Cheer or boo?
That is THE question of the moment for the 20,000 fans that will pack the Moda Center to watch LaMarcus Aldridge return to Portland tonight in a San Antonio Spurs uniform.
The uncertainty around Aldridge's reception is somewhat unusual for the Trail Blazers crowd. In the recent past, they've been blessed with clear cut heroes and villains.
When Brandon Roy, Joel Przybilla, and Brian Grant came back to town the only question was, "How long should we stand?" When Rudy Fernandez and Raymond Felton returned the decision fell to booing every time they touched the ball or only when they entered the game.
But there is no simple answer for Aldridge. He is a hero to some, a villain to others, and sits somewhere in between for most.
The ambivalence mirrors fans' feelings of Aldridge throughout his career in Portland. "BlazerManiac" became a term for a reason. Portlanders are hyper-passionate about their sole "Big 4" franchise. The team and its history are deeply ingrained in the city; young fans feel as much joy over the 1977 championship as they do pain when the infamous "Kobe to Shaq" alley-oop replays.
Aldridge's personality never fit that intense level of fandom. He showed up at the Rose Garden/Moda Center, recorded his customary 20/10 stat line, "ya know'ed" his way through interviews, and then went home. Watching Aldridge felt like watching a highly competent co-worker punch the clock every day for years, only to drive away at 5:00 every night showing no interest in happy hour. He did enough to earn respect and appreciation for his contributions, but not enough to ever feel like friends.
Aldridge's detractors may argue that he never fully embraced the city. Fans in the Moda Center shared a common cause with Aldridge, but not all felt that he was enthusiastic about being alongside them.
In some other NBA towns that may not be a problem, but for ultra-passionate Portland fans it was. They've become accustomed to enthusiastic players wanting to return to the Rose City when their careers are done (Jerome Kersey, Kevin Duckworth, Grant, Steve Blake, Chris Dudley, etc.). Aldridge doesn't fit that mold.
Aldridge supporters may fight that sentiment by pointing out that he was also one of the most talented players in the history of the franchise (a point that cannot be overemphasized). His name is ubiquitous on the career leader boards. He almost single-handedly carried the team through multiple games in the Blazers' only playoff series win in a generation. He never ran afoul of the law - a welcome change in the post-Jail Blazers era - and he stuck with the team through multiple rebuilds. After all of those strong actions, is it just to judge his perceived inaction?
There's the conflict. Aldridge's supporters generally take an intellectual approach - objectively he is an all-timer; he deserves the adoration. Detractors point out that, from an emotional perspective, it's tough to feel a connection with a player who does not seem to reciprocate the adoration. Consequently, support for Aldridge varies depending on which a fan values more: The joy of watching a dominant player or the emotional exhilaration of rooting for a "true Blazer."
If one digs a little deeper into Aldridge's Portland tenure, the intellectual/emotional tension around him begins to symbolize an entire era of the franchise. Aldridge started his career by helping to drag the Blazers up from the depths of mid-2000s despair, but that rebuild ended in total heartbreak as fans watched Roy and Greg Oden crumble before their eyes. Aldridge inherited a team that turned into a chemistry experiment gone wrong in 2011. Then he hit gold with Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts, and the new offense. Only to see Wesley Matthews' Achilles torpedo postseason aspirations.
Intellectually, fans should probably be happy with those nine seasons. During the Roy/Oden years they never won a playoff series, but they did win 54 games and turn around a franchise that had been on life support. Minnesota and Sacramento fans would be forever grateful for similar successes. However, emotionally it still stings to think about the championships that could have been.
The Stotts-era Blazers mirrored the emotional peaks and valleys of the Roy/Oden teams. Stotts and company gave fans another 54-win team and one of the most iconic playoff buzzer beaters in league history. Unparalleled success given expectations circa October, 2012. Rationally, that is worth celebrating. Accompanying that success, however, is the feeling that the team could have accomplished more. It's hard to look at the 41-19 record (pre-Matthews injury) and not feel that an opportunity was missed.
During those nine years of ups and downs, multiple rebuilds, and bittersweet successes, one player remained constant: Aldridge. He was the common element that connected multiple instances of juxtaposed overachievement and disappointment. Intellectually, fans could be happy with the successes of the Aldridge years, but emotionally they may feel cheated out of even greater glory. Thus, depending on the perspective, Aldridge's departure represented either a fresh start after an era of multiple heartbreaks led by a player who only sort of embraced Portland, or the final chapter of a franchise's recovery led by an all-time great.
Even Aldridge's departure muddied the waters of public opinion. Intellectually, he left the right way by giving the team plenty of notice of his decision and not drawing out the process. The little "LaDecision" drama that did exist was created by the front office demanding that his plans be kept secret. On the other hand, he emotionally spurned Blazer fans. There was no full-page newspaper ad, no heartfelt public thank you, and no discussion of the good times as he departed for San Antonio.
Intellectually, fans understood that he had honored his contract in every way, wanted to move closer to his family, and desired to play for Gregg Popovich. Emotionally were jilted that Aldridge had gone back on his pledge to stay in Portland. In the end, Aldridge left Portland in the same manner in which he played: Effective and by the book, but lacking connection with a broader audience.
Now, on the night of his return, fans in the Moda Center have a choice: Do they cheer Aldridge's statistical successes, multiple 50+ win seasons, and nine years of a job well done? Or do they boo the player that backed away from promises to stay in Portland and left for greener pastures?
What will you do, cheer or boo? Let us know in the comments below.