By Daniel Uthman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The photograph is to this city what Eisenstaedt's sailor kissing the girl is to Times Square.
It adorns the walls of bars, museums and the arena where this city's only active major league sports team plays. It represents a moment of true joy, somewhat unexpected but long hoped for.
It is an image of Broadway, the most prominent downtown thoroughfare in this Pacific Northwest city, captured on June 6, 1977. On that day, less than 24 hours after the Portland Trail Blazers clinched their only NBA championship, an estimated crowd of 100,000 crammed the street at the end of an impromptu victory parade. Long-haired teen-agers in tight shorts and tube socks cheered alongside businessmen in coats and ties. Revelers climbed lampposts, three at a time, for a better view.
Last Thursday, just two blocks away from that 1977 scene, more than 10,000 citizens crowded a square to celebrate with this season's Blazers team, even though it hadn't won anything. In the middle of the workday, they left their desks, packed up their kids and converged on a brick plaza to honor a franchise that was entering the NBA postseason for the first time in six years. "Who else gets a parade just for making the playoffs?" said Greg Oden, the team's 21-year-old center.
The Blazers face the Houston Rockets in Game 2 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series tonight needing a change to reverse the outcome of Saturday's 27-point loss in Game 1.
It took a bigger change for the franchise to endure and ultimately end a six-year playoff drought -- the longest in the NBA -- and grow into a 54-win team this season. For the past few years -- starting with a 21-win season in 2005-06 -- the team's fans and management set aside their desire for the franchise to win. They just wanted it to behave.
"I made one guarantee back then, and I still make the same guarantee," Kevin Pritchard, the Blazers' general manager, said in his office at the team's practice facility on Sunday. "I don't know how many wins we're going to have, I don't know if we're going to win a championship, but I do know one thing: I guarantee we're going to make this community proud of this team.
Through incidents of sexual abuse, dogfighting and drug use, the Blazers earned a reputation as perhaps the NBA's most troubled roster in the first half of this decade. The team's on-court play did nothing to redeem it in the eyes of fans, and for the first time in franchise history, they stopped attending games -- one factor that led to an $85.1 million operating deficit in 2003-04, as estimated by Forbes magazine.
Pritchard and Coach Nate McMillan, who joined the team in July 2005, decided talent acquisition had to be as much about character as potential on-court performance. "I'm not saying that's right for everybody," Pritchard said. "It's just what works for us. We want to be a team that is built around character; so if you don't fit that, you're immediately eliminated. We have a shorter list and a harder list."
That shorter list and the desire to get it right was one element that changed the team's character in the eyes of the national basketball public, too. In constant pursuit of the exact fit, the Trail Blazers became the Trade Blazers, making 12 draft-day deals in the past three years. Within three draft positions in 2006 alone, they acquired budding star LaMarcus Aldridge and 2007 rookie of the year and two-time all-star Brandon Roy.
Since Pritchard and McMillan began collaborating on the basketball operations, there have been no off-court incidents involving Blazers players. That, combined with second-year president Larry Miller's fostering of an open, creative forum on the business side, has led fans and sponsors to return and has boosted the franchise's value by 48 percent, according to Forbes.
"This team has been wandering in the basketball desert for a while, and now they're back," NBA Commissioner David Stern said Saturday. "If you remember back to the good old days, the 'Rip City' signs were hanging from every building and dangling from every window. In New York City, there would be probably a Post-It on a subway station. It's just a different approach, and I think that's what enriches our league, to have that kind of intense fan loyalty."
Like the 1977 championship team that saw a peak of that loyalty, the 2009 Blazers playoff roster is the NBA's youngest. And even some of its veterans, like ninth-year center Joel Przybilla, are making their playoff debuts. At age 29, and having been a part of four NBA franchises, Przybilla said he doesn't take any step of the Blazers' growth process for granted. "That's why I wanted to come back here when my contract was up," he said. "I knew when things did get good, it was going to be very special, and I wanted to be part of that."
Pritchard considers players like Przybilla to be just as important to the Blazers' ethos and mission as Aldridge and Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. The fans do as well. They gravitate to every player, whether it's cheering a reserve player like Jerryd Bayless during Thursday's rally or waiting at the edge of the lot at the team's practice facility for an autograph from backup forward Channing Frye.
"Basketball is potentially a very selfish game," Pritchard said. "There's only one ball, and there's nine other people on the court at one time. But if you're willing to give up for the organization, we will reward you. We will take care of you. And we did that with Steve Blake, we did that with Joel Przybilla, we did that with Travis Outlaw, we'll do it with LaMarcus and Brandon this summer if we can. I think we've identified, and the players know, if you do right for this organization, you're going to be rewarded."