By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Jan 2 2009 3:41PM
PORTLAND -- The way the game ball is delivered before every Trail Blazers home game transforms Portland's rowdy Rose Garden Arena into a giant pachinko machine. The official Spalding sphere starts in the upper bowl and bounces off hundreds of fans' hands as it makes its way from the cheap seats to courtside.
You can dismiss it as nothing more than a cheesy stunt to generate more corporate sponsorship money (this one is sponsored by Wells Fargo). But the gimmick illustrates a tangible way in which the fan base in Portland might be just a little more involved than that in any other NBA city. And the interaction doesn't stop there. When the team announces its starting lineup, each of the five players hands an autographed T-shirt to a fan.
They are small gestures, perhaps. But they're paying off.
Just like the good old days, Portland has become a tough place for opposing teams to win.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
In November, the Sports Business Journal reported that Portland tied New Orleans for the largest one-year gain in new full-season-ticket sales, ringing up 3,500 of them. While attendance figures for much of the rest of the league dwindle, in large part because of a shaky economy, in Portland, everything is rosy. Simply put: Blazermania is back.
The phenomenon that swept the city back in the late 1970s and sprung up again in the early '90s is enveloping the city like Greg Oden's massive paws around a rebound. Portland fans, who set a professional sports record by selling out 814 consecutive Blazers games (April 5, 1977 to Nov. 20, 1995) are returning in droves. The Trail Blazers have the third-highest average attendance in the league (a tad over 20,500 a game). They are actually operating at 102.7 percent capacity at home and the only teams that fill both home and away buildings more than Portland (at 95.9 percent) are last year's Finals participants, the Lakers and Celtics.
Few teams mix old and new like the Blazers. During a Dec. 16 home game against the Kings, a fan wearing a black Clyde Drexler No. 22 jersey sat next to one wearing a red Bill Walton No. 32. Directly across the aisle, not six seats away, two fans sported Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge jerseys.
While you'll see "Roy to the World," "I Love L.A." and "Viva La Rudy" signs pop up around the Rose Garden, the staple poster remains "Rip City, Baby!" a phrase coined by the Trail Blazers' original broadcaster, Bill Schonely, decades ago. Schonely came up with the term to describe the ball swishing through the net. Today, go to a game at the arena and you'll swear that the microphones mounted on the rims are cranked up to accentuate the sound of a made Blazers' shot.
History breathes in Portland. The Blazers' jersey still features the bold red and black diagonal stripes, the same design it's had since 1977. The Blazers' gym still is known as the Rose Garden Arena, the same name it's had since it opened in 1995. (The Philadelphia 76ers -- the team Portland beat for its lone NBA championship, in 1977 -- have seen their basketball building go from the CoreStates Center to the First Union Center to the Wachovia Center, all since 1996.) Octogenarian Harry Glickman, the man who helped found the team in 1970, still can be seen at games supporting the team. He acts as the Blazers' president emeritus.
Walk down a hallway from the court to the locker rooms and you'll see framed photos of Drexler, Walton, Terry Porter, Arvydas Sabonis, Scottie Pippen and other Blazer greats. You won't see any hint of Nick Van Exel, Damon Stoudamire, Qyntel Woods, Shawn Kemp, Zach Randolph, Darius Miles, Isaiah Rider, Ruben Patterson, Jeff McInnis and Rasheed Wallace, the amalgam of malcontents who put an end to a 21-season long postseason streak (1983 to 2003) and marred the franchise's sterling reputation in the community.
"[The fans] were always proud to say they knew Jerome [Kersey] or Terry, like we were one of their own," Porter said. "I think they lost that identity for a little bit."
The identity that the Portland team gained in that time -- the infamous "Jail Blazers" -- isn't one that sat well with many around the community.
"There were years where it was hard to get to a game, to be honest with you," Blazers great Bobby Gross said when the team retired his and Porter's No. 30 jerseys recently. "You didn't want to go. They could have seats down low and you couldn't go.
LaMarcus Aldridge (left) and Brandon Roy have paced the Trail Blazers' return to contender status.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
"I was like the typical fan. I was waiting for it to turn around," said Gross, who stayed in Portland to raise his family after his playing days were over. "They finally put the right pieces in place in the front office and put the effort and the emphasis in the right place: trying to get good people first. You get good people, you're going to be able to coach them. You can't coach the wrong kind of player. They've got a young group here that's good and they're getting better, so who knows what could happen? It could be this year, it could be next year. They've got a big window. They could be good for six, eight years."
The front office Gross refers to consists of president Larry Miller, general manager Kevin Pritchard and coach Nate McMillan. In his fourth season with the team, McMillan credits the fact that young stars Aldridge and Brandon Roy "get it" as a major reason for the turnaround.
