A few days ago, the Portland Trail Blazers fired their assistant general manager, Tom Penn.
And one of the NBA's most robust fanbases is starting to freak out, to the point that there is literally talk, in Blazer fan blog comments, of riots.
Around the League Penn is seen as a guy who knows a thing or two about basketball, but he's mainly prized as the former criminal defense attorney who mastered the NBA's more arcane stuff like the collective bargaining agreement.
And nobody mourns lawyers. Right? (Even fans of that assistant GM, if such people exist, could hardly be too upset -- Penn will keep drawing paychecks for more than two years even if he doesn't land another job. But teams are interested, and Penn is a shoo-in for a good position. Just last summer he passed up an offer to run the Timberwolves' basketball operations.) It's the kind of story that just about does not matter to fans ... in most cities.
But in Portland, things are different, because the firing of Penn is the first serious crack in the facade of the new-era Blazers. And through that crack, fans can peer into the team's inner workings. The scene is ugly. It may even foretell the end of the happy Blazers story Portland fans celebrate as real-time folklore.
In this story, Penn serves as a kind of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He's a bit player to onlookers. But when he went down, it was clear the big trouble was imminent.
Nothing like the real World War I is remotely close -- but for Portland fans, the worst thing imaginable may well be on the horizon.
The face of the franchise, and perhaps the most beloved general manager in the NBA, is Kevin Pritchard. The former Kansas and NBA player's drafting and trades have built a Blazer nucleus with players like Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller and Greg Oden, to go with an exceedingly bright future. Last year, with one of the youngest teams in NBA history, Portland finished tied for second in the West with 54 wins. This season, despite a historic series of injuries -- the team played without a center at all for a long stretch -- the Blazers may well win 50.
Until Pritchard took over, the city of Portland's only major sports franchise was a laughingstock, known as the Jail Blazers. The players were talented but underachieving. The fans, and at times the police, weren't happy with the players' off-court behavior. The business office was at odds with the basketball operations staff. In a city famous for rain, the Blazers were a multi-year thunderstorm.
The theory about discordant teams is that no matter how talented, they will crack under pressure. In giving up a 15-point fourth quarter lead to the Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western conference finals, the Portland Trail Blazers proved that theory as well as any team ever has.
But in recent years, that has all been forgotten. In the summer of 2008, the Blazer executives went on a team-building retreat in the Arizona desert. The talk, coming out of the retreat, was of a basketball staff that had bridged old divides with the business staff. Through the magic of ranches, and Kevin Pritchard, everyone was on the same page. Naive though it may have seemed, it was portrayed again and again as one big, happy family.
Trail Blazers president Larry Miller insists that Penn's departure is no sign the Blazer stakeholders were faking team harmony all along. "What happened with Tom was unfortunate," Miller explains. "But the results that this organization was able to make happen I don't think could have happened if we weren't on the same page working together and pulling together."
And yet, for the last couple of days it has not only been hard to find Pritchard -- who is usually in heavy contact with the media -- but it has also been hard to find anyone who will predict that Pritchard will stick in Portland for the long haul, whether he departs of his own volition or at the instigation of the team.
"If they fire KP," said a comment from "iDea" on the Blazersedge blog, "after building the team back to being respectable and with a winning culture, it’ll be the last straw with most fans."
"Could you imagine the scene if KP left ... There might be an actual riot" writes "blazeraddict." Another commenter, "somanluna," quickly added: "I would be in it (the riot) It would absurd to let the man responsible for rebuilding the franchise to what it is today go at this point. He’s done so much and is very passionate about the team and doing what’s right for it so who would be better?"
"I think their fears are justified," says Warren LeGarie who represents both Pritchard and Penn, when asked if he could say anything to settle down Blazer fans. He offered no tonics. "We've been given no indication that this team sees Kevin as somebody who will be there on a long-term basis. All we've seen is them taking away people that Kevin feels are important to his ability to do his job successfully. ... I've been a Blazer fan from early on. I've been involved in some way with the team for many many years. I want them to be successful. They gave Kevin an unbelievably wonderful opportunity. But in order to make that opportunity work, he still needs to have people who believe in him around him, and people that he'd like to have, and that's certainly not the case anymore."
Perhaps the worst possible news for Blazer fans is that according to sources, last summer LeGarie became so convinced that the Blazers would not commit to Pritchard for the long haul that the agent has spent the season looking for another team to take on Pritchard and Penn. His concerns would seem to be validated, somewhat, by the firing of Penn.
Most observers have assumed that Pritchard is on a short list of untouchably promising young GMs, along with the Thunder's Sam Presti and the Rockets' Daryl Morey. But around the League, plenty now insist Pritchard is likely to seek a new home, either because he'll be fired or because he'll resign.
Asked to promise to fans that the team's star employee would stick around, team president Miller offered more platitudes than specifics.
"Kevin is the GM here," says Miller. "I can never commit to anybody being around long term. I don't know that I'll be here long term. That's just not the way it works. To me, Kevin is our GM, and my feeling is we should focus on finishing out the season, trying to win games, trying to have a successful run in the playoffs. That should be our focus right now. The situation with Tom was in isolated incident. It's unfortunate, but hopefully we can put it behind us."
Why was Tom Penn fired, anyway?
In extensive conversations with well-placed sources across the NBA, a variety of theories have been presented about what precipitated Penn's firing just a few months after he received a significant raise and promotion. Larry Miller dismissed them all.
One reported theory is that LeGarie and Penn exaggerated word of a Minnesota offer, to get Penn a raise. Miller says: "I have no idea where that ever came from. From my perspective, I've never heard any dispute internally that Tom had a valid offer." ESPN.com has obtained a copy of the Minnesota offer. Is there any chance Penn was fired for faking the Minnesota job? According to Miller: "No."
Similarly, there are stories that Penn may have been flirting with the Clippers, who recently fired Mike Dunleavy as general manager. Is that why Penn was ousted? "Absolutely not," says Miller. Likewise, sources insist Penn never sought that job.
Another report said that Penn was fired because of some unspecified "H.R. issue." Miller's response was that there's "nothing valid to that."
Still more sources suggest that in the lead-up to his firing, Penn had been involved in a personal confrontation of sorts with top Blazer brass. "I'd like to know who makes up this kind of stuff," says Miller. "That's absolutely, positively, untrue. ... That, I can tell you, is unequivocally untrue."
The final theory, and one that a half-dozen sources insist is real, whether or not it led directly to Penn's firing, is that there's an ongoing and long-term power struggle between the basketball operations staff and the owner's suite. As the theory goes, Pritchard and Penn had amalgamated too much power and autonomy in making basketball decisions, and the people who sign the checks resolved to clip Pritchard's wings. Firing Penn was a handy way to do so -- Pritchard is no contract expert, and without Penn, he'd have no choice but to bring others into the process whenever he had the kinds of legal or CBA issues that Penn once handled.
Miller says that could not be so, because owner Paul Allen has never had any curbs on his own influence throughout the organization. "Paul is the owner," says Miller, "and the owner has the ultimate say on every decision, because we're spending his money. So, if Paul wants to weigh in or have input, he absolutely has that. There's nothing to that story."
What's more, Miller says Pritchard will be the key figure in hiring a replacement assistant GM, although for unclear reasons that likely won't happen until the summer.
So, if it wasn't because of the Minnesota theory, the Clipper theory, the H.R. theory, the confrontation theory, or the corporate politics theory ... why is it again that Penn was fired?
"I'm not going to talk about that," says Miller.
Miller may not, but Blazer fans certainly will.