The Return to Rip City: The Blazers are Back

19 07 2007

by Maddness
“Honk once for Oden, twice for Durant”.

A Portland Trail Blazer fan driving under this billboard in Portland’s Rose Quarter has never been blessed with such a grand choice. Either player, Ohio State’s Greg Oden or Texas’s Kevin Durant, figured to be the final piece to a puzzle worked long and hard at by Trail Blazers owner, Paul Allen. Allen and General Manager Kevin Pritchard had a crunching chore ahead of them; getting rid of the “Jail Blazers” stigma that followed Oregon’s only professional sports team for the last decade.

It seems that you can pinpoint the height of the Blazers’ negative image on one amazing Los Angeles Lakers comeback in Game 7 of the 2000 NBA Playoffs.  Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant seemed to put their Soap Opera on hold for at least one quarter, as every pair of eyes were wide open in admiration of the Hollywood duo’s 20+ point 4th quarter comeback; all eyes except the 24 that made up the Blazers locker room.  Among them was former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen, who was their veteran “rock” of a leader; the one with the experience and maturity that was to guide these Blazers to a championship level of success. Perhaps a problem should have been identified at this level, as Pippen was only one ingredient to a disaster of a team, probably closer to success than they ever should have been.

While Pippen is one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all-time and a six time NBA champion, his resume for being a good “character guy” is not exactly clean as a whistle. In the 1994 NBA Playoffs, Pippen refused to enter the game with 1.8 seconds remaining and the Bulls entire season on the line because Coach Phil Jackson drew up the final play for Toni Kukoc, and not Pippen. Although this did not affect the outcome of the game in which Kukoc hit a heroic buzzer beater to defeat the New York Knicks, Pippen forever tagged himself as selfish.

Scottie only had to look one seat to his right on the Blazer bench to find a personality more detrimental to the team than his own, as fellow swingman Bonzi Wells became a staple on the ‘suspended’ and ‘inactive’ lists of the Blazer roster. During that year’s regular season, Bonzi Wells scuffled in practice with teammate Ruben Patterson and then head coach, Maurice Cheeks. Again, the personality and character issues were a big shame, as Wells with the right mindset, could easily have been a top five shooting guard, with his great offensive ability and the rebounding ability of a big man. Throw in a drug offense and it is easy to see how Wells did his piece to tarnish the image of the Blazers; But when one looks one seat to the left, they find an even bigger problem.

Point guard Damon Stoudamire found his way to Portland by way of Toronto, where he initially refused to play, but was convinced he’d be an offensive star, and thus, shined with the Toronto Raptors in his early years.  On the court, Stoudamire’s troubles seemed to be more normal; a player with potential that had a couple good years, but fizzled out after signing a big contract, an oft-seen issue in the NBA, but Stoudamire added fuel to the fire with his off court antics.  Marijuana charges became more common than points for Damon, and his body language had “checked out” written all over him for the duration of the season.  It should be noted here that Stoudamire seemed to at least attempt to right his wrongs, when publicly declaring he would clean himself up and return to his “Mighty Mouse” days of Toronto stardom.

If every athlete followed Stoudamire’s ways of correction, drugs may be less of an issue in today’s sports world.  Damon went to the Portland newspapers and openly volunteered to be drug tested publicly, with anyone interested being able to check the results.  With seemingly the best intentions at heart, Stoudamire was actually punished by the league, providing validating evidence that the drug policies and rules in the pro sports world are completely asinine .

If Stoudemire’s eyes opened wide enough to look to his immediate right on the bench during the 2000 Blazers season, he would look to perhaps the biggest train wreck of them all; Rasheed Wallace.  Wallace had become a shoe-in to lead the NBA in technical fouls and suspensions, but did not limit it there.  Fines for public comments against David Stern and his public disapproval of the NBA netted him record breaking fine amounts.  Again evidence that the sports landscape is declining, Wallace is now a member of the heralded Detroit Pistons, thus speaking to the belief that sometimes in professional sports, bad behavior pays good dividends.

These call-outs of the past reputation of the Blazers do not even speak to the likes of Ruben Patterson, Qyntel Woods, Darius Miles or Dale Davis, all of whom had run-ins with the law or served team suspensions.  Recently traded Zach Randolph was given the opportunity by Blazers ownership to “carry the torch” of the struggling franchise, in hopes tomotivate perhaps the most talented player on their roster.  Two suspensions and one conviction later, Randolph stood in the same crowd as Wallace and company, with Kevin Pritchard actively pursuing trade options.

Worse is the fact that not only did off-court issues surface, the Blazers seemed to let the “good ones” go and constantly brought trouble on themselves.  Guards Antonio Daniels and Derek Anderson were two Blazers who seemed to play the right way.  They smiled on the court, dove for loose balls and accepted any role the coaches gave them.  However, to the Blazers fault, we do not associate these two with Blazer history.  In 2000, when asked how Anderson felt being on the team, he responded with a one word answer, “Lost”.

The theme song of the 2007 NBA Draft was titled “It Ends Tonight”, as sang by the All-American Rejects.  Is there a more fitting title for a draft where the Trail Blazers hold the #1 overall pick?  Although the franchise makeover had already started the previous season with the drafting of UW star Brandon Roy and young big man LaMarcus Aldridge, this night in late June 2007 provided the light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel for the Portland Trail Blazers.  In a place where the fans and players were used to losing, used to nothing going right, the choice on draft night seemed like one where they could not do wrong.  Oden or Durant is like asking;  gold or diamonds?  When fans heard the Commissioner say, “With the first pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Portland Trailblazers select Greg Oden, from Ohio State University”, their cheers could not have been louder.  They did not stop cheering when the front office continued their dominance of draft night, drafting Duke star Josh McRoberts, trading for another promising center, Channing Frye, and acquiring sharpshooter James Jones from Phoenix.  Finally, they have guys with good character AND good skills.

If there was ever a feel-good story in the NBA, it has to reside in Portland.  They have gone above and beyond simply revamping their image, as in one night; they seemed to carve their name in stone when it comes to contenders in the next couple of seasons.  Is there a better team mix in the NBA right now?  Portland has youth, size, an exciting style, great coaching, and because of their newly created good character, they have the city behind them once again.  Rip City, to be exact; it’s back.

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