Like many of you, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen today. It would be hard for any member of the general public to say they felt close to the Blazers owner. I certainly don’t claim to be. He was enigmatic, removed from the everyday world by aspirations, habits, and billions of dollars with which to carry them out. He was never particularly comfortable speaking on camera, emerging once a year or so to answer a couple of insoluble questions before retreating to his routine, signaling eight more months of NBA basketball in Portland.
Though we all knew that death was a possibility—his diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma was public and long-standing—the reality of it hit with unexpected emotion. More than one acquaintance has written me since this afternoon saying, “I’m a lot more emotional about this than I thought I’d be.” I’m in the same boat myself.
Some attribute the emotions that accompany news of death to a reminder of our own mortality. Perhaps...but the explanation seems too facile. We all know where our road ends. Mr. Allen passing didn’t bring us any closer to it, nor make it more immediate. Losing him doesn’t give me more concern for myself, at least not in that way.
I suspect death reminds us that the only thing permanent in this life is change. Even if something isn’t ideal—even it’s not even that noticeable in your daily life—losing one of the flagstones along your path leaves a hole. What once seemed solid, you now have to think about. Instinctive steps now require second thought.
Death leaves us sad and disoriented, not because we fear we might lose everything someday, but because we understand we’ve lost a part of ourselves—and a part of our familiar world—right now.
Paul Allen has owned the Trail Blazers since 1988. He has been the only publicly-visible constant during five distinct franchise eras, spanning three decades. He was there through ups and downs, good moves and bad moves, uniform changes, executive changes, venue changes, and life changes. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not. Thursday night’s season-opener versus the Los Angeles Lakers will begin a new—and for now, quite strange—chapter in our collective Trail Blazers story.
In that light, it seems appropriate to remember the journey that Mr. Allen took along with us.
Paul Allen purchased the Trail Blazers as a brash, young billionaire, fresh off of Microsoft success, in a time before that kind of cash was de rigueur in ownership circles. He preceded Mikhail Prokhorov by a quarter century and provided inspiration to Mark Cuban. He walked in an untouched billionaire wilderness. The minute he took control from the older-money establishment, the Blazers and the league embarked into a brave, new world.
Allen’s dollars bought a team on the rise, built by some of the steadiest and smartest managers around. In June of 1990, Clyde Drexler would lead the Blazers to the NBA Finals in a heady rush. For three of his first four seasons, Allen’s new franchise would hover near the top of the league, providing the longest sustained streak of success in franchise history. Stories emerged of Allen shooting H-O-R-S-E with his stars at his home court, milking the adrenaline out of his new passion. It was a golden era in every way.
Injuries to Drexler brought the honeymoon period to a close. Drexler’s exit to Houston—the most symbolically significant move of Allen’s ownership—coincided with the hiring of a brash, young executive named Bob Whitsitt. Like Allen, Whitsitt hailed from Seattle. He had a razor-like mind and confidence to match. This was the supercharged, light-speed, information era coming to basketball, owner and manager set to push the boundaries. The aging Drexler was having no part of it. The subsequent crumbling of the iconic early-90’s Blazers was sad, but it also gave the duo an open field to play in.
The Whitsitt Era proved occasionally frustrating and ultimately futile, but it was always exciting. Allen’s right-hand man had an eye for deals, clicking on trade proposals like he was playing Diablo 2. Allen flexed his financial muscles, allowing Whitsitt to assemble a team of current, former, and future All-Stars...at one point at least 14 deep with recognizable names. The owner who used to shoot alongside his players was now working the trade machine alongside his GM. Outfoxing and outspending the big boys was small-market paradise.
The Blazers never went farther than the conference finals during Whitsitt’s tenure. In a Darren Aronofsky narrative arc, the pursuit of greatness got more desperate as deals and returns grew worse. The dream disintegrated. Players became less likable and victories more scarce, ushering in the soul-sucking nadir of the franchise: the JailBlazers Era.
At this point, Allen fired Whitsitt, then went underground. He employed another corporate strategy, hiring executives John Nash and Steve Patterson to take a scythe to the still-expensive, deeply-foundering, and completely-unpalatable roster. Part of their job was taking the heat as the team was dismantled. Boy, did they.
The franchise’s fortunes began to look up in 2006 as the Blazers drafted future All-Stars Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Allen made another move, promoting wunderkind Kevin Pritchard to GM, reputedly on the strength of Pritchard’s recommendation to draft Chris Paul in the 2005 NBA Draft (which sadly never happened). Pritchard was energetic, outgoing, media-friendly...everything the franchise needed to spur a public Renaissance. Things got even brighter when the Blazers won the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and selected superstar-in-waiting Greg Oden out of Ohio State.
