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. 9 | Paul Allen
Place in History:
For the first 48 years of their existence between 1970-2018, the Portland Trail Blazers operated under two ownership regimes.
The first, captained by co-founder Larry Weinberg (initially with fellow investors Herman Sarkowsky and Robert Schmertz) carried Portland through the 1977 World Championship and most of the 1980’s. By 1988, Weinberg had tired of the game. Its evolution, stylistically and financially, was more than he bargained for in the early years of expansion. By his own admission, he had received frequent offers to buy the Blazers in the past. Now Weinberg was ready to pass on the franchise to a qualified buyer. “Qualified” in this case meant, “Would keep the team in Portland” and of course, “Had enough money to buy it.”
The man who fit both criteria was a 35-year-old ex-Microsoft executive named Paul Allen.
Microsoft and Money
Many computer industry pioneers during the technology boom of the 1980’s found themselves with more money than they knew what to do with. Allen was near the tippy-top of that pyramid. He had worked alongside Bill Gates as co-founder of the company that had developed the most ubiquitous piece of computer software known to mankind. Unless you had an Apple product—comparatively few in the 80’s did—you were running Windows and putting money in the pockets of Gates and Allen. Office suites and other productivity apps followed; Microsoft pretty much took over the world.
Internal conflict and a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a rare form of cancer—would bring Allen’s in-the-trenches tenure at Microsoft to a close in 1983. He retained a position on the board of directors and, more importantly, a semi-truck full of stock. When Microsoft went public in 1986, Wall Street couldn’t keep up with the demand for their shares. The rapid inflation in price left Allen a billionaire.
Most of us would consider $100,000 a pretty good salary. A million dollars has long been the standard for identifying as “rich”. More than that and the figures start to blur. We toss hundred thousand, million, and billion into congruent sentences assuming they’re the same thing, just in slightly different scale. They’re not.
A million is ten times a hundred thousand.
A billion is a thousand times a million.
Put another way, a billion dollars equals the $100,000 salary that would make you comfortably well off, paid to you each year for the next 100 centuries.
Allen and Gates didn’t stop at a billion dollars either. They had tens of billions. At the time Allen purchased the Blazers, superstar shooting guard Clyde Drexler was making $1.2 million per year. Conservatively, the new owner could have paid Drexler for the next 4167 years. If he invested wisely, Allen still would have ended up on the Forbes Top 100 Richest People list at the end of it.
Playing in the NBA
Today, ultra-rich folks owning NBA teams is taken for granted. In 2020, the Memphis Grizzlies occupied the lowest spot on Forbes’ ranking of NBA franchise values. They’re valued at $1.3 billion. You practically have to be a billionaire to buy in.
This was not true back in 1988. Whether owners made their bones in real estate or big business, sports franchises were supposed to be an investment. They generated money through profit, tax write-off, or resale at an inflated price...hopefully all three. The NBA was a business. Even though they were technically in competition, owners watched out for each other, making sure that nobody did anything that could endanger the league’s competitiveness, or worse, profitability.
Allen’s enormous wealth threatened to upset the balance. He didn’t need his team to make money in order to prosper. His net worth matched the GDP of several nations already. A few millions, or even tens of millions, wasn’t going to matter either way. He wasn’t from any old guard elite class either. He was not a classic businessman or sports promoter. He wasn’t old enough to be “old guard” anything. All of this was new for the insular sports league. Portland’s owner was a wild card.
Have you ever seen people playing Warhammer in game stores or shopping mall space, in churches or libraries? It’s the game with all the miniature space-soldier robot figures spread out on huge tabletop battlefields, around which people in weirdly-inscribed t-shirts scuttle with rulebooks and dice. Unless you’re part of the group, it seems weird and arcane.
Even from a distance, you can tell how much time and effort these gamers have spent on their collections of miniatures, carefully laid out and lovingly painted. You can feel the number of paychecks and hours poured into the hobby. Tenure, dedication, and resources become identity markers, barriers separating insiders from outsiders.
Imagine for a moment being in one of those Warhammer groups. You know the lingo and own the rulebooks. You lovingly spend dollars and weekends getting just the right figures for your collection. You know where you stack up in the group hierarchy with playing ability and collection size. Other people might not understand your passion—we’re looking at you, mom and dad—but it’s your delicate, complex little environment.
