This post is an offshoot of kuhnsmith's "Living Through an NBA Title" fanpost. The 'smith wondered aloud whether witnessing the '77 championship ruined him for life, as no other high comes close.
I'm not of the mind that a championship is the only worthwhile high as a fan. I do believe it's the only goal for a team. I do believe it's unique and nothing else comes close. But I've had plenty of experiences following the Blazers that were plenty high and plenty worthwhile.
I do empathize with kuhnsmith's point, though. I'd just phrase the question differently.
Have we forgotten what real greatness looks like?
Before I share my thoughts, let's head one impulse off at the pass. Nothing I'm going to say is particularly generational. Some are going to want to equate this with the old man saying, "Everything was better in my day, you whippersnappers!" First, I'm not old. This IS my day. And second, I firmly believe that had injuries not decimated the squad the Roy-Oden-Aldridge era would have been the greatest in team history, eclipsing both the Walton title run and the glory years of Drexler and company. That dream died in 2010, only three years ago...barely even history, let alone ancient history. This is not about old being better than new.
The fact remains: it's been 21 years since the Trail Blazers have been to the NBA Finals, 36 years since they won it. 13 years have passed since the last time the Blazers saw the Conference Finals or even got past the first round of the playoffs.
21 years is five eternities in the life of a basketball team. It's also a generation or three of fandom. Even those of us privileged to witness Walton or Drexler can be forgiven for letting memory melt into sentimentality...treasuring the emotion of the experience while losing track of the nitty gritty. Some folks reading this site weren't alive in 1992. Others were too young to remember or hadn't caught on to the Blazers yet. Huge swaths of Blazers fans have grown up having not experienced real success...tangible greatness.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Ebb and flow come with the small market life in the NBA. Regardless of record, I've had plenty of great experiences watching the Blazers in the last two decades. Chances are you have too or you wouldn't be here right now.
I do worry that in the intervening years--inundated with sales pitches for tickets, hyperbole from announcers, and even making do with our own hearts--we've lost the ability to distinguish real greatness from the manufactured kind. It's not just that the road map to success is blurred. Increasingly we seem unfamiliar with the destination and the characteristics that define it.
The closest analogy I have in my own life is my two children: Baby Point Guard and the Little Princess. A guy doesn't desire to see greatness anywhere more than he wants to see it in his kids. I couldn't understand this before I had children but dang, I sure feel it now.
Baby Point Guard is 5 now. He just started kindergarten. They gave him an aptitude test for reading this week. They showed us a graph with average and above average marks. He doubled the above average score...testing super high. That's great.
His sister, the Little Princess, is 2. She takes to letters and words like a fish to water. If they administered the same test to her, she would double Baby Point Guard's score without blinking. No joke. That's really great.
Despite my kids doing great (and in Princess' case, World-Championship-level great) in this area, I also have to admit that they're not great in everything. Baby Point Guard loves to draw. We hang his creations on the fridge like good parents, but he's no Picasso. His volume on his percussion set exceeds his talent. He doesn't ask why the sky is blue, he tells you why. Woe be unto you if you don't believe his story. Meanwhile Little Princess throws 4 tantrums a day (down from 6 a few months ago), eats only cheese and yogurt, and steadfastly refuses all attempts at potty training.
Saying, "Love ya, kid, but you really gotta work on this" seems heartless in a way. It certainly strains your emotions as a parent. You'd prefer to have your kids be great at every single thing they try...or at least to pretend they are. (Thus you hang 5-year-old artwork in a prominent place.) But the risk here is both you and your child losing sight of true greatness. If neither you nor they can tell the difference--if everything they do is great just because they did it--to what can they aspire? Also how do they actually learn 2+2 = 4 instead of 2+2 being 5 and that's great cuz they said so? I love my children endlessly but if they can't distinguish between being loved and becoming great at something they'll never fulfill their purpose in this life nor be able to affect the world positively as much as they should.
Shift gears to the Blazers now. I love this team. Always will. I'll follow them as long as they exist. I'm confident that I devote more time to covering them than I do to my children. That's commitment.
At the same time, I shudder when the line between greatness and not-so-greatness gets blurred in the name of that love and support. So many things get rounded up to great which don't even come close. That not only denies us the roadmap to excellence, it minimizes the really great moments this franchise has brought us over the years and the sacrifice those great teams endured in order to make them happen.
Potential is exciting. Having players with potential is not the worst thing in the world. But I cringe whenever potential and greatness carry the same weight in player evaluation. Potential means little if it's not taken advantage of. The only way to take advantage of it is to live it out, day by day. Proof happens in the moment, not in the future. It's repeated and reliable, not clung to like a life raft in a storm. Not every new acquisition is great. Exotic international cachet or a half-season of per-minute stats do not make a player great.
