The Spirit of the Blazers Is Alive in Portland

The Blazers are doomed, as far as this year's playoffs go, but that won't stop Portland's diehards from keeping the faith.
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The winter in Portland is bittersweet. It's not especially cold. Even on many of the dog days of January, the temperature won't dip below 38 degrees and you can venture outside in a t-shirt and hoodie while most of America bundles up in winter coats. So that's nice. But most days are also foggy, hazy, windy, and constantly lorded over by large, ominous gray storm clouds. You're either in the midst of a thunderstorm or dreading that one will begin within the hour. You come to accept this. This bit of rationalization is easy—at least it’s not blizzarding. If you're particularly well-adjusted, you learn to live with a sense of optimism that tomorrow will be better, that the clouds will fade away, if only to return 24 hours later. Winter in Portland is about chasing that next sunny day.

That mantra also aptly describes the experience of following Portland’s professional basketball team. The Trail Blazers are now nearing four decades since their last NBA championship, but they're not without potential, nor are they lacking for hope. Throughout their history, they've by and large been blessed with talented players and competent organizational leadership. Their all-time winning percentage of .535 is better than more celebrated franchises in Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami. While glory has eluded them for longer than most of their fans have been alive, the Blazers have always had plenty of reason for optimism.

It boggles the mind that Portland has been without a title since 1977, which was the year a 24-year-old Bill Walton carried a young, Cinderellaesque Blazers group to Finals victory over Dr. J and the vaunted Sixers. Nineteen seventy-seven. To have been alive to witness that season, you'd have to be at least 38 today, which is ironic considering much the city's population consists of wandering twentysomethings who struggle even to wrap their brains around the idea of ever being 38.

I moved here last year. One close friend, when I told him of my plans, laughed and mockingly told me that Portland was "where young people go to retire." He wasn't wrong. Portland is a wonderful place where nature surrounds you, the vibe is pleasant and craft beer flows like water, but you can't shake the feeling that you're in a wasteland of hipsterism where having a career takes a backseat to trying out that new food truck that's down the block from that other food truck that's in the vacant lot around the corner from that thrift store. The city is laid-back—lovably so—but you occasionally get the sense it might be too laid-back for its own good.

Then you have the Blazers. While the city that contains them has a carefree feel, the basketball team and its fanbase are anything but. When it comes to the Blazers, it's hard not to care. The city is centered around the team in a way that few major metropolitan areas in North America are, in relation to an NBA franchise. First of all, it's centered geographically—the Rose Quarter sits just off the east bank of the Willamette River, near where the river intersects with Burnside Street to cordon off the northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest quadrants of town. People from all four corners of Portland trek to the center of town to unite behind the Blazers. They come from farther, too. One of the first things you notice when you walk into the Rose Garden is an illuminated list of Oregonian cities and towns posted on the JumboTron pregame. Astoria, Baker City, Beaverton, Coos Bay and so on—they're all represented.

Secondly, the Blazers are the only game in town. Unless you're an MLS fan, you have no real alternative—either you live and die by the Blazers, or you leave sports behind. There's no baseball or football team here. At the college level, the Oregon-OSU rivalry is a thing, but both schools are an hour away and neither contributes much to the city's identity. For the most part, following the Blazers is the only way Portlanders have to express sports fandom. So the fans get obsessed. They absorb every fact about every player who ever dons the crimson and black, even for a second. And I do mean everyone. Shout out to Travis Diener.

Over the years, rooting for the Blazers has mostly brought this town disappointment. It's a special kind of disappointment, though. Rarely is the team altogether hopeless, but that hope just renders the inevitable implosion all the more painful.

Even the greatest Blazers team ever—that ‘77 group that won a championship behind Walton, Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins—suffered a grisly fate. A young nucleus with the potential to win a whole string of titles instead stopped at just one, with Walton's foot injuries derailing them in '78 and everything unspooling from there. Those late-70s teams came to represent everything Blazersish—they promised, then underdelivered.

Portland had the second pick in one of the most loaded drafts of all time in 1984, but general manager Stu Inman made one of the great blunders in league history with his selection of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. In 1986, the Blazers made another attempt at drafting a franchise center, picking a Lithuanian legend in Arvydas Sabonis. He was one of the best players ever from that region of the world, except one problem—he wasn't willing to come over to the U.S. until it was far too late and injuries had sapped him of most of his natural-born ability. He suffered a devastating achilles tendon injury in '86 that continued bothering him for years after, and he didn't suit up for an NBA game until 1995, when he was 30.

