Almost every sports team has at least one "underdog" player -- an un-drafted free agent trying to make the roster, someone coming off a serious injury attempting a comeback or an aging veteran looking to cling on to a contract. The odds are stacked against the typical underdog, his or her chances of success usually limited by external forces.
Blazers fans love to cheer for the little guy, often embracing second-round draft picks and end-of-the-bench players.
Take Portland wing Will Barton, for example. Drafted at No. 40 overall in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft, Barton played 12.2 minutes per game his rookie season, when coach Terry Stotts was in the first year of a rebuilding effort, essentially auditioning players for the 2013-14 season.
When the Blazers exceeded most preseason expectations last year, Stotts tightened his rotation and played only sixth-man Mo Williams, forward Thomas Robinson and center Joel Freeland consistent minutes off the bench. Barton only appeared in 41 games for the 2013-14 season, playing 507 fewer minutes than he had his rookie year.
Even with the constriction of his playing time, Blazers fans still embraced Barton. He's earned not one, but two nicknames -- either The Thrill or The People's Champ, both used fairly interchangeably. As a second-round pick competing with 2013 lottery selection CJ McCollum -- as well as 10-year veteran forward Dorell Wright -- for backup wing minutes next season, Barton certainly exemplifies the well-liked, hard-working underdog role many Portland fans appreciate.
Former Blazers fan-favorite Jerome Kersey, forward, was taken No. 46 overall in the 1984 NBA Draft out of Longwood University, and ended up playing 11 productive seasons in a Portland uniform. Brian Grant was a 6-foot-9 power forward and center who scrapped against taller, more athletic players for rebounds in three seasons with Portland, earning the respect of Blazers fans with his hard-nosed approach to the game.
It's tough to pick an all-time favorite underdog player for Portland, but I'd give my vote to former Blazers forward Ime Udoka.
The 6-foot-6 Udoka graduated from Portland's Jefferson High in the mid-90s, starting his college basketball career at an Eastern Utah junior college. In 1997, he transferred to San Francisco University but didn't play as a junior, so he moved back home to play for Portland State University, sat out the entire 1998-99 season due to NCAA transfer rules and came back his senior year to lead the team in scoring and rebounding.
With just weeks to go in his last year at PSU, Udoka tore the ACL in his right knee, effectively destroying any chances he had of being drafted into the NBA that spring.
Udoka started his professional playing career as an invitee to the Blazers' training camp prior to the 2000-01 season, though he wasn't able to catch on with his hometown team and signed with the Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association, a small, minor-league franchise. Again, Udoka tore his ACL and spent the next several months rehabbing his knee while working at FedEx.
In 2002, Udoka caught on with the Charleston Lowgators of the NBA D-League, playing a season there before a quick stint in the United States Basketball League with the Adirondack Wildcats and then returning to Charleston for the 2003-04 season. He was called up to the Los Angeles Lakers on a 10-day contract that fall, but was waived within four games, eventually heading to Spain and France to play professionally for the 2004-05 season. Udoka played with the D-League's Fort Worth Flyers in 2005-06, earning a spot with the New York Knicks late in the season but getting waived just months after.
In the fall of 2006, fellow Jefferson High graduate Aaron Miles was scheduled to participate in Blazers training camp, but he failed his physical with only days to go before official preseason training activities were to begin. Udoka was called in as a last-minute addition to Portland's preseason roster, and was considered a long-shot to make the regular season squad as a 29-year-old with minimal NBA experience.
Udoka impressed then-Blazers coach Nate McMillan so much in fall camp that he personally went to former team President Steve Patterson and expressed his desire to keep Udoka on the regular season roster. Other players, including forward Zach Randolph and guard Jarrett Jack, publicly campaigned for the former PSU standout to earn a guaranteed contract.
Not only did Udoka make the 2006-07 Blazers roster, he started 75 games at small forward while playing the third-most minutes of any player on the team that year, behind only Randolph and Jack. In January of 2007, Udoka went into his own pocket -- on a salary worth $744, 551 -- to start a Portland State scholarship that would offer financial assistance to a PSU basketball player in need. A separate scholarship in Udoka's name would also go to help a PSU business school student in need of help.
After his lone season in Portland, Udoka signed a two-year deal with the San Antonio Spurs. He played that contract out, then signed in 2009 with the Sacramento Kings and came back to the Spurs for the 2010-11 season, eventually getting waived in January that year. Udoka signed one more NBA contract with the New Jersey Nets the following December, but was waived after a week and committed to another year playing overseas in Spain before Spurs coach Gregg Popovich invited him back to San Antonio, offering an assistant coaching position to the 35-year-old journeyman. Udoka accepted, and has been with the Spurs ever since, coaching their NBA Summer League team each of the last two years while gaining the respect of Popovich and other coaches around the league.
From junior college in Utah to the Big Sky Conference at PSU, to various stints overseas and in the D-League, Udoka embodies the true spirit of the underdog. His first -- and only -- season in Portland endeared him to Blazers fans, and he'll likely go down as one of the team's least-likely heroes, all due to a last-second training camp invite that would've never been extended had Miles passed his physical that fall.
Who's your all-time favorite underdog-type player to don a Blazers uniform? Let your voice be heard in the comments section below!
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter