Wednesday, January 27, 2010

the best team in the world (that's no exaggeration...)

ah, winter (and fall, and spring). as the rains settle in and the geese move overhead, a young girl's thoughts turn lightly

basketball! the sport of champions! and a sport that we oregonians have a unique relationship with. why is that? is it because it's a winter sport, easily played indoors, just when we PNWers need something to do inside? well, maybe that is a portion of what motivates our love.

or, is it more accurate to say that it's the sport that we as oregonians have a unique fan-atic relationship with our one and only fabulous team over?

what is it that makes the blazers fans and our love of our team unique? one is the way we express it. i've heard about 'sports towns', with lots of fans and major league teams and the sort of love that expresses itself by upturning cars and setting them on fire after the team wins. we don't really have that here. i've been puzzled before by new jersey or new york folks at sporting events, yelling "get a real player in there!" i was shocked, shocked to the core. that's not how we roll in the PNW. we're like parents, cheering on a kid. we have one team, just one, just one hoped-for and prayed-for baby upon which to shower all our wishes and expectations. just one vessel to pour into all our collective dreamed of sports hero-dom. that's certainly part of it; the fact that we have only one major league team. but that's not all of it.

it's hard to explain, the way we feel about our team. another way of saying it is that we're no detroit, putting up with criminals just to win games. true, winning seasons are nice, but overall, we just want nice people. we want the kind of guys you could bring home to your mother. it's no coincidence that clyde drexler, one of the most universally nice guys ever, is one of our most-loved players ever. the truth is, that oregonians actually just like having a nice, pleasant life. we live in eden - it's kind of hard to put on a hardened, cynical, heckling front when your heart is full of singing birds and flowers and when everyone you see is smiling and pleasant. we like our cheerful life, and we like watching our sports in a positive frame of mind. we want to root for the good guys, and if they win, so much the better. what's that? want to talk about...*that* time, when the players weren't good guys and the fans weren't behind them? well, this fan blog put it better than i can:

"Roughly 5 seasons ago, Blazer's management recognized that if the Trail Blazers want to become a viable, competitive and successful basketball franchise again, they would have to repair the damaged relationship with the city and the fans. First order of business, fix the Blazer's tarnished reputation. By gutting the team and replacing the coaching staff, they made a pledge to the community that the Blazer's organization was ready and willing to reestablish the ever important bond between a loving but disillusioned fan base and wayward Blazer team. Through a series of calculated moves and a new commitment to draft and sign only those players with the highest moral quality and character, the Blazers reconciled with Portland and the era of "character and family" has been in full swing ever since."


let's recap: management realized that to be a winning franchise, they needed to have the fans behind them, 100%. maybe that goes along with the whole small-market thing. let's face it, in los angeles, you can easily alienate half the population and still sell out every night; there's so many people that you can always find some lowest denominator willing to root you on. but that doesn't fly here. when the team was established, oregon - the whole state - had only two million people, maybe a third of that in the entire greater portland metro area. you can't alienate them, there's nobody else around!

i've been teased before for being fans of players who aren't as good as their billing, or aren't maybe all that good at all. my only defense? they are blazers, and i love my blazers. we are loyal. we're no LA, putting up with egomaniacs in order to win games. we're loyal to the core to our players because we like nice players and we want them to be loyal to us, too. we know anyone good can be courted away by a big, sexy, major market at any time (like hedu turkelo's rejection of portland last summer for toronto, a 'real' city. ouch!) our only hope is to shower them with love and devotion in the hopes that...that...the players will either love our adulation or just be unable to break our hearts by leaving. doesn't matter. the end result is the same. we need them here - we need them more than glamorous places like LA or new york.

and, to some extent, there's just no analyzing my love for the blazers, there's just no way to break it down into understood parts that make sense. isn't that what fandom is all about? that 1 + 1 make 3? that it just maybe doesn't add up?

suffice it to say, that i grew up loving the blazers. my folks lived in portland just before that glorious year we went to the championships; they went to many a game of the fledgling team for the two years before relocating to lincoln county in 1972. growing up in the glory years of the blazers just meant they were a ubiquitous presence, a constant feature of state pride. well i remember the "blazers" signs distributed in the oregonian during each playoff session in the 80s and 90s, and how every car, every window was emblazoned with them, no matter where in the state you were! i remember being at the portland symphony one year on a sunday afternoon when we were in the playoffs. during the applause break between pieces, a tuxedo-ed man briskly walked across the stage to the conductor and whispered in his ear. he turned to us and said, "blazers are up!" and the whole place burst into cheers. somehow, that's what's so unique about oregon and our fan-dom - that the people at the symphony are just as interested to know what the team is doing as the folks across the river at the coliseum.

