Sunrise in the Pacific Northwest. To most that would be a reliable daily occurrence, but to the nearly 600,000 people of Portland, and the more than two million statewide who’ve been living in the darkness of Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, and a lifetime’s worth of bad knees; the sun is shining on a city that needs it, and a franchise that city needs even more.
June, 2006. The NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers are reeling from a 21-win season and struggling mightily to rebound from nearly a decade’s worth of shame, stemming from poor personnel decisions, excessive spending, and player behavior befitting low-end criminals and/or back alley miscreants. A normally proud franchise had become an embarrassment, and the city in which it resides had seen enough. New General Manager Kevin Pritchard has received the message – get better and do it with better people – and kicks-starts a plan to return Portland to its winning ways, and do so with players the city isn’t ashamed to call their own. No more Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells. No more Qyntel Woods or Ruben Patterson. And no more high-speed chases, registered sex offenders, dope dealers, dog fighters, or any other thug behavior found commonly during that time in the Rose City, and comically by those outside of it.
Enter Brandon Roy.
The Washington native and University of Washington alum is drafted, along with LaMarcus Aldridge, in the first round, and is immediately embraced by a city desperate for hope. He’s later voted the NBA’s Rookie Of The Year, makes a couple All-Star teams, and with the help of Aldridge, leads Portland to the playoffs as a presumed first step towards a championship window opened by the city’s new favorite son. Add the overall first pick in the 2007 draft, subsequent contract extensions for the aforementioned Roy and Aldridge, and some cap flexibility, and you’ve got the hottest commodity in a league in transition, picked by many to be the “it” team for a decade to come.
As Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friends!”
More than seven years later, Roy was forced into early retirement due to repeated cartilage damage in his knees and “it” had turned to “out” regarding a small-market team presumably destined for the big-time.
To understand the severity of this problem, one must first understand Portland. “Rip City,” as it was coined by long-time Blazer play-by-play man Bill Schonely, lives and breathes Trail Blazer basketball. There’s no NFL franchise in Portland, no Major League Baseball franchise, and prior to last year’s addition of the MLS’s Timbers, the Blazers were rivaled only by minor-league hockey’s Winterhawks. Since their arrival in 1970, it’s been a head-over-heels love affair between the new girl in town, and the boy waiting for “the one;” and the Blazers were that. Their Title team of 1976-77 is still held in the highest regard, they’ve retired numbers of guys you’ve mostly never heard of, and there’s a reason so many players have chosen to remain in the area long after their playing days are done. The Blazers are Portland, but more importantly, Portland is the Blazers.
When the Blazers win, Portland’s alive. It brings the city together through automobile flags and signs, billboards and commercials, and likely a low-end rap song combining local musicians with talent, and NBA “rappers” without it. The team doesn’t just play for Portland, but more so becomes it.
Which brings us to the now. Portland’s Trail Blazers presently sit with the second best record in the league. Their 18-4 mark to this point, includes a four game road winning streak, wins against two of the league’s best, Indiana and Oklahoma City, and renewed faith in a franchise seemingly cursed. Bill Walton’s foot, Sam Bowie’s legs, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden’s knees, and lest I forget…passing on Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. There have been plenty of hard times and the people of Portland know it, all too well. They wait for guys to get hurt, expect the unexpected, and fear the good for fear of what always seems to follow closely behind it. Yet, they never quit going to games, never quit cheering, and never quit hoping that their time is near. And maybe that time is now.
A few months back, Portland’s premier player LaMarcus Aldridge allegedly wanted out. According to sources, the All-Star Center wanted to win and, while happy with the town and franchise, wanted little to do with spending the back half of his prime as part of a reclamation project designed to culminate four or five years down the road. And could you blame him? Aldridge, along with Roy and Oden, was that project more than seven years ago. During his seven year career, the center from Texas has made the playoffs just twice, never advanced beyond the first round, and has arguably sacrificed acclaim while buried in a small market, in the Pacific Northwest, tucked far and away from the epicenter of the NBA world. But with the rapid ascent of second year point guard Damian Lillard, the continued improvement of young veterans like Nicolas Batum and Wesley Mathews, and the addition of depth with players like Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright, the Trail Blazers have solved many of their deficiencies of years ago, and in the process accelerated the development of a winner. Something Aldridge might’ve needed to stay, and that city might’ve needed to keep going.
Portland is a proud city. It’s highly liberal, prides itself on being “weird,” and strives whole-heartedly to be at the tip of the spear regarding the environment and “our” relationship with it. But deep-down within the fabric of its liberal, “weird,” and “green” being, is the root of a community in the midst of its 43rd year, and that root is the Portland Trail Blazers. Diehards depend on them, casual fans follow passionately from a distance, and naysayers are hypnotically drawn-in at the first sign of success.
It’s been a difficult stretch for Blazer fans. The last decade has seen little success, a lot of heartbreak, and an aura of “what next” for a fan base who’s seen more than most. But 18-4 projects light, how they’ve done it provides hope, and “what’s next” might be uplifting for a city who’s been repeatedly dragged down…that needs and deserves better.