Who turned the Blazers around? The fans
Monday, January 07, 2008
It was family night out, so Trail Blazers forward James Jones took his daughter, wife and infant son to one of those Chuck E. Cheese's chain restaurants and arcades the other night.
Turns out Jones is more popular and approachable than the chain's anthropomorphic mouse, because, as Jones put it, "I finally told my wife, 'I'm being a distraction, I'll be over in the corner, holding our son, and hiding out.' "
The Blazers have won 16 of their last 17 games. The NBA franchise has undergone one of the most remarkable wholesale transformations in major professional sports. And the off-court stories that used to involve strip clubs, guns, middle fingers, pit bulls, drag racing and police, now instead begin with, "You'll never guess who I saw playing Skee-Ball."
So who gets the credit?
I suppose you commend general manager Kevin Pritchard for orchestrating draft-day deals that landed Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. And for convincing Joel Przybilla that Portland was a better fit for him than San Antonio or Detroit. And for signing Steve Blake. And for re-signing Travis Outlaw, who was drafted by former Blazers' executive Bob Whitsitt (who also deserves a salute for the pick).
I guess you could praise coach Nate McMillan and his staff of assistants for their patience, vision and brilliant work with the league's youngest roster. And you could hail team president Larry Miller and right-hand executive Mike Golub for keeping their eyes on the ball. And you could praise the players for their growth and heart.
Also, you could give owner Paul Allen credit for buying the Rose Garden arena back and, also, for signing the checks, and for flushing his former management team once he realized it was poisoning the organization. And you could give the scouts, assistant general manager Tom Penn and support staff loads of credit, too.
You could do these things, but you shouldn't until you celebrate the party most responsible for the Trail Blazers' turnaround.
That would be you.
Because you must realize you forced all of this.
You decided that you had high standards. You decided that you wouldn't tolerate malfeasance. You announced, like no other professional sports market in history, that you expected more than athleticism from the players wearing your city's name across their chests.
When Blazers disrespected fans with obscene gestures, you refused to buy tickets. When a player berated his coach, you were outraged. When management presented you with a phony smile and a hollow 25-point pledge, it was you who said, "Let me know when you get serious about this."
You made character matter.
You created the culture everyone is talking about.
You, not the Blazers, dictated the terms of your relationship.
So take a bow, today.
Because the Blazers are inspiring, and formidable, and altogether impressive. They're turning heads, and giving you butterflies. They're athletic, and well-coached, and this season feels special. And while managers manage, and coaches coach, and players play, the franchise was mostly just reacting to you.
It was you who wouldn't tolerate creeps in uniform. And you who ignored clever marketing, and insisted what was inside the package mattered more. And you decided you could live with as many miserable draft-lottery seasons as were necessary if it meant that things would change someday.
When Greg Oden was picked No. 1 overall, you showed up at Pioneer Courthouse Square to let him know he was welcome. Now, you're casting All-Star votes for Roy. And you've apparently decided you've seen enough traction that you're willing to come back and sell out the home arena again.
I met a 22-year old man named Tim Bush on Sunday. He's a college student, studying at the Art Institute of Portland. He also has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair since the third grade. When he was 16, the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered to grant one wish for Bush. He told them he wanted to meet the Trail Blazers, see a game, and have his basketball autographed by the team.
They granted his wish five years ago.
Bush waited for the Blazers after the game, outside the locker room, holding a pen and a basketball. One by one, the players skated past, signing their names and hurrying off. Bonzi Wells told a joke, then signed, and walked off, proud of himself. And then, here came Rasheed Wallace, who was told that there was a kid in a wheelchair waiting down the way, who wanted nothing more than a signature, and a couple of minutes of conversation with the team's best player.
Said Bush: "I tried to talk to him but he just signed my basketball and looked at me like I was scum as he exited the building."
Bush hates that autographed basketball, even now. He said it pains him to look at it. But you know, he can't stop looking at this 2007-08 Blazers. And every time he watches them play, it feels like wishes are coming true.
Cheer yourselves today.
You caused this.
John Canzano: 503-294-5065; JohnCanzano@aol.com To read his blog, go to http://blog.oregonlive.com/ johncanzano; Catch him on the radio on "The Bald-Faced Truth" from 6-8 p.m. weekdays on KXL (750)