After carefully maintaining a classy image for the first two decades of existence, the Blazer franchise lost their way somewhere in the 1990s. Out were players such as Terry Porter or Cliff Robinson; talented guys who cared about the community and gave back. In were guys like Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudemire, Isaiah Rider, Ruben Patterson, and so forth. You might recall them as the "Jailblazers", a not so tongue in cheek reference to their habits of run-ins with the law.
Local headlines were more likely to revolve around marijuana arrests (tin foil sets off metal detectors? who knew?), domestic assault, or technical fouls than about the games being played. It is hard to say when the decline started, though many Blazer fans point to the tail end of the Clyde Drexler area. When it became obvious the Blazer window for a title had closed in disappointment he wanted out. There has long been a feeling he essentially quit on the team for his last season and change in Portland, not playing to his full potential. Maybe. Maybe not. But the change in mentality was huge.
Portland had never experienced that before. They always had guys who felt blessed to be in the league, who loved to play, and put forth exceptional effort every night. Guys like the under talented, over achieving Jerome Kersey or the imported backbone, Buck Williams who came to play every night were the ideal type of players Blazer fans expected. Guys who did not want to be here were something we did not know how to deal with.
On the heels of the Drexler departure the franchise shifted gears. In came guys who would repeatedly get in trouble on and off the court. Perhaps the nadir of the slide was Ruben Patterson, a guy with serious legal troubles in Seattle whom Portland brought in because he was talented. Say what you wish about the temper tantrums of Rasheed Wallace on the court, off the court he has always been a good citizen. Not so for Patterson.
Bringing him in said a great deal. He was the type of player Portland had always rejected in the past. Nobody questioned his talent or his ability to help Portland win games. But his legal problems were the type of thing that had always had Portland GMs saying, "Sorry, not interested." Now the desire to win overrode the desire to have players who would not embarrass the franchise.
And embarrassment was the watchword of the day. Multiple players were caught driving back from a Seattle game while high. Dog fighting charges were leveled. More sexual assault and domestic disturbance charges were aired. The famed Phoenix tin foil scandal hit the news. The fans turned out in droves...just not to the games. They went to the movies, the local Triple A baseball affiliate, the local minor league hockey games, or out to eat but they stopped going to the games.
Slowly but surely the Blazer brass got the picture. One time hometown hero Stoudemire was let go for almost nothing. Wallace hit the door. Rider, Patterson...the litany goes on. They were names who had great success on the floor in Portland...but were not, in the opinion of the community, "good character guys".
I would say "slowly but surely" when referencing the change that took place but that is not true. Almost overnight the roster was remade. It took almost 2 years but within that time the roster turned over 100%. Perceived slacker Theo Ratliffe, malcontent Zach Randolph...gone. Overnight the face of the franchise became Brandon Roy with LaMarcus Aldridge, Jarrett Jack, Joel Przybilla, Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw becoming the face of the organization. In a stroke of luck Greg Oden became a Blazer.
Out were the guys with rap sheets or questionable attitudes, in were community service award winners and guys who wanted not only to play but to play here in Portland. A team slated to win less than 40 games once again became the hottest ticket in town.
Strangely, a lot of this came when the team was seeming to get worse. I am a huge fan of Przybillas' game but even I would not argue he is an upgrade over Wallace in terms of talent. Randolph, whatever else you say about him, was still a 20 point, 10 rebound guy who had the highest shooting percentage on the team. LaMarcus Aldridge looks like he will develop into an All-Star but is not there yet. In this, his best season to date, 17 and 8 are his numbers. On paper, the team is worse but, assuming they beat Memphis at home and lose to Phoenix on the road, they will finish 41-41, .500 for the year.
And yesterday they took the final step in cutting ties with the Jailblazer era when Darius Miles was waived.
Miles is another guy who was a phenomenal talent on the floor and pretty unpopular off the floor. His scrapes with the law are a matter of record, his poor attitude when he was still playing plain to see. How badly did Portland want to get rid of him? Consider this; he, like Oden, had microfracture knee surgery. Oden was welcome to go with the team on any road trips he wished. Miles was not allowed on the plane according to unconfirmed rumors.
The point is not whether Miles was actually prevented from going on the plane or not. The real value to the rumor is that many Blazer fans A) believed it and B) were ecstatic about it, not wanting Miles disrupting the chemistry of the team or providing a bad influence on the young players.
On the one hand, I wish Miles all the best. I hope he has a long, healthy life, prudently invests the nearly 50 million he will have been paid by the end of his contract, and enjoys his time here on earth. On the other, I join with the Blazer fans applauding the move by the team to cut their ties with him as soon as legally possible. He will get his money but is no longer part of the team. With his release the last link to the shameful years is gone and we can truly look forward to watching a team that, win or lose, we can be proud of.