Somewhere within the landscape of the NBA, there is a place where talent and character meet at a perfect crossroads. In this place, players are skilled enough to go deep into the playoffs and energetic enough to win over fans, but not so naturally gifted they reek of entitlement. General managers have an instinctual sense of those on their rosters in this place, and owners and fans live together in perfect harmony.
This place is out there. Somewhere. It just isn't in Portland.
"There are bad things going on around our team," Bonzi Wells recently acknowledged of the Trail Blazers, and considering the state of the group that will arrive at MCI Center for tonight's game against the Washington Wizards, this is hardly an understatement.
Last week, Blazers leading scorer Rasheed Wallace and teammate Damon Stoudamire pleaded not guilty to marijuana possession charges. The previous week, police led forward Ruben Patterson, a registered sex offender, away from his home on a domestic abuse charge (it was dropped when his wife chose not to cooperate). A few weeks before that, Wells was suspended by the league office for spitting on Spurs forward Danny Ferry; and a few weeks before that, Stoudamire was waiting for a judge to declare that the pound of marijuana police found in his suburban Portland home had been obtained through an illegal search.
It would be nice if the team's play on the court offered some break from all of this, and indeed, the Blazers arrive here riding a two-game winning streak. But two games aren't cause for wild celebration when you have one of the highest payrolls in the NBA and an overall record of just 9-9.
The discontent doesn't show up dramatically in attendance figures, which reflect tickets sold. What is noticeable is empty seats in the Rose Garden.
Even players' attempts to put a positive spin on things often sputter. "I always think that distractions tend to make things turn out a little more positive for you on the basketball court because it brings a little more focus to what you have to do," veteran guard Scottie Pippen started off saying the other day. He then said: "It's not working that way with us, but I don't think [it's because of the off-court issues.] We were playing bad before all this. Did you forget?"
Fans certainly haven't. For a long time, on-court success kept something of a lid on the discontent over the team's off-court problems; just last year, a froth of fan frustration over perceived player apathy was quelled by a staggering 30-8 run through the second half of the Portland schedule. But with less winning this year, community exasperation has boiled unchecked, especially since Wallace's and Stoudamire's arrests.
The two, along with a friend, were pulled over for speeding in Stoudamire's yellow Humvee and, according to a police report, hesitantly acknowledged marijuana had been smoked in the car. A search later turned up a baggie of marijuana in the glove box, leaving fans disgusted.
"There is absolutely nothing [including a title] that the Blazers could do to get me back as a fan," Portland resident Jim Mackey wrote in a recent open letter to a local newspaper. Ron Tonkin, a high-profile local auto dealer, added his own letter, saying, "We have nearly 800 employees and now have to spend time to find enough people who want to see the game to fill our corporate box."
Another fan has posted a billboard downtown that reads "Boycott Blazers -- we need a team that can beat L.A., not women and the justice system"; yet another has started a Web site asking for money to buy the Blazers from billionaire owner Paul Allen. (More than $355,000 has been pledged.) Much of this ire has been directed specifically at Portland President and General Manager Bob Whitsitt, who has guided the Blazers to the playoffs every year since taking over in 1994 but who has also seen 18 players get in trouble with the law, team management or league officials on his watch.
"I've had better weeks, I'll tell you that," Whitsitt said a few days ago, obviously tired from churning out some of the meatiest damage control of his career. In just the last two weeks, he has apologized to fans, saying, "This is embarrassing, it's disappointing, it's frustrating." He fined Patterson $100,000 for the domestic incident.
"Each of our players needs to understand that there is a standard of conduct that they are expected to maintain as members of our team and this community," Whitsitt said, and even though he is prohibited from directly disciplining Wallace and Stoudamire -- the NBA's collective bargaining agreement mandates that all marijuana offenses be handled by the league office -- he has spoken at length to each of them, and to the rest of the team.
"We are trying everything we can think of," he said. "I know fans are frustrated, and we're frustrated, but we really are being proactive.
"We have five assistant coaches now. We really need two for basketball reasons, but we need them not to just be coaches but to mentor them off the court. We have presentations to talk about how to deal with the public and the media, PowerPoint presentations. I also have lunches with these guys to talk about the business end and how what they do in the community really affects the health of the team."
Whitsitt has also tried to be more open with the fans, not only by lifting the curtain on the team's disciplinary actions but also by holding fan forums where ticket holders can voice concerns. These have not always been a raging success; at one of the first forums last year, an elderly woman walked up to Whitsitt and said, "I hate you." In some cases, fans have come around -- "the same woman came up to me at the end of this four-hour session and said 'I love you,' " Whitsitt reports -- but inconsistent messages from the players haven't always helped.
The talkative Wells, for instance, has been alternately soothing, saying last week that "we need fans out there to support us -- there are bad things going on around our team, but we're a family still," and irksome, saying after a game Sunday, "We all grew up in the 'hood. Stuff like this happens. As long as there is no death in the family, it's really not that serious." And when Patterson was asked if he was worried about fan perception of him, he replied: "For what? That's my personal life. That's my wife. My kids."
In the end, some attitudes may be so intrinsically out of concert with team interests that Whitsitt may have to take more drastic personnel measures; he acknowledges that all fines, forums and PowerPoint presentations aside, the most sure way to keep a team free of off-court problems is to stop acquiring problematic players.
"Prior to the last year-and-a-half, we probably have been more on the aggressive side of being willing to take some risks in order to win some more games," he said. "The past year-and-a-half, we've made a conscious decision to try to be less aggressive and bring in players we felt a little more sure of."
Still, he correctly points out that "fans expect to win, and if you don't win, they don't want to come to games." So while he exiled troubled Blazers Shawn Kemp (cocaine problems) and Erick Barkley (scuffles with opponents, local police) this summer, he also acquired Patterson, who last year in Washington state entered a modified guilty plea to the attempted rape of his children's nanny.
"It's the great balancing act -- talent and character and character and talent -- it's the most difficult thing you do," Whitsitt said. "You just search for the right mix, and if you don't get it, you keep searching."
Certainly, the crossroads is out there somewhere. Around the Pacific Northwest, it's just a lot more difficult to find than it used to be.
Special correspondent Andy Seligman reported from Portland.