The passing of Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen has engendered a small, but not insignificant, movement that can be described as, “Win one for Paul!” The basic idea, expressed in the question below, is that the Blazers should rally around the memory of their long-time owner to win a World Championship. This is a tricky topic, but important. It reflects how we view sports, the world, each other. There’s far more to it than meets the eye, which is why I’m tackling it in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I think Blazersedge should get on the bandwagon and start a win one for [late Blazers owner Paul Allen] surge going. It’s kind of started already but you could sure boost it. Can you think of a dream scenario better than Dame and company winning a title for PA? It’d be everything we ever dreamed of! What do you think? We beat LA so why not?
I’ve redacted the name of the person asking the question because I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m speaking personally against him or her. I get the sentiment and the intent. I do.
And hey, I want the Blazers to do as well as they can. Being in their orbit is more fun that way, plus I respect the desire for a title. I hope they do fantastically...up to and including pushing for rings.
Nor would I have any objection to players, coaches, and others saying after the fact, “We dedicate this to Paul Allen.” Coming from them, with the achievement in hand, I’d find that touching and wholly appropriate.
But this preemptive, fan-based, “Let’s win one for Paul” thing makes me squirm. I’m totally uncomfortable to the point of being aghast. There’s no way I’d utter that phrase, or want to be within a thousand miles of it, for reasons that go deeper than basketball.
It Doesn’t Work Like That
First off, the Blazers winning the championship this year is extremely unlikely. The Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, and a few other teams will still have something to say about it. If we assume that honoring the memory of Mr. Allen is enough to propel the Blazers to the upper reaches of the NBA, does that mean that if they don’t make it, they didn’t hold his memory highly enough? If reverence brings wins, then losses must demonstrate the lack thereof, right?
But hey, if we don’t need the Blazers to go all the way to the Finals to show their “respect”, what level of achievement is satisfactory? Is the Acceptable Reverence Line 60 wins? 50? 45?
These two concepts just do not mix well. Honoring someone’s memory is in a completely different realm than winning percentage or defensive efficiency. The former can, should, and will happen no matter what the numbers read in the latter categories.
If you lose a good friend, you’re allowed to have a bad day at work. Or you might not. Neither outcome says anything about how much you cared for the friend you lost.
Even If It Did, I’d Have Questions...
Keep in mind also that the Blazers are bringing back the same basic roster that they fielded the last couple seasons. (I know...Nik Stauskas. But even with his hot start, it’s hard to envision him being the difference between a first-round exit and a World Championship.) If this squad had the potential to win a title, where was it last year?
You know what would have been the REAL dream scenario? Winning one in front of the man who owned the team for 35 years hoping exactly that would happen. Forgive me, but if you have to wait for someone to die in order to find your motivation, something might be wrong with your motivation meter.
Who Is This About, Anyway?
But this kind of thing really isn’t about basketball, is it? Here’s the most uncomfortable detail of all: Fans wanted a title before Mr. Allen passed. Fans still want the same title after. His death didn’t change that desire.
Justifying our sports-based desires by linking them to Mr. Allen’s far-too-early death objectifies his passing and his life. His entire existence becomes another lever to get us what we always wanted anyway. In the name of “honoring” him, we show that his passing didn’t really change anything for us, or cause us to stop thinking about ourselves even for a second. Ugh.
People Get to be Real, Even in Sports
Sports give us the fantastic freedom to root for things. It’s wonderful that owners have the means to support an industry that brings us joy. That we pay for the privilege is beside the point. They provide something that makes us bigger than we were. They give us opportunities to cheer, laugh, lament, and bond.
That’s all good. But that’s not all players and owners are. Providing entertainment for us is not the sole reason they exist.
How we feel about a thing (or how it affects us) does not describe the totality of that thing. People get to live a real, integral existence outside of our orbit. We only see a narrow slice of most people around us. Those people get to be more than we perceive them as; their purpose goes beyond just fulfilling our needs.
Paul Allen was a real, whole human being. We knew him as the owner of the Portland Trail Blazers (as he wished to be known). He was also a philanthropist, a sufferer of illness, a hobbyist, a friend, a brother, and more. Why does the ultimate expression of “honoring” him have to center around the Blazers and a championship? Why not say, “Let’s go into outer space for Paul,” or, “Let’s house homeless folks for Paul,” or, “Let’s watch Star Trek: The Original Series for Paul,” or, “Let’s cure cancer for Paul”? Why not just affirm that the Blazers are honoring him by playing and we are honoring him by rooting for them no matter what the final result ends up?
As we speak these things publicly, why don’t we also remember and respect the people closest to Mr. Allen who would probably give up almost all of the things we just talked about to be able to sit and talk with him for one more day?
More Important Than a Story
The Blazers winning a championship right after Paul Allen died would make for a fantastic and sentimental story. But human lives are more than fantastic and sentimental stories. Paul Allen’s existence means just as much as it ever did, even if the Blazers never win a title again.
I believe that we honor each other when we let people be themselves and have importance beyond us....when we see each other as the whole, rich, and complex human beings we are. I think we can root for the Blazers to do well without objectifying their late owner in the process. I also think Damian Lillard gets to have a rap career, CJ McCollum gets to explore journalism and get married, Jusuf Nurkic gets to eat at a restaurant, Evan Turner gets to do Instagram...all without us stuffing them into shallow boxes and refusing to credit them as real people unless they give us what we want. Viewing people as important and honorable only in the exact ways we find convenient and self-satisfying isn’t warm and sentimental...it’s terrible.
Let’s be honest. We’re still going to have those championship desires for years to come. The Blazers will have new owners someday too. Paul Allen’s family and friends are never going to get another him.
We don’t get to pick up and put down Mr. Allen’s memory as a convenient prop in our sports drama. Honoring him begins with a simple affirmation that his life was worth more than that. We need to affirm that for him, and for everyone in the organization, no matter how many wins or losses the Blazers accrue.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to email@example.com.