I also cringe when inconsistency gets explained away and a player is measured only by his pinnacle achievements. Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Terry Porter were inconsistent too. They vacillated between really dang good and unbearably awesome. Seldom did they disappear on the floor. Clyde might be quiet on the scoreboard for a quarter or two but you knew by the end of the game he was going to have his 20 points and would have bent the game towards the Blazers enough that they'd win. We were only able to celebrate his 40-point nights because he laid a foundation of 20 points every evening. That's what made him special. Ditto for Jerome and Buck defensively, Terry with his smarts, and so on.
Speaking of Buck Williams and adding in Danny Ainge...when the Blazers picked them up we knew those were great moves. They were all-around players, veterans, All-Stars, guys who would push this team to another level. Copy and paste for Maurice Lucas back in the championship year. Not every move will have that kind of gravity. Sometimes gambling on potential is the right move. But that move doesn't become great until the player in question turns out great and the team succeeds because of it.
The lesson carries over to teams as well. I triple-cringe when I read something like, "If the Blazers just make the playoffs [or second round, or whatever] anything can happen." That's what teams who are going to lose say. Great teams don't depend on "anything can happen". You know what it was like in 1991, the best year the Portland Trail Blazers have ever had? That year you KNEW the Blazers were going to win the title. The Perfect First Quarter, 19-1 start to the season...it was all there. The Blazers KNEW they were going to win the title too. That's the way it works. When you are dead sure that the trophy belongs to you, that you are the best team in the league, then maybe you have a chance at the gold. (Note that in '91 the Blazers didn't actually win it even.) Anything less and you're done. Any hope involved is going to get crushed. Any random chance you rely on is going to turn against you. Great teams persevere and win even when hope fails and chance rolls the other way. That's what makes them great.
People comb the season schedule and try to figure out wins and losses, determining whether their squad will be good or what. When you're a great team you don't even look at the schedule that way. The season really begins in the playoffs, and even then things don't get exciting until the second round. For the regular season you only have two kinds of games: games you expect to win and a few games you're looking forward to because they're an opportunity to test yourself. You don't pencil in any losses. The losses you do end up recording during the season don't matter that much because they're not repeated. That's great.
Right now the buzz is that the Blazers might squeak into the playoffs this year. That's the Promised Land. I was around for all 20+ straight playoff years. You know what people say about the first round after the second trip? "What's wrong with us? Why can't we get out of it?" For most of those two decades Blazers fans were saying exactly that about their team. They had seen greatness and knew the difference between that and just making it in.
Great teams don't depend on other teams in their conference breaking down in order to rise up. Great teams break down other teams in their conference, never letting them get ahead in the first place.
Over the years this characteristic distinguished the Blazers and their fans from most other small-market teams: Portland knew great. Even when the team wasn't so hot people still loved them, but Portland fans accepted nothing less than excellence as the standard. They knew what success tasted like.
I wonder if it's been too long now. Increasingly I perceive us not knowing or understanding the difference. Somehow that makes me sad. I don't mind the team taking a downswing. That's part of the game. The Blazers won't always be great. But when we, as Blazer fans, start equating not great with great--when we start adopting the habits and explanations of franchises the Blazers used to beat up on--I wonder if we haven't lost more than just a few games.
The vast majority of NBA players were between the ages of 7-17 when the Blazers made their last Conference Finals appearance. Most of them were under 10 when Clyde led the Blazers to the NBA Finals in '92. Fewer than a dozen current players were even alive when the Blazers won it all. Even if they were willing to overcome professional detachment their corporate memory can't distinguish this franchise.
Management is in the business of selling tickets today, whatever that takes. They'll support legacy as a commodity but not for its own sake. They want you dreaming of next year's team, not dwelling on days of yore and especially not comparing the two unfavorably. If that means adjusting standards and coming up with a new definition of great, so be it.
That only leaves one leg of the player-organization-fan triangle to champion this cause. Fans are the only group with a long enough corporate memory and deep enough desire to keep the lessons of true greatness alive in Portland. (Reading that you'll understand why one of my most fervent desires is that Blazers owner Paul Allen remains a devoted fan of the team.) If we forget, or just decide it's not that important, nobody is going to pick up that mantle.
Even now I wonder if it's too late, if it's been too long. Do we remember, or are we content saying we must have had the wrong coach or this guy would be a great player "if only..." or depending on getting a lucky bounce someday? Frankly I don't see any difference between the Blazers and every other less-than-elite team in those explanations. I can't shake the feeling that once upon a time, regardless of what that year's record read, there used to be.