Fifty miles east of Portland Oregon looms the volcanic edifice known as Mt. Hood. She stands there taunting, challenging the adventurous soul to conquer her steep slopes and claim the crown waiting at her summit.
It takes little imagination to view her dramatic presence as the symbol of a city's quest. A city longing to re-enact a storied expedition to the top which only a few old-timers can remember.
It seemed a daunting task only three years ago as the Portland Trail Blazers milled about the base camp—preparing, dreaming, making ready for the ascent.
Now the team is gathered in the rare air of Hood's shoulder, with the summit clearly in sight...and in mind.
While the path to this point has been anything but easy, the final assault which lies ahead will test even the most fit and skilled of climbers.
~ ~ ~
Logic might suggest that with the young core of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden coming into their own as elite players, the going would become easier. And with a second unit arguably good enough to start for some NBA clubs, the suggestion seems even more valid.
Yet those very positives bring with them a whole new set of challenges which will require a shift in overall strategy.
Coach Nate McMillan is no longer working in the nursery. His toddlers have grown into virile young men. The potent juices of competition, rivalry and self-confidence are beginning to flow.
At one time, the chaotic classroom could have been brought to order with a stern glare. Today's young stallions must now be harnessed in leather like a team of Percherons, with one heart and one mind.
The wide-eyed recruits of boot camp which once responded in lock-step to "The Sarge" are now combat-tested vets (albeit young vets) who's allegiance may be torn between team and self preservation.
McMillan must counter any rumblings of self-ambition with a vision of team goals. Athlete and agent must understand that a championship ring is the ultimate measure of success—and with Portland, probability is on their side.
With such a deep, talented club, playing time will certainly be another issue. No one wants to be sitting on the bench, except for a quick breather. Everyone wants to play - to contribute directly to the cause. Unfortunately, only five players are allowed on the court at one time and only so many minutes are available.
This is where the wisdom of the coaching staff and management shines: since 2006, the cornerstone of Portland's long-range plan has been a culture of character. Who else to buy into a team-oriented vision than players who are unselfish, sacrificial in nature and team players?
This is not to say there won't be bumps in the road. The desired attributes of competitive, aggressive, tough play often carry with it an abundance of confidence and ego. Keeping those qualities on the court and directed only at the opponent will serve the team well.
Portland deftly utilized the element of surprise last year. That will not be a weapon in the arsenal this year. The word is out now, and the league will be prepared to give the Trail Blazers their best game.
In fact, after last year's overachieving 54-win season, the pressure may have increased for 2009-10. Anything less than a second-round playoff appearance will be considered a disappointment. And in the years following, only a title contention or (dare I say it?)...the ultimate prize will satiate the city of Portland.
General Manager Kevin Pritchard and company have anticipated these new challenges. The problems they create are the kind of problems teams and coaches only dream about because having them means the franchise is on the verge of something great.
"That's what you want," McMillan said. "you'd rather have these kind of expectations than none at all."
~ ~ ~
So there she stands, out there on the horizon—the grand old lady of Portland. Men even now are snapping their carabiners, harnesses and ropes together - linking up for the final assault.
The toughest challenge lies ahead. If...when...they conquer that old lady, we can lay the ancient stories aside. We'll have tales of our own to tell.
quote: Lindy's Pro Basketball