Eight years ago, I dribbled a worn basketball in my cracked driveway.
“Beat LA!” yelled the blue-shirted dude passing on his bike.
“Yeah,” I offered, meekly, turning my back to the guy. Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the reason I was outside, dejectedly displaying my Rucker Park game for all the neighbors to see.
We weren’t going to beat L.A. We weren’t even going to have another shot.
My Trail Blazers, the only team I’d shared a city, a home, and a ’hood with, were about to be ousted from the 2000 NBA Western Conference Finals after owning a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter. Portland’s pride, the NBA team most often compared to the Green Bay Packers, was staring down the barrel of a Game 7 Shaq attack, and there was nothing the rastafarian Brian Grant or I could do about it. So I cowered, running outside and avoiding the on-court onslaught.
Eight years have passed since that June. Eight years of Rasheed Wallace’s vitriol, Damon Stoudamire’s Hummer, Ruben Patterson’s sex life, and Bonzi Wells’ I-black-out-sometimes middle finger. Eight years of Jail Blazers, Fail Blazers, and Sigh, We Need Someone to Post Bail (Again) Blazers.
That may have made you laugh, but just remembering those names brings a Medusa-stopping cringe to my face.
There’s no getting around it — those eight seasons sucked.
Sure, you could argue that karmic fortune got the (ping pong) ball rolling when 2007’s No. 1 pick came to town. Or you could say this Rose City Renaissance began with the 2006 draft, a haul that netted the indomitable LaMarcus Aldridge and the incomparable Brandon Roy. Heck, you could even mark the reboot at Kevin Pritchard’s ascension to assistant general manager a couple years back.
But you’d be wrong. Those examples are nice, no doubt — but you’re forgetting Zach “Stat-Bo” Randolph, Darius “Head-Bop” Miles, and the 21 “wins” of 2006; you’re omitting Oden’s microfracture and Paul Allen’s bankruptcy; and you’re overlooking the still-maligned Chris Paul debacle.
After all, it was just last year that Rick Reilly, pre-Bill Simmonsized at ESPN, told Oden that if Portland picked him, he’d get to see his teammates in orange jumpsuits.
Suffice it to say, I’d rather give Rosie O’Donnell a Thai massage while watching every Nicholas Cage movie than have to relive those years.
Fortunately, Blockbuster was out of The Wicker Man and Rosie’s publicist never called me back, so I can look to the ’08-’09 season with my innocence and sanity intact. A new season is just around the corner, and just like Bush from the White House, eight years of abject failure are about to be swept into the past, replaced by change, hope, and, above all, some basketball IQ. (Is it any coincidence that Barack Obama’s brother-in-law is now the head coach at Oregon State University?)
The era of the Great Northwest crime wave appears to be over, and we once again have a team to pack the Rose Garden for. No matter what NBA preview you’ve read, the basketball brains are all saying one thing: The Blazers will be a force from the opening tip till the first round of the postseason, and possibly beyond. In the toughest conference across the sporting world, one of the youngest teams in the game’s history should find itself hosting an above-.500 record, a Rookie of the Year — not necessarily named Oden — and a playoff game or two.
But it’s not just the fact that we can, technically, ball. Any team can with shoelaces and some leather can find net. The reason my eyes glint while talking about the Blazers is because these are guys who could hang out with your Mom, guys you would want to watch your kids, guys who wouldn’t say no to a neighborhood potluck. These are amiable, affable, and downright approachable people, all of whom are proud, right-minded citizens of a proud, left-minded city. Channing Frye wants your advice on artwork, Travis Outlaw drives around in a Neon-Hulk Impala, and Greg Oden has diversity that only Philip Seymour Hoffman could rival.
See? You can’t help but smile, can you?
You know, there’s a reason that NBA commissioner David Stern, after shining Clay Bennett’s shoes, claimed that the Blazers were the team he’s looking forward to the most.
Portland may not take the scepter, crown, or throne this year — it’s only fair that we let Madman Artest and his gang of Houston misfits get a shot — but the next decade will be ours. Behind Roy’s acumen, Aldridge’s deftness, Rudy’s YouTubery, and the Tower of Oden, the Blazers’ reemergence will surprise no one, yet astound everyone. Our future is mind-numbingly open for success, bright in ways that only Stephen Hawking could imagine.
And yes, the bandwagon will be up and running — Sonics fans automatically get the front seat — but feel free to join the likes of Magic Johnson, J.A. Adande, and the whole Sports Illustrated crew when the postseason winds its way through an Oregon trail.
And this time, I promise, it’ll be different.
This time, we’ll beat LA.