Today I saw on Facebook, via the Portland Trail Blazers, this factoid: "Did you know Portland has won at least 40 of their first 58 games for the first time since 2001?"
I thought, surely they got that wrong. It was the 1999-2000 team, the one that came SO CLOSE to going to the Finals before that unspeakable event unfolded at Staples Center, that was the last to get to 40 wins this quickly. But then I remembered that the following year's team, the one we were told by Trader Bob Whitsitt would be improved by swapping out heart-and-soul power-forward Brian Grant and about-to-bloom Jermaine O'Neal for Dale Davis and overweight, addicted Shawn Kemp, was only lousy at the end of the season. Before that, they were very, very good, almost as good as the year before - until, on March 6, 2001, they suddenly weren't.
It was a team that mixed aging veteran stars (Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis, a back-end-of-his-prime Steve Smith), solid role players (Davis, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, an old-but-still-effective-in-spots Detlef Schrempf, who returned to the team late in the season) and, most problematic, wildly talented knuckleheads: chiefly Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells, but also Damon Stoudamire, who had not matured into the man he is today (these were Damon's "Yellow Hummer" years).
(An aside: current Blazers radio analyst Antonio Harvey played sparingly on this team.)
Let's set the scene on that March evening: The Blazers are 42-18 heading into that night's game against the Vancouver Grizzlies, a team with only 18 wins of their own. The Blazers lead a very competitive Western Conference by the slimmest of margins over the Lakers, Spurs, Jazz and Kings (yes, the Kings!), with Dallas, Phoenix and Minnesota lurking not far behind. Every game would count big-time in the standings. The Blazers cannot afford to take the night off, not even against the crummiest teams.
It's an auspicious evening: the team has just brought in veteran point guard and ex-Blazer Rod Strickland as an extra reinforcement for the stretch run. He would make his Blazer season debut that night. But the biggest deal was the retiring of Blazer great Clyde Drexler's #22. The halftime ceremony and number-raising would be attended by the likes of Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Larry Steele and Buck Williams. It's a big night for the Blazers team, the Blazers organization, and Blazer fans. That the opponent is the Vancouver Grizzlies, consisting of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and...(try to name one other player on that season's Vancouver squad; not easy) -- the scheduling seems akin to a college football powerhouse scheduling their homecoming opponent.
Three hours later, it was clear to the Blazers that the halftime ceremony to honor Drexler was the only real highlight of a depressing, embarrassing evening -- a really bad night that would prove impossible to shake off. As Jason Quick of the Oregonian wrote in his game story:
In a position to maintain their lead atop the Western Conference, the Blazers played one of their worst games of the season against one of the worst teams in the NBA, resulting in a 105-97 loss that could come back to haunt Portland at the end of the season.
Vancouver (19-43), the second-worst team in the Western Conference, shot 55.7 percent from the field and outscored Portland 33-21 in the final quarter to end a seven-game losing streak and end the Blazers' four-game winning streak.
"Absolutely awful," coach Mike Dunleavy said in describing the Blazers' defense. "We were just terrible."
The Blazers played the final 22:26 without leading scorer Rasheed Wallace, who was ejected for the fifth time this season after receiving back-to-back technical fouls. Wallace, who was complaining about a no-call on an earlier missed shot, was 1 for 7 from the field and finished with two points. ...
Of all the bad losses this season -- the two to the Clippers, the one in Atlanta -- this one has to be the worst. It was only the second time Vancouver has won in Portland, and it was only the seventh road win of the season for the Grizzlies....
"I don't know the answer of what happened other than it was a total lapse," Dunleavy said....
"It was disappointing on such a big night for this organization for us to come out and do what we did," Scottie Pippen said.
It also was the debut of (Rod) Strickland, the former Blazers guard who was claimed off waivers and signed Monday for the rest of the season. Strickland made his first appearance at the start of the second quarter and received a warm ovation. He played 16 minutes and scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting while adding five assists.
All the storylines outside of the game created a buzz around the Rose Garden, but the Blazers didn't respond, coming out flat.
"We're at home, at the top of the Western Conference . . . nothing should be able to distract you at this time of the season," Dunleavy said. "All the games at this point in the season are big. You can't have lackadaisical play."
The Blazers led 50-46 at halftime, but at one point in the third quarter missed eight of nine shots. Included in that stretch were two blown layups by Damon Stoudamire.
"We missed a ton of layins, a ton of chippy shots," Dunleavy said. "Enough things that could have gone wrong went wrong."
The Blazers trailed 72-65 before closing the quarter on an 11-0 run to take a 76-72 lead entering the fourth....
(But) against a creampuff defense and a Wallace-less offense, the Grizzlies buried the Blazers.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim led the Grizzlies with 26 points, including the two key baskets of the game. With the score tied 95-95 with 2:09 left, Abdur-Rahim scored on a rebound basket -- the third shot of the possession -- with 1:46 left.
After Stoudamire missed an 18-footer, Abdur-Rahim blew by everybody for an uncontested layup and a 99-95 lead with 1:15 left. Detlef Schrempf then missed with 59 seconds left and Vancouver rookie Stromile Swift was left wide open under the basket for a layup and a 101-95 lead with 38 seconds left.
Bonzi Wells was one of three Blazers to have 15 points, but he did not play in the fourth quarter. He left the game late in the third quarter after banging knees with a Vancouver player.
Pippen, who battled first-half foul trouble, finished with 15 points and three steals, and Stoudamire had 15 points and five assists.
40 days later, the Blazers, discombobulated, their volatility finally erupting in poor play and internal bickering, would end the regular season on an 8-14 skid. They entered the playoffs as the 7th seed and got swept (walloped, really) in three first-round games by their nemesis, the eventual champion Lakers. That series today is better remembered for Wallace angrily throwing a towel in his teammate Sabonis's face during a timeout than for anything that happened on the court.
Mike Dunleavy was fired in the offseason, replaced by well-meaning but laissez-faire coach Maurice Cheeks, who presided over a slow but inexorable, five-year decline into a morass of poor play and even poorer off-court decision-making that would come to define the Portland "Jail Blazers." Attendance tanked as Blazer fans embodied film director Richard Linklater's maxim "Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy." There were faint whispers that maybe Paul Allen would sell the team to someone who would then move it, a prospect that didn't raise nearly as much ire and passion then as it would today. The proud Portland Trail Blazers had seemingly become a no-count, no-hope NBA franchise.
It was not until 2006 -- another era, that of Nate McMillan instilling pride and discipline into his young, overmatched squad; young Brandon Roy rebuking Zach Randolph's locker room finger-pointing and putting the team on both his shoulders and sadly prematurely aged knees; a raw, soft-spoken LaMarcus Aldridge bringing his NBA-ready mid-range jumper straight out of the University of Texas; Kevin Pritchard's draft-day "Pritch-slaps"; the excitement, however disappointing it turned out to be, created by the Blazers' improbable draft-lottery win and subsequent drafting of Greg Oden; the team's growth and eventual return to playoff-worthy form -- that the people of Portland once again could begin to embrace their NBA team.
Today, the events of March 6, 2001 can be seen as a depressing start to an unfortunate time for the Trail Blazers, rather than a death knell.