The Portland Trail Blazers started welcoming fans back into the Moda Center this weekend with the slate of home games versus the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. Blazer’s Edge writer Ryan Rosback was in attendance during the Spurs game, which the Blazers won 124-102. Here are Ryan’s impressions from the evening, giving you an idea what it’s like to be part of the lucky 10% in attendance for a Portland home game this season.
Boy does it feel good to be back.
Full disclosure - a month ago, I would have gauged my chances of attending an NBA game this season at essentially zero. Oregon was headed towards another lockdown and I had long since resigned myself that live basketball just probably wouldn’t be a thing for me in 2021. That made Wednesday’s about-face announcement from the Blazers that limited fans would be allowed to return to the arena, imminently, and for maybe the biggest game of the season so far against Rip City’s most detested foe, quite the shock indeed.
Tickets to Friday’s slugfest with the Lakers were understandably difficult to obtain, but I was fortunate enough to join many others who opted for Saturday’s more casual, if less anxiety-inducing showdown with the limping San Antonio Spurs. The turnaround of going from nothing, then days later to tickets in hand was almost surreal. Even dusting off a jersey from the closet and lacing up my game day scarlet Vans felt like a long forgotten ritual, as did making the trek down Grand Avenue en route to the Moda Center.
With 90% fewer attendees, parking was 90% easier in a weird, Thanos kind of way. With the crowd sparse and relegated to separate entrances, gone too was the budding atmosphere outside of the arena. Groups steadily trickled in, but if you weren’t watching closely, you might not have known an event was taking place at all.
That is, until you reach an entrance and the team rolls out the plaid carpet. Arena employees enthusiastically beckoned, as if caretakers of a deserted mountain lodge welcoming its first visitors after the worst winter of all time. Automated ticket scanners at the door lived up to the Rose Quarter’s hands-free promise, then it was just a hop, skip and jump past security and there I was, standing in the arena about to watch the real Blazers play real basketball in a real game for the first time in over 14 months.
But first things first - I made a beeline to section 105, home of Killer Burger, which wasn’t open, so I reverse-beelined to section 115 where, praise be, its other location was running like a machine. Nothing would stand in the way of me and grilled peanut butter pickle bacon-y goodness (seriously, folks - this is the way). Concessions in general were limited, but there was still much more available than I had expected. Killer Burger and Sizzle Pie were both out in full force, Dippin’ Dots might have to wait until next season.
But whether it was the staff at KB, or over at Schonely’s Taproom, it seemed like the arena employees were just as excited as the fans to be back in the house. After all, it must have been a whirlwind to coordinate so many workers on such short notice to even operate at partial capacity. It really felt like a lot of the effort came out of love for the team.
Seating is done about how’d you’d expect from seeing it on the broadcast. Most seats are zip-tied closed save for a few in each row, depending on the size of the individual pod. Other groups are spaced decently far away, but still remain within leaning earshot. Most conversations with fellow fans went the same: “Dame; MVP?” “Will Norman Powell re-sign?” “Is Terry Stotts’ job safe?” “Are we really here right now!?”
One neighbor in Row K told me rather excitedly that the Oregon Sports Betting app had made a mistake earlier and accidentally gave substantial odds to one of the prop bets that evening - all he needed was CJ McCollum to make four threes and he’d make over 300 bucks. I have no idea if this is true, but I took his word for it. This ended up being our primary source of suspense for the evening, as the contest itself quickly turned into a laugher in the second half.
I got the feeling public address announcer Mark Mason was relieved to be performing live introductions for an audience not made out of cardboard, and fans certainly made our presence felt before tip-off. Our screams finally falling upon the ears of the players instead of reverberating off of the television set in vain. A slow start and a 9-0 Spurs run to begin the game put a small damper on that energy, but it wasn’t long before Portland finagled themselves back into the driver’s seat.
I feel a little sorry for the refs, who must have enjoyed unrivaled peace at the Moda Center up until Friday. Fans, meanwhile, had a year’s worth of officiating gripes pent up inside and only one night to vent them. Jeers ensued.
Speaking of, I didn’t hear much directed towards the Spurs, but while Keldon Johnson was shooting free throws early in the first quarter there was a drawn out “WHO ARE YOU?” that sounded comically genuine.
In-game entertainment was rather light. There were a few jumbotron vignettes - various players clowning each other’s Instagram posts was easily the best - nothing particularly involved. No Blazer Dancers; no Todd; no t-shirt cannons. DJ OG One was somewhere.
Dame rewarded fans with an encore of his performance against Los Angeles with another gem, and needed only three quarters to do it. His run of three treys in about a minute during the second quarter might as well have been the game. Seeing his brilliance live is a testament to how easy he and some other players make the game look on TV, which fails to capture truly how fast NBA basketball is played. Re-adjusting to watching in person felt a little like driving on the freeway for the first time.
It also helps with appreciating how an enormous human being like Jusuf Nurkic can move his body like a ballet dancer at times, as he did frequently while working the pick-and-roll with Lillard. Nurk got easily the largest individual ovation from fans when he exited the game in the third quarter, and it was well-deserved. Jakob Poeltl gave him another large body to bang against and bang he did, looking like the physical menace of old.
With the game in hand, the only question left was whether our neighbor was going to make the oddsmakers pay for their error. McCollum was having an average shooting night, but had struggled from the outside - still, he was sitting on three for the night and Stotts continued to ride him into the fourth quarter. With garbage time looming, he managed to stick a 26-footer from straight away - down goes The Man. Row K was not at his seat to witness, but he did come back and we all had a good laugh.
Final horn; confetti; “Blazers win! Bla-zers win!” Fans stuck around a little bit longer than usual to give the team a proper send-off. It was a way of reminding the players “We haven’t gone anywhere.”
Not that they could forget.