So you and your buddies are playing one Saturday night when New Guy walks into the mall. He comes right up to the table. “Warhammer!” he says. “I’ve loved this game forever, but only from afar. Mind if I join and play?”
“Sure!” you reply, ready to initiate the new guy into the hobby. “This is my favorite figure. I have a standard version but I painted this one as an alternate. I’m 15-6 when I use it.”
“Oh yeah, I have one of those!” says your new friend. Then he snaps his fingers as six dudes in suits bring in steamer trunks full of every figure that’s ever existed, most of them meticulously painted by the Picassos of the industry, a few of them solid gold with gemstone accents.
“I figure I needed a few to start out with. Hope that’s enough.”
After you pick up your jaw off the floor you gasp, “I thought you said you didn’t play?!?”
“No, seriously, I don’t. I just had these shipped in this week.”
If you can empathize with normal hobbyist when New Fantastically Rich Guy shows up, you’ll also understand how Allen threatened the balance and culture of the NBA.
Nevertheless, money was money, and Allen did promise to keep the team in place. He had been a part of the Blazers tradition, growing up and living in the Pacific Northwest, including across the river in Vancouver, Washington. He understood what the NBA Championship and Blazermania meant to the community. He also had a deep passion for basketball. In most ways, he was an ideal candidate to own the team.
In 1988, Allen signed on the dotted line. Then everybody sat back and waited to see what the rich new guy would do.
The Initial Moves
At first, the answer was, “Not much, overtly.”
Allen inherited a team on the rise. Drexler had long been in the fold. He was now one of the premier players in all the league. The Blazers had already drafted Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter. They’d traded for Kevin Duckworth. Their first significant deals under Allen were trading oft-injured center Sam Bowie for veteran power forward Buck Williams and drafting Connecticut forward Clifford Robinson in the second round. Both turned out solid gold.
As it turned out, Allen’s first big move didn’t come on the court. It literally was the court.
Since their inception in 1970, the Blazers had played in Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. Its seating capacity of 12,888 gave rise to the fabled 814-game home sellout streak which had formed franchise identity over multiple generations. The Coliseum was old, though, and had none of the modern amenities teams depended on to enhance revenue.
When most professional owners need an arena, they pressure the city to build one for them, threatening to move or sell the franchise if demands aren’t met. A decade later, this issue would eventually doom the relationship between the city of Seattle and their beloved Supersonics. But Allen wasn’t “most owners”.
The Blazers negotiated with the city over a new building; it wouldn’t be prudent or possible not to. Things went pretty smoothly when Allen said, “Give me the ground underneath the arena, I’ll build the building out of my own pocket. You keep the surrounding area and we’ll both draw revenue.” Envisioning a new, bustling district, the city said yes.
Construction on the “Rose Garden” (now Moda Center) was started in 1993. The building opened in 1995 with a seating capacity of over 21,000, later dropped to just below 20,000.
The move showed a couple things about Allen’s style. First of all: Need an arena? Buy an arena! No big deal. Second, there was little doubt that adding 60% to seating capacity was going to bring an end to the sellout streak. The Blazers were fine with that. Given the choice between holding onto the past and jumping into the future, Allen would choose the latter.
Fingerprints on the Franchise
Allen scored a coup in the Summer of 1994 when he hired away Bob Whitsitt from the Seattle Supersonics to become the new General Manager in Portland. Whitsitt had just won the NBA Executive of the Year Award. This was the owner’s first real “flex” move. Even if he wasn’t getting along with Sonics management, there was no reason Whitsitt—the hottest executive in the league—should look at the Trail Blazers, by then a team in decline. Allen’s creative license and dollars brought him into the fold anyway.
With Drexler aging and succumbing to injury, Whitsitt and Allen faced a franchise-changing moment. Clyde meant everything to the Blazers. He also wanted to win rings while he still had productive years left. The problem would have been solved had the Blazers been able to draft University of Houston teammate Hakeem Olajuwon back in 1984 instead of Bowie, but that ship had sailed. “The Dream” wasn’t coming to Portland, so “The Glide” wanted to move to Houston. Reportedly Allen would have preferred Clyde to stay. It wasn’t going to work.
