The Portland Trail Blazers are closing in on their 50th year as an NBA franchise. The ups and downs of those five decades have inspired hearts across the globe and left scars across same. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
What are your greatest moments as a Blazers fan? Pick any in history. Just curious.
I’m not sure I can just pick “greatest” moments, at least not if “great” means “happy”. Hope, expectation, joy, and sorrow have been intermingled with this franchise for as long as I’ve followed it. The five happiest moments wouldn’t necessarily be the five most important or striking. If you’ll permit me to define “greatest” as “most weighty or influential to me”, I can answer your question.
1. Winning the Championship
This one is obvious. It was also my first real memory of the team, so it looms largest for me. But even brushing aside the childlike wonder that accompanied the event, its lasting effect cannot be overestimated. People still don’t understand this, but watching your team win a title changes you. Success itself gets redefined and it cannot recede to its former spot. The championship becomes a filter, separating excellence from all its impostors. Winning a title is hard. Suddenly you know what perseverance looks like. You understand that luck is an important component of the journey but that it’s useless in isolation; you cannot hope your way to a title. Talent, drive, fortitude, and will must be overwhelming...not just good enough to give you a chance, but dominant enough to obliterate everybody else’s chances no matter what they bring at you, no matter how lucky they get. This is a perspective you never lose. It’s impossible to see the league or the game the same way after.
2. Going to the 1990 NBA Finals
This wasn’t just a repeat of the championship promise of 1977, it was a new unfolding. People knew the 1989-90 Blazers would be good. I’m not sure anybody expected they’d be this good. Yet here they were, defeating the Phoenix Suns on the road to win the Conference Finals 4-2, flying back home to be greeted by thousands at the tiny Hillsboro Airport, then stopping to give speeches before heading into the national limelight and the ultimate showdown with the Detroit Pistons. Back in the ‘70’s, nobody got to see the team before the actual playoff run. With wider-spread TV coverage in the early ‘90’s, we saw the Finals march constructed bit by bit over 82 games and more. It was like seeing a magic trick demonstrated step by step, yet still being awed by the output.
Clyde Drexler and company never winning a title in a Portland uniform stings to this day...another reason the trip was so memorable. In the end, though, the joy of the throng on that airport tarmac provides a more enduring legacy than the empty trophy place.
3. Drazen Petrovic Dies
Drazen Petrovic was fresh-faced, pure-shooting, and mostly overwhelmed during his time in Portland. Playing behind Drexler left him impoverished for court time. But his enthusiasm and barely-hidden wizardry still leaked through in the moments his sneakers connected with hardwood. Eventually he was traded to the New Jersey Nets, where he found lower expectations, more playing time, and success.
It was early June of 1993 when I flipped on my car radio while angling towards a gas station. I heard the local sports radio hosts talking in somber tones. I had to shut off the car when I reached the pump but it was clear something bad had happened...that someone had died. I ran through who it could be as the tank got filled. Then, just after I restarted the engine, they spoke his name: Drazen. That moment is burned into my mind, not because I was more fond of Petrovic than other Blazers, but because it seemed unfair that a player with so much pluck and perseverance would have his life snuffed out so unexpectedly. Mortality didn’t catch up to a hero, it caught up to a really energetic and talented guy. Somehow that made it worse.
4. The Perfect First Quarter
This is another early ‘90’s memory but it was a time of extended momentum.
During Portland’s hard-fought 1990 Playoffs run, no Western Conference opponent was tougher than the San Antonio Spurs. David Robinson surrounded by a ton of talent spelled big trouble. The Blazers squeaked by them in the second round of the playoffs 4-3, winning Game 7 in overtime in the most hectic, nail-biting fashion.
The Spurs spent all summer stewing over their narrow defeat, convinced that they could have made the run to the Finals had a single bounce gone differently. The first rematch of the 1990-91 campaign was circled on their calendar. They came in prepared to show the Blazers and the world that they intended to take Portland’s spot. Instead the new, improved Trail Blazers (with Danny Ainge and a more experienced Cliff Robinson in tow) pounded San Antonio into irrelevance. Portland barely missed a shot in the entire first period, ran the Spurs ragged, and amassed an incredible 49-18 lead after one. It was the sickest thing I’ve ever witnessed in person on a basketball court.
5. The 2007 NBA Draft
The 2007 NBA Draft was slated to be one of the most significant in history. People knew this long before the June date arrived. Even as the 2006 Draft was closing, commentators were already whispering about the following year...specifically about Greg Oden, the behemoth from Ohio State. When Kevin Durant turned in an incredible season at Texas, the hype didn’t double, it went exponential. Destinies hung on the lottery drawing in May of 2007.
When Portland’s logo didn’t appear in the expected place in the order—indicating a Top 3 finish, at minimum—lunacy commenced. When their placard didn’t appear at all until the #1 slot was revealed, the world erupted. Momentum continued until draft night when Oden became Portland’s selection. It was a month of hype nobody could ever forget.
All this was supposed to culminate in a perpetual dynasty with Oden playing beside LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy forever. Even now the heart quickens thinking about it. Championships may not have materialized, but nobody could take that ethereal high away.
As I’ve written this, I can think of other significant moments that have shaped team history and my understanding of same. Maybe we’ll post a follow-up feature next week with five more. In the meantime, what are your most significant moments? Let us know in the comment section and keep those Mailbag questions coming to email@example.com.