Last night 2000 kids and chaperones from across the Pacific Northwest got to see the Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in a thrilling 114-108 overtime contest because of you. They watched as Jusuf Nurkić helped the Blazers streak ahead, they fretted as the Sixers pulled it close and sent it into extra innings, they exploded with joy as the Bosnian Beast reared his head once again in a historical performance to seal the victory for the home team. Throughout the 300 levels of the Moda Center, and part of the 200s as well, eager eyes took in an experience they wouldn’t have come close to without you.
From October to February this year Blazer’s Edge readers worked to make sure all 2000 kids would be able to come. By ones and twos, tens and twenties, tickets went out. This was a grassroots thing, a heart-to-heart, person-to-person style of giving. It always is and it’s always worth it. Last night was the fruition of all of that hard work.
I always try to arrive to the Moda Center early on Blazer’s Edge Night just to see the groups roll in. You can tell there’s something special in the air. Big troupes of children walk together, their eyes craning upwards, taking in the size of the building and the portraits of players emblazoned on the facade. Some run and gallop; others are awed by it. The pillar of fire at the entrance usually elicits some gasps. This might be bigger than they thought! The world offers excitement, unpredictability, maybe even a little danger of the kind that accompanies the unknown. Is it going to be worth it?
Watching the kids display their tickets for entry is interesting, if you get a chance to see it. In many ways this is the moment it all becomes real. Each participant holds in their hand one pass for entry into an actual NBA game. Beyond those doors lie the players and the experience they came for. But the doors are also barriers. Someone’s in the way, making sure they belong. For many of these kids the daily answer to that question is “no”. No, we can’t get that. No, we’re not going there. For most participants the ticket is just a ticket; even so you can still see the question in their eyes as they hold it up like a talisman to the ticket scanner. “Is it real? Can I come in?” There’s a short beep and then they get the answer. “Yes. It’s you. Come inside.”
If the awe-filled stares begin on the outside of the Moda Center, they proliferate on the concourse. Sometimes it’s a long walk to those seats. Who knew the arena was so big? But nothing...nothing beats the moment I’ve talked about so much before, when our Blazer’s Edge Night participants first step into the theater of play and see the floor, that logo, the scoreboard, and real, live players warming up. Keep in mind that for many of them, this is the very first Blazers game of their lives. As silly as it sounds, I suspect that even after the ride to the arena, even after the walk and the signs and the tickets, there’s still a little bit of incomprehension or doubt about the reality of all this. That final vestige disappears with the first sight of the hardwood. They...are...here.
The reality gets magnified as they take their seats and see all the people around them. Some are kids like themselves, stretching across the upper bowl in clumps and pockets. But that’s not all. There’s older folks and younger, people in sweats and people in suits...they perch among a big mix of folks all concentrating on the same thing, brought together by their love of this sport, these jerseys, and the players in them. Even if the world is bigger than they imagined, there are still ways to come together in it.
When the Blazers struck out to a first-quarter lead last night, the arena was LOUD. In part that was due to our participants. Those 300 sections get rowdy with that many kids all cheering and screaming. Every basket gives confirmation that goodness reigns. Rewards come in two- and three-point doses, in sweeping blocked shots and thrilling fast breaks. This is fun!
As Philadelphia surged back and kept the game close, you could feel the tension rising. But it wasn’t a bad tension. It was more like, “This is going to turn out right, isn’t it?” Stress and hope mingled; nobody lost faith. This is what we don’t realize. In the moment there’s no such thing as, “it’s just Philly,” or, “the roster is still short.” It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. Standings don’t matter and salaries don’t matter. In the seconds as the clock ticks down and the crowd is vibrating like a violin string, all that matters is that we care. 2000 kids all hoping for a win won’t let us do anything less. This time, this play, not letting each other down in this instant...these are the only important considerations. Through their eyes we re-learn what fandom means.
At some point it probably began to dawn on our participants that the Blazers could lose the game. Maybe some of them were even preparing explanations that it was alright, the night was fun anyway. But oh no...the ending was perfect. Tension peaking into overtime and then spilling out into a raucous riot of streamers and screams as the Blazers won made the evening that much more delicious. It couldn’t have been better in that way. We all stared in the face of disappointment and rejection and said, “No. Not tonight.” It started with Nurkić as the orchestra conductor, spread through his team, then reverberated up through the last row in the last rafter where a bunch of kids (who wouldn’t have even been there but for you) made the ceiling shake.
This was a special night. It always is. I got to meet a few readers and some of the kids and their chaperones in person. Thank you all for that. Especially I will remember three young ladies from Faubion school who sought us out with signs and thank yous. We high-fived and chatted for a minute. I asked if they were having fun and they said yes. Then I talked with their teacher and he said what a great experience it was. I told him to make sure and write us again next year so he could bring more students. He turned to the girls and said, “Did you hear that? Do you think you’d like to do this again?” Had they dimmed every light in the arena the smiles from those three still would have lit up the whole place. The Blazers stunt team couldn’t have jumped any higher.
Sports aren’t just about tickets and stats, rulebooks and highlight reels. They’re about bringing people together. The smiles and jumps of those girls remind us that together is the best way to be.
We’ll share more stories from the event soon. For now, thank you to all who helped make this experience a reality, including Alec Botts of the Trail Blazers, Dan Son and Shivani Banfal, Derek Deckard and Damian Lillard and the folks from Adidas behind the #AllRise campaign, and the wonderful adult facilitators from Mercy Association, Lynch Wood Elementary, Kairos School, Reynolds Learning Academy, Faubion School, the Community Transitional School, Southridge High School, Mentor Athletics, Children’s Relief Nursery, Polk Adolescent Day Treatment Center, Friends of the Children, Friendly House, The Next Door, Morpheus Youth, Northwest Family Services, and the Boys and Girls Club of Portland. And HoopSwagg, for a memorable sock donation promotion.
Thank you most of all, to our ticket donors and all the young folks who came and participated last night. You’re all amazing. Well done!
P.S. Catch me on the radio from 3-5 this afternoon with Chad Doing on 620 AM Rip City Radio. We’ll talk Blazer’s Edge Night and much more!