Portland Trail Blazers broadcaster Mike Rice was fueling my rage.
Chandler Parsons had just scored a layup off a loose-ball scramble underneath the hoop. The Blazers trailed the Houston Rockets 98-96 in Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference Playoffs First Round. 0.9 seconds remained and the majority of the Moda Center crowd stood silent with hands atop their heads.
What unfolded during Parsons’ go-ahead bucket, and what came next, perfectly encapsulated why I hold this team so dear to my heart.
Back at my family’s old home in Southeast Portland, my dad, mom, oldest brother and I were all watching the game. We were crammed into my mom’s room beside her bed.
In June of 2012, at age 50, a ruptured blood vessel in the brain and a stroke took away my mom’s independence. The incident forced her to give up her job as a special education teacher at Franklin High School, a position she held for 26 years. To this day, she can’t walk or eat and her hands are too weak to write with a pencil. So during this playoff matchup, making it down to the basement where we had watched games for years was an afterthought. She lived out of my brother’s old room on the main floor.
That is how we ended up watching the most pivotal Blazers game in over a decade on the tiniest TV in our house in a room that felt even tinier with all the medical equipment. It was a tight squeeze, but the stress of the back-and-forth game made it impossible to watch alone. In the third quarter we even switched from the national TV broadcast to the local broadcast team of Mike Barrett and Mike Rice because we felt more assured with their familiar voices.
Now after Parsons’ bucket, we listened to the feisty Rice voice our pain and frustration by attacking the refs in true “Wild Rice” fashion.
Admittedly, I agreed with the refs. I thought that Blazers point guard Damian Lillard didn’t establish himself inbounds when he got a rebound with 28 seconds left and I thought center Robin Lopez flopped on a rebound attempt that left the ball wide open for Parsons. Each replay I saw confirmed my belief with evidence. But the more Rice complained the more I ditched my logic for emotion. By the time the Blazers were coming out of the timeout, my brother and I were cursing the refs alongside the longtime broadcaster.
As Blazers fans, we had a lot of pain to feel. Only a 15-year-old freshman at Cleveland High School in 2014, I was just conscious enough to remember the blemish of the mid-2000s Jail Blazers. Then I was fully conscious to stomach the anguish of watching a resurgent, young team crumble too soon due to the paper knees of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.
And although I was not alive in the 70s, 80s and most of the 90s, I can feel the pain that has been inflicted on the franchise since its conception in 1970. Besides one magical season in 1977, the Blazers’ storied history is rampant with heartbreaks and what-ifs. When you grow up in Portland, the pain is passed down from generation to generation.
I can feel the pain of Bill Walton’s broken foot that derailed a dynasty. I can feel the regret of drafting Bowie over Jordan. I can feel the agony of watching a Clyde Drexler-led 90s squad fall short in the Finals twice. And I can feel the still-fresh wound of blowing a 15-point lead in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals to the Lakers. The freaking Lakers.
So as Parsons — someone who had been talking trash to the press all series (about gentle Frenchman Nic Batum, no less!) — scored that go-ahead basket with less than a second left, it felt like the universe had a vendetta against us yet again.
A loss meant the Blazers would have to go back to Houston for Game 7 after holding a 3-1 series lead. 14 years of playoff misery without a single series victory — the longest-active drought in the league at the time — seemed all but likely to continue. It was too much heartbreak to bear, so looking back, the vitriol in Rice’s words and mine seemed quite appropriate.
Because on the flip side of all that pain, there’s a deep, transcendent love for this franchise.
This is our team. Ride or die. The inverse of so many lows are incredible highs when they come. There’s something magnetic about this city when the Blazers are on fire.
I remember the first time I felt the phenomenon of “Rip City.” It was a 2006 game against the Jazz, just at the start of the team’s major image rebuild and the “Rise With Us” era. Tickets were still cheap and my family went often, but for the first time in my Blazer-watching career, I witnessed a win at the Rose Garden. Fans streamed out of the arena, still cheering with Chalupa coupons in hand. A man sporting a fedora blared his saxophone on the concourse, while my brothers and I high-fived strangers.
My dad kept shouting out the window of our car, “BLAZER MANIA IS BACK!”
We are a fan base that prides itself on not needing the jumbotron to prompt our chants, on going bonkers for a free Chalupa giveaway in a blowout loss, on being the absolute best in the NBA. As CJ McCollum understood in his 2019 Players’ Tribune article titled Rip City, “it’s not just some rah-rah thing, like they can show up and get loud for games. That’s part of it, but it only scratches the surface.”
As the city’s only representative in the big four of U.S. major sports leagues, the Blazers represent an overwhelming source of pride. I tried to pinpoint what makes Blazers fandom different. I landed on how the team embraces and accentuates the identity of this city. Portland represents the small-market underdog, overlooked despite the city’s great beauty because it’s tucked away in the Pacific Northwest.
Not only that, Portland is also weird, as “Portlandia” has helped reinforce to the nation. The city reveres the arts and hipsters and microbreweries and cannabis. A professional sports franchise doesn’t necessarily fit that mold, yet the Blazers make it in. Undoubtedly, it’s “cool” to root for the Blazers. There’s no pastime that’s more “Portland.” They unite everybody, from the straight-laced business man to the tattooed skater. The skater’s Blazer hat just might be a little more vintage.
So for these reasons, when I see the Portland skyline on a TNT broadcast, it’s meaningful to me in a way a fan from New York or Boston would never be able to understand.
All this history — the deep pain and deep love — is present every time the Blazers take the court. Never was it more present than in the 0.9 seconds after Parsons’ layup. It all happened in a blink.
Parsons falls asleep. Lillard sprints to Batum, clapping his hands. Batum inbounds the ball to Lillard. Lillard shoots a fadeaway, leaning three-pointer from the left wing. Swish.
Absolute eruption. Series over.
Back in my mom’s little room my emotions switched from disappointment to ecstasy so fast my mind almost couldn’t comprehend the shift. There were still traces of anger in my voice. My screams of “YES! YES!” sounded more like determined yells, a little hoarse, as if I was exorcizing the demons of Blazer pain across generations. I was off my stool, almost falling over onto my mom’s bed as I pumped my fist at the TV.
But I’ll never forget what I saw when I turned to my mom in the pandemonium: Laid back in her bed, her feeble arms were raised high above her head, waving with a noticeable force as she screamed with us. I didn’t know she had the physical or vocal strength. Maybe at the time she didn’t. It was one of those moments that makes you realize the power of sports.
Then Rice said something that made me smile.
“You can’t take it away from us, Callahan!”
Just seconds after one of the most amazing shots in playoff history, Rice couldn’t resist taking a shot at Mike Callahan, the referee. It makes me laugh to this day when I watch it again.
Nearly eight years later, I have watched the shot so many times I’m almost numb to it, but if I think real hard I can reconjure the feeling of seeing it for the first time.
I’m lucky to be blessed with many great sports moments in my life as a fan. I grew up during the hey-day of the Chip Kelly Oregon Duck offense. I was a student sports journalist at Loyola University Chicago when the school made its Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018. I even got to stand in the locker room, while players and Sister Jean kissed the South Regional Trophy after an Elite Eight victory. And then I got to see Damian Lillard hit another series-clinching buzzer-beater in 2019 en route to the Western Conference Finals.
But for the dramatic change of emotions, the exorcism of demons, my mom and Mike Rice, Damian Lillard’s 0.9 second shot is without a doubt the greatest sports moment of my life.
At least until the Blazers win a championship.