You ever see a moment in a basketball game and just get an overwhelming sense that THIS was the play that foreshadowed great things to come? I’m thinking of stuff like Kevin Duckworth walking out of the tunnel before game 7 against the Spurs, or Scottie Pippen burying the Jazz with a rare 3-pointer, or the BRoy/Dame daggers against the Rockets.
The storylines, the aesthetics, the excitement, sometimes it just all comes together. You’d be forgiven for believing the Blazers were a team of championship destiny after any one of those moments.
For me, the Trail Blazers moment that stands out didn’t even happen during a Blazers game. It came courtesy of Rudy Fernandez. Specifically, the moment he announced to (literally) the entire world that he was going to be a problem in the NBA.
At the time, Rudy was set to make his NBA debut at the start of the 2008-09 season. With that future in mind Fernandez’s dunk screamed “Blazers will win a championship” to me. He had yet to play a minute in the NBA but just embarrassed Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard on the same play in a do-or-die possession of a freaking gold medal game.
Keep in mind this wasn’t post-Achilles Kobe or Wizards-era Dwight. They were both playing all out against Spain as part of the “Redeem Team” effort to return Olympic glory to the USA brand. Those two were at the absolute peaks of their power and would be all-NBA defensive first team selections less than a year later.
Huevos, indeed, Rodolfo.
And the Blazers, one of the youngest and deepest teams in the NBA, were going to add this guy to the team when the season started?! Add him to the roster that already had all-NBA heir apparents in Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge? And a second-coming of Dikembe Mutombo with Greg Oden? And multiple solid role players (e.g. Martell Webster, Steve Blake, and, don’t laugh, Travis Outlaw)?
They’re going to add the guy who roasted Kobe and Dwight to THAT roster?!
Since I’m in full-hyperbole mode, I’ll just go ahead and say it. Rudy’s dunk felt like a reincarnation of Walton over Jabbar:
So, yeah, with that one dunk the storyline, aesthetics, and excitement for the Brandon Roy-era Trail Blazers all came together. Rudy Fernandez, slayer of NBA giants, would join the deepest and youngest roster in the NBA and become the red hot spark plug off the bench. The Blazers would roll to multiple NBA championships. The excitement was palpable.
Of course, it would all come crashing down. There would be a few almost-moments that lived up to the hype:
But those moments came infrequently and the team never reached a true apex.
From the 2008-09 Blazers basically everyone not named LaMarcus or Nic would suffer varying degrees of disappointment. Fernandez was not immune — after three seasons of struggling to fit into Nate McMillan’s system he would demand a trade and land with the Nuggets. He’d last one year in Denver before leaving the NBA for good at the end of the 2011-12 season.
In the end Rudy’s dunk did not foretell a decade of prosperity, as I imagined. If anything, it’s become a reminder of the bitter disappointment that submarined the Roy era for Blazermaniacs. But you’ll have to forgive me for believing, at the time, that the “Fernandez over Howard” moment was foretelling of a parade in Portland.