The ensuing trade—Drexler for Otis Thorpe, who would be gone in a year—created an overwhelming, “Now what?” feeling around the franchise. They were at a serious crossroads. The players around Drexler had brought unparalleled success, but they weren’t getting any younger themselves and they weren’t capable of making a title run without him. The Blazers could have ridden out a wave of nostalgia, fielding players who engendered goodwill in place of victories. Instead, within a two-year period, Whitsitt dumped them all.
The shock of having so many familiar faces depart at once would have been show-stopping had the Blazers given anyone time to consider it. Reflection got drowned out in the new wave of players Whitsitt acquired for his team using his owner’s open pocketbook.
Allen’s answer to, “Now what?” was, “Make it rain.”
During this period from 1995-2003, Whitsitt earned the moniker “Trader Bob”. His propensity to make deals every season became legendary. He moved players like trading cards, trying to increase value and production. Players on the rise, high draft picks that weren’t in the right place, established veteran stars who needed a new home...Whitsitt grabbed them all. He wouldn’t have been able to do so without the green light from Allen, who was always willing to pay for it.
Whitsitt and Allen scooped up Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith and at least a dozen other players casual fans would recognize instantly. Center Chris Dudley, at that time in reasonable demand, signed a deal with the Blazers that paid him a pittance compared to his true value. People scratched their heads until they noticed it had an opt-out after the first year. Once Dudley exercised the opt-out, Allen was going to make him a rich man. This was typical of the Paul-Bob duo. Everything that would squeeze under salary cap rules (or fly through loopholes) the Blazers would try.
To underline the point, take a look at Portland’s 1999-2000 roster:
Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Brian Grant, Arvydas Sabonis, Jermaine O’Neal, Detlef Schrempf, Bonzi Wells, Antonio Harvey, Gary Grant, Joe Kleine
It was during this era that the “Best owner in Pro Sports” phrase came into common use when executives described Allen. Roughly translated it meant, “Willing to try anything, packing a nearly-unlimited pool of resources to pull it off.”
The Quiet Years
As trite interview candidates have told us for ages, every strength can become a weakness. As the millennium flipped, so did Portland’s fortunes. The instinct to acquire talent apart from culture considerations, tradition, or identity spun out of control. Like addicts, the Blazers were always seeking their next high, but getting progressively less results from it. They moved center-in-waiting Jermaine O’Neal for Dale Davis. Franchise icon Brian Grant became franchise pariah Shawn Kemp.
Opposing GM’s were increasingly reluctant to trade huge value for the players Portland had to offer. Aging stars acquired in prior years became all but untradable, riding out enormous contracts while giving a fraction of their former peak production. New stars like Zach Randolph and Bonzi Wells seemed to lack a cultural compass outside of “score the points, get the money”. This seemed wholly apropos for the era.
As the mid-2000’s approached, the Blazers entered the darkest days of their history. As bankable stars and wins disappeared, fans deserted in droves. The team began to hemorrhage money. Having ridden their billionaire owner so long, Trail Blazers staffers were deeply enmeshed in the “SPAM” ethos. The acronym stood for “Spending Paul Allen’s Money”.
When everything was shiny, with wins and praise coming in equal measure, spending big passed muster. Win totals in the 20’s, accompanied by newspaper headlines excoriating the team and its management, gave the phrase a dark, ironic tinge. The losses on the arena became so heavy that putting it into bankruptcy began to make sense. At that point, irony turned to anger.
By this time, Whitsitt had been fired. His Wild West trading style was replaced by the suit-and-tie, old sports business model of John Nash and Steve Patterson. That duo would spend the next three years cleaning house, dumping contracts, taking the blame as unpopular hatchet men. Austerity was the new byword. Allen’s franchise was resetting to square one, with profitability as part of the package.
The most notable thing about the owner during this time was his public absence. Notoriously publicity-averse in the first place, Allen appeared in front of cameras about as often as a February groundhog. Legend claimed if Paul Allen emerged and saw his own shadow, the Blazers must be getting a new point guard.
During the dark years of the franchise, Allen all but disappeared, leaving his management team to take the hits. Nash and Patterson got incinerated by local media. Arena bankruptcy proceedings made headlines everywhere. Silence reigned from above.
It didn’t take long before rumors started swirling that Allen was waiting for the franchise to fail, the better to move it to his now-vacant hometown of Seattle, where he now owned the much-better-performing Seahawks. Others said that the new focus on profitability would make the franchise more attractive to potential buyers.