The late-1990s Blazers teams had promise, as they combined solid veterans (an older-still Sabonis, Scottie Pippen) with talented youngsters (Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire) to build a team that would threaten to win it all. They had their chances, but they repeatedly came up short against the great dynasties of the era—San Antonio's Twin Towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, and the budding Kobe/Shaq Lakers. After that team fell apart, the Jail Blazers era of the early 2000s set in, with Portland's cagers devolving into a group of ballhogs, misanthropes, petty criminals, and wantaways. Bonzi Wells was once asked about the team's fans and memorably said: "They don't really matter to us."

Then came the late-2000s teams, which were built around three draft picks—Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006, followed by Greg Oden with the number one overall pick in '07. Of those three superbly talented men, hopes were especially high for Roy, a son of the Pacific Northwest who was born and raised in Seattle and played all four years at the University of Washington. When Roy won Rookie of the Year honors in his first season, with Oden set to join him the following year, the city was abuzz—but we all know how that story ended. Roy had a brilliant first four seasons before knee injuries derailed him and was out of the league by age 28. Oden was under contract for five years in Portland and played a total of 82 games. He's now gone as well. Roy, Aldridge and Oden—one out of three ain't bad, I guess. Sure could have been better.

This current Blazer team, led by Aldridge and Damian Lillard, is just like so many previous squads in Portland history— immensely talented, rich with possibility, yet snakebitten. The tear to Wesley Matthews' left Achilles tendon, which occurred in the third quarter of a nationally televised tilt with the Mavericks on March 5, was as heartbreaking as it was predictable. Heartbreaking for obvious reasons—at 28, Matthews had blossomed into the team's best shooter and arguably its best defensive player, and he looked like the missing piece of the championship puzzle that had eluded the Blazers for so many years. Predictable because, if you know your history, these things just keep happening in Portland. Again and again and again.

Before the Matthews injury, the vibe around the Blazers was one of justifiable hope. In the city, there was a sense that they had their best team in years, and nationally, the Blazers had emerged as a trendy sleeper pick to make a run at the 2015 Finals. In a wide-open, incumbent-free field, with the Heat disbanded and the Spurs starting slow, it looked for much of the season like the championship was up for grabs. The Blazers were an exuberant "why not us?" team. Now, with Matthews gone and the remaining Blazers reeling, the feeling is a little different.

Around the league, the general perception of Portland is that they’re a dead team walking. The playoffs are here, and the Blazers are a four seed in the West by virtue of their Northwest Division title (for which they can thank the injured right foot of Kevin Durant, the man they passed up to draft Oden), but they're a four seed that everyone expects to fall hard in the postseason. With Matthews gone and others ailing as well—Aldridge has been playing for three months with a torn thumb ligament—there are plenty of reasons to doubt this team.

Those reasons are valid. The Blazers are in trouble, and they may well go down swinging in the first round this April. Indeed, they’re already down 1-0 in their first-round series, with Game 2 set to tip off tonight in Memphis. But in Portland, there's a dedicated group of fans who are going to stick by their team and continue cheering until the final buzzer of the spring of 2015, whenever that may come. Through November and December, the mood surrounding this team was one of rational optimism, and it's since given way to something irrational yet understandable—an unconditional love for a flawed team. In Portland, you don't have a choice.

I attended Blazers game earlier this month, sitting with a group of local bloggers and longtime fans, mingling and hearing stories about the team's fanbase. I heard about diehard fans of all kinds—one who went through a difficult divorce and said the Blazers were the one thing in his life keeping him strong, and one who studied abroad in China and said the Blazers were his lone link to American culture when everything else ceased to be relevant. Many, many Blazers loyalists still think back to the mid-2000s period and pine for forgotten mediocre players like Darius Miles and Sergio Rodriguez. This is silly nostalgia, but that’s fandom for you.

The fans here are undyingly loyal. It’s buoyed them through all the microfractures and torn tendons. In all likelihood that loyalty won't be rewarded this spring—we're probably just days away from witnessing the Blazers' graceful exit from the playoffs as stronger, healthier teams survive and vie for the Larry.

Different cities might process that pain in different ways. Minneapolis has been bemoaning its terrible coaches and executives for decades, playing the "woe is me" card so many times it's become wrinkled and faded. Cleveland has immortalized all its failures in overdramatic fashion, giving them two-word sobriquets where the first word is "The" and the second is "Drive," "Shot," "Fumble" or "Decision." Portland's a little different. The prevailing feeling remains one of optimism—a feeling that, if this town sticks to its convictions and supports this team for long enough, eventually good things will happen. In short, they're still just chasing that next sunny day.


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