Jeff was the coolest guy I knew. I rooted for the San Francisco 49ers because my dad was from the bay area. Sometimes, I would support a team just because they had an attractive logo, or I got a valuable trading card in a pack. The only team I could not support was the Portland Trail Blazers, regardless of how cool their pinwheel logo was. They were dead to me.
After trading away every player I had ever loved, the Blazers entered a very dark time. Management decided that character was secondary to winning, an engaged in a campaign to recruit a posse of miscreants who made headlines for everything but basketball. Sexual assault, drug possession, and animal abuse charges made the front page, as general manager Bob Whitsett continued to tweak the roster until it looked more like a police lineup than a basketball team. He earned the nickname Trader Bob for his management style, and was widely hated during his tenure. Still, Whitsitt’s team, notoriously known as the Jail Blazers, was a regular fixture in the playoffs, and made it to the Finals twice (both loses). I couldn’t care less.
During my adolescence, I socialized with kids who thought sports were lame. Comic books, video games, and role-playing were cool to them. I exchanged my Starter jacket for a trench coat, and my ball cap for a fedora. It’s all fixed anyway, I thought. Who cares about millionaires running up and a court trying to throw a ball in a little hoop, I mused. Think about the starving people that could use that money! Teachers barely make ends meet, and these dudes are just playing a game; they should be getting paid minimum wage. I had other things to worry about, like where I was going to get the money for some Doc Martins, and whether my parents would get totally pissed if I dyed my hair black.
I carried my opinions about basketball (as well as my trench coat, fedora and dyed-black hair) into adulthood. The Jail Blazers had cemented these opinions, and I found company in most Oregonians. There were still a few die-hard fans out there, and in the summer of 2007, they started talking about rebirth in hushed tones. The team had a new head coach in Nate McMillan, a new general manager in Kevin Pritchard, a new team president in Larry Miller, and shooting guard Brandon Roy had been awarded the Rookie of the Year trophy. Furthermore, the Blazers won the Draft Lottery, and selected Greg Oden, the seven-foot center out of Ohio State, who showed the potential to be one of the greatest big men to ever play the game. He came with an injury history, but it wasn’t enough to deter the team from selecting him with first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Having been away from the sport for twelve years, I didn’t understand the significance of this, so I wasn’t too upset when Oden had to sit out his entire rookie season recovering from micro-fracture surgery on his knee. I had moved to Portland two years prior, and was starting to see that the city still cared about their team (the news of Oden’s surgery sent an audible sigh drifting through the streets). My friend Paul had moved to Portland as well, and every now and then, we’d catch a game together.
Paul hadn’t wavered in his support of the team, and being five years older than me was better equipped to handle the loss of Drexler, Porter, and Kersey, as well as the following decent into crime and debauchery. One night, we met at a pool hall downtown, and a game was on TV. We didn’t know it at the time, but that night started what would grow into a thirteen-win streak by the new-look Blazers. The two of us watched every game of that streak, and I was hooked. More than that, I had been swept up in the fever I had long thought cured: it was a nasty case of Blazermania.
I watched the Draft, Summer League, and the preseason. I watched video highlights of that year’s rookie crop, and speculated with friends about which of them would make a difference on the team. With the enthusiasm of my childhood, combined with an analytical nature I’d developed in adulthood, I studied the sport, its players, and the history I’d missed during my hiatus. Who’s the new Micheal Jordan? What’s a three-second technical? Is he a Small Forward, or a Power Forward? Can we trade for that guy?
Paul was my tutor, and patiently talked me through every question. We had been living and working together for several months, so the conversation didn’t stop after games; I pestered him over breakfast, on the way to work, during the dinner rush, and over beers after close. The following spring, we watched the Blazers lose to the Rockets in six games in the first round of the 2009 playoffs. I once again spent the summer obsessing over the Draft, Summer League, preseason, and now FIBA, before games finally started back up in October.
Over the course of that season, Greg Oden was injured again, but was joined by Joel Przybilla, Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, and rookie Jeff Pendergraph; coach McMillan even ruptured his Achilles tendon after trying to suit up for a practice session because there weren’t enough players to run a five-on-five scrimmage. Against all odds, the team once again made the playoffs, this time losing to Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in six games in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. The fans shrugged, made the usual excuses, and attention shifted to the Draft, Summer League, FIBA, and the preseason.
I wasn’t surprised that the Blazers got bumped out of the 2011 playoffs in six games. I’d been swept up in the euphoria, and all the talk of potential and match-ups, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was already coming to grips with the loss. A lifetime spent rooting for underdogs had taught me to doubt the pundits, and look at the facts: the past three years, the Blazers have faced savvier teams, armed with veteran rosters, and brighter stars. Usually, this is the time when fans exchange ideas about what roster changes need to be made, and what the coach should have done to win the series, but this summer will be different.
It’s going to be different because the owners and player’s union must negotiate a new contract, and the owners have threatened to lock out the season if they don’t get what they want. It’s the millionaires vs. the billionaires, and it will not be over in six games. Rather than spend my summer watching the Draft, Summer League, FIBA, and the preseason, I will watch lawyers argue over revenue sharing, salary cap, and rookie contracts. The business of basketball is on full display, and the needs of a small market like Portland are not at the top of anybody’s list.