The Rose Garden remained in bankruptcy between 2004 and 2007. Every time a breeze puffed sideways, Blazers fans debated whether they were losing their team. Given the state of things, they occasionally debated whether they should care.
Fans need not have worried. A Renaissance was on the way for the team and its owner.
It started with the 2006 NBA Draft, wherein the Blazers secured the rights to Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, two players who would turn around the team’s fortunes. Things got even better a year later when Portland won the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. The debate over whether they should select Texas forward Kevin Durant or Ohio State center Greg Oden made national headlines and re-energized the entire community.
Also in 2007, Allen came to terms with creditors, re-purchasing the Rose Garden and making a public proclamation that the Blazers were staying in Portland, period. Everyone exhaled, high-fived, and prepared for a decade of cheering Roy, Oden, and Aldridge as championship contenders.
At this time, Allen replaced Patterson with a fresh young executive named Kevin Pritchard. The new GM was an echo of Whitsitt back in 1993, just a lot nicer and more folksy. He had innovative ideas. He was willing to make moves. The rebirth was complete. The once-absentee owner was seen back in his familiar courtside seats once more, alongside his new General Manager.
Sadly, Pritchard’s reign would crumble along with Greg Oden’s legs and Brandon Roy’s knees. Allen fired his new Golden Boy on draft night, 2010. Famously, the owner allowed Pritchard to make Portland’s draft picks on the way out the door.
This began a two-year period in which Allen went through three lead executives: Pritchard, Rich Cho, and interim Chad Buchanan. The owner seemed restless. None of them sufficed.
In 2012, with his back against the wall and people once again questioning his acumen, Allen hired Neil Olshey from the Los Angeles Clippers. At that point, Olshey had to work. If Allen fired one more executive, he was going to be accused of being a General Manager philanderer.
Fortunately, Olshey did. Drafting Damian Lillard in 2012 would begin the newest era of the franchise...from a public relations standpoint, one of its best. It would be the fifth restart under Allen’s ownership, also sadly the last.
Throughout all his decades as owner, Allen had been battling cancer. His health would pop up in the news intermittently, usually to be overwhelmed by the latest trade rumor, the success of the Seahawks, or Allen’s ventures into space exploration and science fiction. After a while, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma became part of the background story, always there, seldom thought about.
The disease became noticeable as Allen aged and changed in front of Portland fans. His appearance visibly altered. He covered his bald head with a cap. He began to resemble a frail and aging grandfather more than the lumberjack-bearded computer nerd he had first appeared as.
As Allen declined, fans began to accept, then revere him. Criticisms from the Jail Blazers years were forgotten. Now the Portland faithful remembered fist pumps during playoffs victories, plus all the dollars and years poured into the franchise. Whenever the Moda Center arena crew put Allen’s face on the jumbotron screen, crowds erupted in warm cheers. Paul hadn’t won a championship. Many experts still claimed that, given his opportunities and assets, the franchise could have done better than they did. Somehow, that just made him more Portland-like.
Paul Allen passed away on October 15th, 2018. It’s worth noting that the shock of that announcement hit harder than any news I can recall in the history of the franchise. No other loss has come close, not because Allen was inherently more important as a person, but because of his deep, pervasive impact on the team and its development. No matter what else changed between 1989 and 2018, Allen was there making sure the bills were paid and that the Blazers would find their next step forward. When he passed, he not only stepped into the Great Unknown, he left great unknowns behind him. What would the Blazers do now? What would the future look like? Answers were indiscernible in a way they hadn’t been for three decades. In many ways, they still aren’t. His sister Jody now owns the team, but nobody can guess what it’ll look like. A three-decade relationship isn’t easy to replace.
The day Allen died I wrote a remembrance of him and his tenure as Trail Blazers owner. It concluded thus:
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.
After all the years, the billionaire and Blazers fans found each other. One suspects Allen’s ownership evolved the views and expectations of Blazers fans as much as they changed him. Either way, it all ended up in a good place.
For changes bedrock and surface...for helping to redefine ownership itself...for all the decisions that guided or shook the Blazers franchise for 30 years, we slide Paul Allen into the 9th spot in our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Depending on how you look at it, he could have been #1.
Share your memories of Paul Allen below and stick with us as we continue onward to the Top 8 slots.