During that same draft, the rival Seattle Supersonics selected Kevin Durant from Texas, setting up a Pacific Northwest battle that, unfortunately, never developed. The Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City under robber baron owner Clay Bennett...a move which Allen voted against in the NBA Board of Governors. This left Seattle wide open, beginning speculation that local resident Allen would someday move his NBA franchise north. Connections were strong: Roy was an Emerald City product; Head Coach Nate McMillan was a Seattle icon. Each time rumors swirled that the burgeoning Blazers revival would be cut short, Allen or his proxies stepped forward and said, “No.” He recounted his days as a young man, following the team. These renewed pledges earned him credit with the fan base. The enigmatic billionaire at least seemed benign, perhaps occasionally lovable.
It was around this time that General Managers—particularly Pritchard but continuing ever after—began to describe Allen’s passion for, and involvement with, the franchise. Phone conversations, sharp inquiries, and general excitement were avowed hallmarks of the “Best Owner in Professional Sports”. Notoriety became a double-edged sword. When things went well, fans applauded their owner’s investment. When fortunes turned downward, they accused Allen of amateur meddling.
Through it all, Portland’s owner continued to keep his own beat. Unfortunately, the rest of the band wouldn’t cooperate. Oden’s knees and temperament proved unsuitable for the NBA. Roy’s knees would soon follow. All of a sudden, the luckiest franchise of the decade seemed cursed.
Allen’s unorthodoxy reached unprecedented levels on Draft Day, 2010 when he fired Pritchard an hour before the draft commenced, retaining him long enough to make the picks. The Blazers did the walk of shame with Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, and Armon Johnson. The NBA scratched their collective heads.
After a whirlwind courtship, Allen went with former aircraft engineer Rich Cho as Portland’s next GM, only to summarily fire him 10 months later for what was described alternately as a “lack of communication” and a “personality conflict”. Once again, head scratching commenced.
With two bizarre General Manager incidents coming rapid-fire, Allen had to get the next hire right. After an extended interim tour by staffer Chad Buchanan, Allen found his man in Los Angeles Clippers executive Neil Olshey. The silver-tongued former actor had brought Chris Paul to Los Angeles, had the communications chops to keep the public happy, and apparently knew enough to keep a line open to his new boss. Olshey has been Allen’s chief basketball executive since 2012, the longest tenure of anyone save Whitsitt.
Though Portland’s results during the Olshey Era have been mixed, Allen remained a strong supporting force throughout. During the mid-2010’s, the Blazers inked popular stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to enormous contracts, then spent at a late-1990’s level to retain the roster around them. Wise or not, Blazers fans knew that even after 25 years, somebody up there cared.
Was Paul Allen a great owner? That’s neither the real question nor his strength. Paul Allen was the owner that any of us would have been if we were allowed to take that seat. This is the guy who bought and played Jimi Hendrix’s guitar; who collected props and costumes from the original Star Trek, then devoted a museum to them; who pioneered private space shots before every billionaire on the block was doing them. Who among us would not keep a hotline to our GM’s? Who could resist buying up extra second-round draft picks to speculate on, just for fun? Given the chance, we would ALL link up satellites so we could watch our team play across the globe, hire the most interesting minds we could find to manage the process, then show up courtside to see it first-hand.
One of the most touching moments of Allen’s tenure with the Blazers came after he battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma for the first time. One night he returned to his familiar arena seat, his ball cap covering a form that looked more frail than usual. As the crowd saw the vacancy filled after the long absence, a buzz began to build, which then erupted into applause and cries of, “Paul!” The nervous public figure smiled wryly, despite himself.
The ovation wasn’t because of Allen’s personal charisma, brilliant moves, or any great pronouncement. The crowd responded with love because, deep down inside, despite the barriers of money and introversion, he was one of them: mortal, but persevering, a guy just glad to be there to see his team play. In the end, it didn’t matter that the “his” in “his team” was far more grandiose than a normal fan could claim. Any guy who would call a friend up at three in the morning to discuss trading for Eric Maynor...any guy who would get on his feet as Kenny Anderson lobbed the ball to Rasheed Wallace for the slam...any guy who would back up that passion year after year with millions of dollars to follow the dream, whether or not it paid off, well...that guy’s alright with us.
Godspeed, Paul, and thanks.