The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 49 | Isaiah “J.R.” Rider
Games Played with Blazers: 197 Regular Season, 21 Postseason
*PTS: 16.9 | REB: 4.3 | AST: 2.7 | FG%: 43.5
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: July 1996, acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves for James Robinson, Bill Curley, and a first-round pick
Departed Club: August 1999, traded with Jim Jackson to the Atlanta Hawks for Steve Smith and Ed Gray
Place in History: Isaiah Rider had a lot going for him when he joined the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer of 1996. He was a phenomenal athlete, built like a tank but able to fly like a plane, traits that served him well in winning the 1994 NBA All-Star Dunk Contest.
He was young, only 25 that season. He could score, boasting a shiny 19.6 pointer per game average on 46.4% shooting the season prior with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He could shoot the three ball. He was good on foul shots. Finally, and most importantly, he was joining a roster in transition with plenty of room for him to shine. Aaron McKie was the only true shooting guard the Blazers had fielded the season before; nobody coming on board with Rider had any chance of displacing him from the starting lineup.
Isaiah Rider also had a few things going against him when he joined the Blazers. Though a season and a half had passed since he was traded, Clyde Drexler remained as the paragon two-guard in the hearts of fans and the organization. Rider was the first candidate who could potentially replace Drexler’s production and impact. He would be judged accordingly. Rider’s defense was, to put it politely, lacking. He wasn’t known as a team player, prone to valuing his own shot above all else.
But the biggest obstacle to J.R. Rider finding a happy home in Portland was J.R. Rider. Some NBA player adversities are buried deep in locker rooms and executive offices. Some are “open secrets”. There was nothing secretive at all about Rider’s struggles in Minnesota. Some described it as attitude, others bad habits. Some speculated that Rider just wasn’t quite all there. Whatever the cause, Rider came equipped with flashing neon warning signs big enough for the whole league to see. General Manager Kevin McHale took to the airwaves to answer questions about his unpredictable guard, saying (caveat: this is from personal memory), “J.R. is a great guy when you sit down and talk to him. If I needed someone to watch my kids, I wouldn’t think twice. But sometimes, when he gets out there, things just [insert random euphemism for “don’t go right” here].”
When newspaper columnists say, “I’ve heard things about this guy...” you worry. When a GM gets on national sports radio claiming, “He’s really a nice guy (except for all that other stuff y’all see),” you should panic.
The Trail Blazers did not panic. Instead they traded underachieving James “Hollywood” Robinson, Bill Curley, and a mediocre first-round pick for one of the league’s top scorers and best athletes.
Back in fifth grade at Laurelhurst Elementary in Portland, I was a clueless, mostly-innocent derp-derp kid. One day at lunch, in the gym, I managed to snag one of the few available basketballs and began shooting around. Tom J. and Charlie T. (both later nice guys but at that point also fifth-grade boys, which is pretty much synonymous with “totally evil, given the opportunity”) stood by the ball rack and called out to me.
“Hey Deckard,” they said, “Why are you playing with that ratty ball? There’s this brand new one right here!”
I looked, and sitting between them was a shiny, new basketball. They each cradled it with one of their hands, like fifth-grade Vanna Whites, showing off the letter “R” you just revealed, the better to demonstrate that it was real and not just a figment of my imagination.
I looked at them, looked at the ball, and wondered why they were being nice to me all of a sudden. But the ball was much better looking than the one I had, so I went over, dropped my old ball, and grabbed the new one.
My first clue came when Tom and Charlie snatched up my old ball gleefully. My second came when they released the ball they had been holding. As it turned out, their hands were cradling it because they had been pinching it from behind, pushing the air inside to make the front seem all round and beautiful even though it was actually half deflated, and thus basically useless.
Yeah, I should have known better. The Blazers probably should have with Isaiah Rider too. They could have read the headlines. They might have figured it out when McHale and company Tom-and-Charlie’d them for their scruffy, old ball. If they didn’t understand then, they were about to find out.
Rider didn’t do poorly, at least not all the time. He scored 20 per game in 1997-98. He’d help the Blazers big-time in both the first-round and second-round of the 1999 NBA Playoffs, getting them past the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz before running into the Spurs buzzsaw. He scored 24 or more four times during that postseason run, shooting 42% from the three-point arc. Not a lot of Trail Blazers can lay claim to those numbers in the playoffs.
But even when he was on, Rider tended to accumulate stats by getting up a bunch of shots. The offense stopped, and often died, with him. And when he wasn’t on, it was like he was on another planet. He would stop dead in the middle of offensive sets, hands at his side, staring. He would run away from the ball or pass it right back to the player who gave it to him like a Hot Potato. He was forever going into business for himself and nobody could figure out exactly what that business was.
Rider also experienced off-court difficulties. Some of those were over issues that, in 2020, we’d consider understandable, even normal. Others stemmed from things that shouldn’t ever happen, like missing flights and behaving in unconscionable fashion towards employees and fans. Later revelations from his post-playing days would include accusations of criminal acts. He’d be convicted for cocaine possession. He has since settled down into family life, claiming that those things are long behind him.
Either way, Rider became the dandelion seed turning the franchise culture from the tradition of team ball and community image towards individual performance and aggrandizement. If you want to look for the deepest roots of the Jail Blazers phenomenon, they happened here, a half-decade before the term would become a buzzword.
Isaiah Rider was talented, imposing, and productive. Unfortunately none of those things were focused or enduring, and his influence on the organization—though significant—ended up being largely negative. For the ability and the playoff runs, and also being a player that we might want to forget, but can’t, Rider gets the 49th spot on our Top 100 list of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Remember the good times...
...and share your thoughts and memories of J.R. Rider below as we continue to count down to #1!