why are we so close to our team? that i can't say at all for sure, but i can see it might have something to do with acquiring a team that so suddenly did so well - winning the championship just four short years after being established. in one sense, it doesn't matter that we haven't won since then. we don't mind being the overlooked under-dog team. we are the overlooked, underdog state, sandwiched between our more famous neighbors. it's our cross and we'll bear it happily! having tasted glory, having burst on the scene, we know it's possible; until then we are happy to revel in our overlooked status, happy to quote the statistics of clyde when he was overlooked for the first dream team that was assembled in 1992; happy to be indignant that brandon roy was once again not selected in the fan voting for the all-star game (the last two years the coaches have voted him in; let's hope they are wise again this year. he is a super star, after all - and did i yet mention that he's a PNW native?!). we love being our small place, our small market, our happy loving delirious fans cheering on our one-and-only sports team.

as finally the NBA writer bill simmons realized, as answered in his 'mailbag' feature earlier this season after a book tour stop brought him to portland and he caught a game at the rose garden:

"Q: Did your book tour include a stop at the Rose Garden for Pistons-Blazers last week? I hope you checked out the way the Garden treats Greg Oden. Every time he does something basic, the place explodes like he dunked from half court. They are just willing themselves to think he will be good.

A: Yes, I did. And the best way to describe the crowd's support for Oden: It's like watching 15,000 parents rooting for their kid, only all 15,000 parents fathered the same kid. If he ever explodes for 30 points, 20 rebounds and eight blocks in a game, you'll have to carry each deliriously passed-out Portland fan out of the Rose Garden individually like they were victims of smoke inhalation in a burning house. (The funny thing is, everyone in Portland is nodding right now. And yes, I know he's had a couple of inspired games this season. You don't need to e-mail me the stat lines. No, really. Save us both the time. Let's not put too much pressure on him. Baby steps.) I also was startled by Portland fans arguably (see, there it is!) liking Rudy Fernandez as much as, and maybe even a smidge more than, the great Brandon Roy.

Two other things shocked me. First, that's the whitest NBA experience you can have that doesn't involve the words "Salt," "Lake" and City." They didn't play hip-hop either before the game or during the game, each team seemed to have more African-Americans than the entire crowd and the pregame video right before the introduction of Portland's starting lineup was a local grunge band singing "Ballroom Blitz." And second, during a second-quarter timeout, my buddy House and I ran into the concourse to grab beers and noticed there was NOBODY else in line for anything. We felt like Will Smith in "I Am Legend." There was no sign of human life other than the workers. Everyone else stays in their seats. At halftime, those same people pour into the concourse like it's halftime of a football game. I've never seen anything like it. I don't know whether the Blazers have the most loyal, passionate, dutiful fans in the NBA, but at the very least, we can say nobody else tops them.

Here's what I took away from my Rose Garden experience: Portland loves the Blazers the same way a single mother would love her only child. The city's revulsion toward the "Jail Blazers" makes a lot more sense to me now. The team and the city are intertwined, and if one side isn't holding up that bargain, it's even more painful than usual. Anyway, I couldn't be happier that I got a taste of it. Great NBA city."

'scuse me. i've got to catch the end of this game...blazers down, team plagued by injuries, it's the classic rise-from-below story of an overlooked potential superhero! right?!


  1. I know I don't even have to tell you how much I love and agree. Maybe being raised in a sports town made me the sports fan I am today, but I'm not sure any team but the Blazers could bring out this sense of joy I feel at their accomplishments and pride at their ability to overcome all the bad luck thrown at them this season. Rise with us, indeed. They rise us up and bring us together.
    GO BLAZERS!!!!!!

  2. this is a fantastic piece that truly captures the odd arrangement we oregonians have with our blazers. if you don't know, you may want to track down the book compiled by Matt Love titled "Red, Hot & Rollin'", which gives incredible details as to how this unique love affair blossomed back in the mid-70s.

  3. maux - exactly!
    chris - thanks for the tip. i must check out that book!