The Monday morning edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag is going to tackle an interesting topic. You can send your Portland Trail Blazers questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll try to answer them.
For the longest time people said Blazers fans were the best in the NBA. Now you don't hear that as much anymore. Why? And do you still consider us the best?
Part of the reason you don't hear it as much anymore is because the Blazers have dropped off the national radar. People don't talk about the team much, let alone their fans. If they are talking about Portland, they're referencing Damian Lillard, not the team or the organization.
Occasionally opposing television commentators still throw a bon mot Portland's way, but nowadays it's more likely to be, "They really love their Blazers," or, "It's the only game in town," instead of flat-out citing Portland fans as the best. In a PR-conscious world they want to reserve that designation for their own supporters, at least publicly.
But I'd also argue that the designation doesn't apply as strongly as it once did. This is sure to be controversial but the reasoning is solid.
In the old days the claim to fame of Portland fans wasn't just their passion, but their brilliance. Portland basketball people were smart. The crowd cheered offensive rebounds and smart defense. They knew the value of plays beyond the simple score. They praised guys who set up the action as much as guys who completed it. This extended to analysts as well. If you wanted a loud and well-connected writer, you looked to New York. If you wanted the smart guy, well...tons of them quietly came out of Portland.
With the advent of the internet, the advanced statistical revolution, and now second-by-second video replay available to the masses, the world has caught up. You can find plays being diagrammed briliiantly in Orlando, Dallas, and even Minneapolis. Anyone who wants to be smart, can be.
I'd also argue that being the best fans in the NBA requires one of the best teams in the NBA to follow. The Blazers haven't been that in a long time. Their lone title came 40 years ago next season. Their longest extended run into the deep playoffs ended 25 years ago. Their last trip to the conference finals was 16 seasons past. Nobody under the age of 21 has anything more than a young child's memory of the Blazers being good. Nobody under 35 was an adult in Rasheed Wallace's glory days. If you were 21 when they won it all, you're past 60 now. Entire generations have gone without seeing a championship; a generation or two has watched the Blazers without ever seeing them succeed.
This makes a difference. Excellent teams create excellent fans. Priorities and perceptions change when a team loses.
People forget that Blazermania wasn't born out of a spontaneous movement among hundreds of thousands of fans who woke up one day and decided to like a team. Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and company played amazing--in some ways revolutionary--basketball and won a World Championship doing it. Their achievements drew eyeballs, won hearts, and educated everyone who saw them. For a couple decades after, making the playoffs wasn't a goal in the Rose City but an expectation. Trades, and to a lesser extent free-agent signings, were significant and of demonstrable benefit. Draft picks--even as lofty as Clyde Drexler--were seen as part of the whole, not the path to salvation.
For the most part hope has replaced excellence in Portland. People exaggerate aspirations for guys like Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, and plenty of current players as well...most of whom won't be anything special. Instead of discerning and supporting greatness the highest fan virtue is sticking by your team no matter what. Instead of judging players and praising fans, we praise players and judge who's a fair-weather fan and who's a true believer by whether they agree with us. (For the most part ignoring the key question: "Believe in what?") "Best fan" isn't defined by knowing what will bring the team 55 wins, but being willing to absorb 55 losses and keep on cheering.
Prominent public voices don't explain and analyze as much as they excuse and rationalize. I recall Blazers television commentator Steve Jones explaining in great detail why crowd favorite Drazen Petrovic was not getting playing time, laying it out there right over the airwaves during a Trail Blazers broadcast. You'd never, ever see that happen today. We're supposed to feel better, not understand better.
I don't want to denigrate or devalue the passion and perseverance of Blazers fans. It's noble and it has a place. But none of it would be necessary if the team were actually good, if accomplishment superseded the need for moral victories. The culture of the franchise and the mandates of losing won't allow Portland fans to be as good as they need to be in order to be considered "the best". That designation probably resides with San Antonio right now, or perhaps with Chicago if you like the combination of pure passion and sustained success. Golden State fans have a deep and rich history as well. If their current run continues, they'll breed generations of smart, dedicated followers...perhaps the closest analog to Blazermania we've seen in the modern era.
As for the original Blazermaniacs...the potential is still there. Portland hasn't lost touch with its roots entirely. The new, global basketball environment makes observing excellence as easy for Pacific Northwest residents as it is for anyone else. We're certainly up on the game. But years of publicly passing off bad-to-decent basketball as the new, fantastic standard will wear away at the formerly-solid core of educated, dedicated followers. People won't give up as much as age out. In another 10 years the entire topsoil layer of the Portland faithful will have grown up considering the first round of the playoffs as a pinnacle achievement. Unless the franchise generates actual success--not just a nice draft pick or sly trade move in isolation, but deep, sustained playoff runs--the culture is going to shift for good and will need to be re-learned from the bottom up.
Until the current trend is reversed, until the grand legacy of the Blazers franchise gets translated into a modern iteration, Blazers fans won't be able to lay claim to the title of "Best Fans" the way they once did. The spirit is willing but the results just aren't there yet.
All of that said, I wouldn't want to write for any other fan base. Whether or not Blazers fans are the "best" by any national measure, nobody is as good to chat with about basketball or the team. By that metric Portland folks are, and always will be, #1,
We're planning on sending 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th and we need your help. You can donate tickets to the cause through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
PLEASE consider sending a child or two! Donations have been strong but we've had a LOT of requests and we're not to 2000 yet. Help if you can.