"They understand where this organization was and where it's trying to go and what is expected of them as far as the demand off the floor," McMillan said. "Appearances ... maybe doing more than their share. Having to do that early, their first couple years and now being a part of the organization on an up and coming young team, the expectations have gone up. Off the floor they've gone up, on the floor they've gone up. And they understand it and they continue to work at being able to stay good at that. They understand where the organization is. They care about the team and what is said about us and how we play."
The Jail Blazers were like graffiti on the franchise's foundation. Pritchard, who took over from Maurice Cheeks as interim head coach in 2004-05 and finished 5-22, was charged with applying that first coat of paint to cover it up. Now, the GM focuses on the present.
"I don't know what you're talking about. I refuse to say that word [Jail Blazers] any more," Pritchard said with a grin. "We've closed that chapter. We know what we're about. We know we're different and we're going to stay that way. Nothing is going to change us from not going back to that."
As one of seven NBA teams in a city without any other professional sports franchise (Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Utah, Sacramento and San Antonio are the others), the Blazers really are the only game in town. Their efforts -- both good and bad -- are noticed by the citizens of Portland. Over the holidays, during their annual "Season of Giving" campaign, the Blazers organized no fewer than 17 outings in the month of December -- from toy drives to free basketball clinics to charity auctions -- to reciprocate the support that the Rose City residents give the team.
"It's a lot more demanding because you don't have those other professional teams to share with or to help out as far as appearances go," McMillan said. "You're it. So, you're kind of spread pretty thin as far as trying to get out to the entire community and state ... Oregon and Oregon State are a little ways away. [In Seattle] you had the Seahawks and the Huskies that did some of the appearances too. There's a lot more demand. There's a lot more expected of you."
Pacific Northwest native Roy couldn't imagine playing anywhere else. "A lot of people said, 'Man, I wish you could be in Seattle,'" Roy said. "I was like, 'Nah, I love being in Seattle, I started playing basketball there, I love Seattle. But I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be.'
"I love being in Portland. I think the people here really have definitely embraced me and I definitely take a lot of pride in help turning this organization around.
Rudy Fernandez (left) and Travis Outlaw are in Portland thanks to some shrewd Draft Day moves.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
"I had a sense of it when I first came in because it was similar, I always tell people, it was similar to the University of Washington. When I got there, there was not very many people in the seats and people were kind of down on the team and myself, along with a couple of great guys like Nate Robinson and Will Conroy and those guys, we were able to turn it around. I said it's going to be similar in Portland."
The Blazers have come a long way in a short time, increasing their wins from 21 to 32 to 41 in the last three seasons. They now sit just a half game back of Denver for the No. 4 seed in the West.
All the Blazers fans have to do now is sit back and watch the team grow.
"We've overhauled this roster so fast and rapidly and exhaustively from top to bottom that [more changes are] not important for us now," Pritchard said. "It's more important that we got the ingredients. Now we're sticking it in the oven and we're letting it bake. Let's see what comes out and when it comes out if it's what we like, great, if it's not then we can make some adjustments. Right now we got to bake."
The main ingredients are Roy and Aldridge, both acquired in Draft Day deals for Randy Foye and Tyrus Thomas, respectively. The rest of the key contributors were had in a variety of ways, from the Draft (Oden, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster) to more Draft Day trades (Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless) to offseason trades (Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez) to good, old-fashioned free agency (Joel Przybilla, Steve Blake).
It isn't just new players that have changed things in Portland, but a new culture. Players wear T-shirts with "15=16" emblazoned on it, which means 15 players playing together will result in the Blazers being one of the 16 teams playing in the postseason with a shot at an NBA title. It's similar to the "9=8" slogan that the Tampa Bay Rays rode to the World Series last year.
"As an organization -- from [owner] Paul [Allen], to me, to Larry, to Nate -- all of us don't agree on everything, but we're definitely in line in what we're about," Pritchard said. "And that's doing it the right way. We want to do it the right way because we want to look back and say, 'You know, if we didn't accomplish everything we wanted to, we did it the right way.' You can't fault us for saying we want to do it with good people, hard workers, put the team first ... that's sort of what we're about. If we fail then, then we fail, but we'll feel good about ourselves."
"We're proud to be part of this community and understand that we shoulder some of that responsibility of the excitement. But we haven't done anything yet and so [here] we talk about two things: staying humble and staying hungry," Pritchard continued. "We do those two things, I know that building will go crazy. So we're going to stay humble, we're going to stay hungry, we're going to get after it every single day, we're going to try to make this team better every day. We see that the dividends are starting to pay off, but we're not going to anoint ourselves to any place yet."
The good fans of Portland, though, seem eager to start.
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