Friday, February 7, 2014
The Trail Blazers go public
By Bethlehem Shoals Special to ESPN.com
The Blazers aren't just a Portland thing anymore. LaMarcus Aldridge & Co. are ready for the limelight.
Over the past few years, Portlanders have seen their city turned into an exportable commodity. Between "Portlandia," foodie buzz, the vogue for livable cities, and the tourists who flock around the Ace Hotel, the city stands for something other than itself; it’s communal property, easily beloved and useful for those who may just be passing by or imagining it from afar. It’s reached the point that Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Bloody Jay named their latest mixtape “Black Portland,” in part as a nod to the city’s reputation as some sort of Shangri-La for creatives.
At this point, Portland’s national -- and international -- profile no longer comes as a surprise. What made “Black Portland” unusual was that it used the Trail Blazers' logo, conflating the reputation of the city with its up-and-coming NBA power team. It’s a connection so obvious, you have to wonder why it’s not getting made more often. Especially when the team, behind dark-horse MVP candidate LaMarcus Aldridge and All-Star Damian Lillard, has found itself near the top of the West all season. These Blazers may not be a national phenomenon yet, but they’re well on their way.
Outside of Portland, the history of the Trail Blazers goes something like this: Bill Walton, the 1977 NBA title, the 1984 draft, Jordan’s shrug at Cliff Robinson, the 2000 West finals, Jail Blazers jokes, the Greg Oden pick, a notable Brandon Roy performance (your pick) and fin. Not bad for a far-flung sports team in a small city. But by and large, they Blazers have registered on the national radar only when they’re within striking distance of a title or reduced to a total laughingstock. Successful as Portland’s teams have been over the years, visibility and notoriety have rarely been their strong suit. That’s why it’s exciting to see them starting to really deserve, and get, that kind of attention.
Damian Lillard has blossomed into an All-Star in his second season.
For the Blazers and their fans, then, a return to national prominence might involve some growing pains. I’ve been in Portland for a little over a year now, in the Northwest for six years total. What’s striking about the Blazers and their fan base -- and here, I’m contrasting them with the sports culture of the East Coast -- is how darn easy to please they are. The “only game in town” argument never really goes away, but remember, Blazers fandom extends far outside of the usual demographics. In the same way that “hipster” is the rule not the exception here, gawking at nontraditional sports fans loses its novelty really fast in Portland. Blazers fandom reminds me of college ball frenzy or a city in the thick of the postseason. It’s all hands on deck, all of the time. And that special bond almost always errs on the side of supporting, encouraging and revering the team. You know, all those things that fans in theory do for their team. It’s a little bit quaint, until you remember how absurd its sports-talk-driven obverse is.
There’s been only one time that Portland has turned its back on the Blazers. That was, of course, during the Jail Blazers era, when Zach Randolph, Ruben Patterson and Qyntel Woods brought shame on a team already struggling to find its competitive footing. That period was also so abysmal that it ended nearly two decades of consecutive sellouts -- impressive in any sport, nearly miraculous in a league where regular-season attendance is something like an inside joke. Then came Roy and Aldridge, a sense of renewal, and an enthusiasm that seemed to celebrate a return to normalcy as much as a real chance at a title.
All of this sets up a tidy little ecosystem: As long as the Blazers stay credible, the fans can be proud of them and the pressures are minimal. But in a season like this, there’s a reason to take the national perspective, that all-encompassing, wide-angle view of the league, to ask how the Blazers stack against powerhouses like Miami or OKC.
This season, the Blazers are one of those teams. Aldridge isn’t just a star big man, he’s a guy showing up on MVP ballots. Lillard isn’t just the future of the franchise, he’s looking like a big part of the NBA’s future. The Trail Blazers have gone national without really preparing for it. Portland is no longer a team that lives in the nightly results, it’s the main event on a regular basis. Friday’s national game will be their second of the week . For a fan base used to having Portland as their team, I imagine this is somewhat disorienting. It must be hard to avoid making the shift from keeping expectations reasonable to expecting too much.
There’s another side to the Blazers this season that might be even trickier for hometown fans to appreciate. They may not be the most exotic or enthralling team in the league, but they’re certainly one of the prettiest. Strip away all concerns about winning and losing and focus only on the aesthetic of basketball: the Blazers’ ball movement, the jump-shooting that splits the difference between fearless and mechanistic, Aldridge’s sweeping movements, Lillard’s nightly derring-do, and Batum’s sleek resourcefulness. Spend enough nights watching and Portland will become one of your favorites really fast. The Blazers are irresistible if you happen to flip past one of their games.
They also are just dangerous enough, and inconsistent enough, that they’re never fully in or fully out of any game. They play with a confidence that, in less agile hands, could be mistaken for recklessness. Their defense kicks in at just the right time, usually in the second half; whether their shooting is on or off, the Blazers run their system, fully convinced that sooner or later it will bury their opponents under a flurry of jumpers and quick moves around the basket.
The Blazers are, for lack of a better word, one of the NBA’s great foils this season. Anyone versus the Blazers is going to be an entertaining matchup, something maybe only the Warriors can claim with any consistency. They somehow bring out the best in other teams, pushing the game without things erupting into run-and-gun absurdism. Portland isn't a team you want to play because there’s a high probability you will lose. However, playing them practically guarantees something entertaining.
So far, February has been a mixed bag for the Blazers. Aldridge wasn’t voted into the All-Star Game as a starter, meaning the team isn't quite visible enough to start winning popularity contests. But Aldridge and Lillard were both selected as reserves, a thumbs-up from West coaches that confirms the two can indeed play a little. Lillard has announced plans to participate in all five of All-Star Weekend's major events, a publicity masterstroke that he can more than back up. The team opened the month with a loss to the Wizards, the kind of bout with a mediocre Eastern Conference squad that the Blazers are supposed to win. They took care of the Knicks on Wednesday, hopefully righting the ship. Between the Pacers on Friday and a visit from the Thunder on Tuesday, the Blazers have a chance to head into the break with a real show of force. Or, if things go badly, a new round of questions about their legitimacy.
When asked about “Black Portland,” Lillard told Danny Chau that the title “shows that people are seeing what we’re doing, and people respect it. … The fact that they’re inspired by that, as artists, based on what’s in basketball -- that lets us know we’re doing something right.”
The Blazers aren't just catching on with NBA observers -- they've also started to take on some cultural cachet. And they know it. Last week, I saw a sign in front of a bar that said “Blazers … Get Greedy!” I first took it as a message to fans, urging them to expect more than they ever had before. But it’s also for a team that, in addition to the usual goals of making the playoffs and going all the way, wants to leave a strong impression. That’s certainly happening. And it’s why, sooner or later, this team will belong to everyone into basketball.