PORTLAND, ORE., JUNE 9 -- Wayne Cooper tried to keep his eyelids open as the car pulled into his driveway. It was nearly 3 a.m. Hours earlier, the Portland Trail Blazers had drawn the blinds on the Phoenix Suns' title hopes, and within the last half-hour Cooper's tired eyes had witnessed a sight to behold: a crowd of 10,000 Blazermaniacs welcoming the team's charter plane at a suburban airport. At 1:30 a.m. On a work night.
Cooper had half-expected that. But what he didn't anticipate was the scene awaiting him as he stretched out of his car. There were signs everywhere. Welcome-home signs. Congratulatory signs. Signs on the house. Signs on the porch. Signs on the front lawn. And one sign on the street.
"Somebody had put up a sign that said 'Cooper Drive' over the street sign," he said, shaking his head, disbelieving. "My neighbors had done it -- all of it."
Life as a Portland Trail Blazer is everything it's cracked up to be. When the team is only so-so -- as it was for most of the 1980s -- Portlanders support their local heroes well. So well that the club has sold out 578 consecutive games, the longest current streak in sports. But when the team is terrific -- as it is now, fighting the Detroit Pistons for the NBA title -- the townfolk treat their Trail Blazers as if they were visiting dignitaries, forever thinking of ways to make their stay more enjoyable.
As a result, players stay in Portland well past their athletic bedtime. At last check, 25 former players have settled here, including five from the '77 championship team: Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross, Larry Steele, Lloyd Neal and Herm Gilliam. Terry Dischinger lives here. So do Kermit Washington, Greg Smith and Kenny Carr. Even LaRue Martin, a bust after being the No. 1 pick of the 1972 draft, lives here.
"Some guys . . . like to live with all that adulation, like to hear the roar of the crowd, after their playing days are over," said Dave Twardzik, who lived here seven years after retiring in 1980, and hopes to return this summer. "Let's say you fill out something on your credit card and the waitress who picks it up says, 'Hey, are you the same so-and-so who used to play for the Trail Blazers?' Some guys need that."
But for every player who likes being loved, there is another who likes being left alone. Such as Cooper, in his second stint with the team. "They don't bother you here, and I like that," he said. "They know where I live, know that I play on the team. But they don't come knocking on my door, asking for autographs."
So why do so many players put down their stakes here?
"Good place to live," Cooper said matter-of-factly. "Great place to raise a family."
In other words, for the same reasons as most people do. Although Portland is notorious for its rainy season, which seemingly lasts from September to August, the living is easy and the problems, at least in comparison to other medium-sized cities, are few. Further, when the sun does peek out, Portland can be a beautiful place: cleaner than Disneyland, greener than an NBA rookie, lusher than Beverly Hills.
"For a long time, Portland has been an undiscovered jewel for its quality of life," said Geoff Petrie, the team's first draft choice, and now its vice president of business operations. Moreover, as a native of Philadelphia, he can appreciate why Portland appeals to players from urban areas.
"As a kid, I never had the opportunity to catch a 20-pound fish; never had the opportunity to hunt chukars," he said. "I don't ski, but I enjoy driving to the mountains, and I enjoy driving to the coast, and taking in all that scenery."
Still, there are times -- okay, months -- when it's too wet to enjoy natural beauty. During the winters, the indoor Trail Blazers are the preeminent leisure-time activity, with everything else a poor second. It's been that way since 1977, when the Bill Walton-led team became fashionable, and Blazermania became infectious.
Thirteen years later, one would think that Blazermania's fever never cooled. Petrie says he had "never experienced" a crowd as boisterous as at the Western Conference finals. Mayor Bud Clark claims it has been just as ear-splittingly loud in taverns when the team is on the road. "You can't hear yourself think," said Clark, who watched Game 2 against the Pistons in a tavern. "I have to say, the Trail Blazers have even overshadowed our annual Rose Festival."
During the playoffs, the club rented a downtown theater -- as it had in the late 1970s -- and beamed closed-circuit telecasts to sell-out crowds of 1,500. Others stayed home, so they could spend $30 to order the club's pay-per-view broadcast. Harry Glickman, the team's president, said the club was averaging 6,000 orders per game.
Blazermania lives on -- and yet, it wasn't always so. Ticket prices have steadily increased, and the Trail Blazers have priced out many fans. Either that, or forced them to divide their tickets among friends and associates.
Many observers believe the ticket-price increases were responsible for mellowing the Memorial Coliseum crowd in the 1980s, when Blazermania barely existed, and the crowd, although always there, had all the ruckus of a corporate board meeting. "A funeral crowd," San Antonio Coach Larry Brown once called it.
Which is why so many have made such a big deal over the current mania. Many thought the fever would never return. Not Walton, though.
"Blazermania existed then, back in the championship season, and it's existed all the time," he said while in Detroit last week. "They just haven't had a team in Portland that could bring it out. Until now."