SI.com caught up with senior writer Jon Wertheim to talk about his recent story on Portland Trailblazers and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen.
SI.com: What drew you to this story?
Jon Wertheim: Part of it was personal. My first job out of college was working for the Blazers' fan magazine, Rip City. Even though there was this magical town-team relationship -- the NBA's version of the Green Bay Packers -- no one was ever quite sure what to make of the owner. Paul Allen was known to all as "the other Microsoft guy." Everyone knew about his immense wealth, particularly, when he docked his yachts on the Willamette River. And he sure seemed committed to the Blazers. But otherwise, he was a cipher. You would never hear Allen interviewed or read his quotes in the paper or see him in the locker room. I remember trying to interview Allen for the fan magazine -- basically, the house p.r. organ -- and being turned down. He was regarded then as a mysterious figure. Not evil or anything like that; just kind of eccentric and introverted and, of course, almost unfathomably rich. And, nearly 15 years later, it was my sense that that hadn't really changed. In trying to demystify the guy, I thought I had to first address the question: why does he own teams? It's not as though he has sports in his DNA like, say, Jerry Jones does. It's not as though, he's running these franchises like regular investments, with a mandate for profit. It's not as though he's using his role as owner to catapult himself into celebrity. (Quite the contrary.) So what is this feeding in him? Why would someone this reclusive and private want to own pro sports teams (he owns the Seahawks, as well as the Blazers and will soon be a partial MLS owner) and insinuated himself into this locker room culture?
SI.com: You finally got to meet Allen for this story.
Wertheim: Sort of. When I told Allen's representatives that I would be doing this story and requested an interview, they were helpful and receptive. I flew out to Portland a few weeks ago and basically left my schedule open, optimistic that Allen would have some time to chat, either in Portland or Seattle where he is based. I was told that he and I would both be a Blazers game and I figured, "Great, this will be perfect, we'll talk then." A few hours before the game, I got a call saying Allen would like to meet me, but wasn't up for an interview yet. We met at halftime of the game and had a pleasant, casual conversation. But then he went into his private lounge in the tunnel and I went back to my seat. Then, maybe 10 days later, when we were 3,000 miles apart, we spoke for half an hour or so by phone.
SI.com: So what do sports feed in him?
Wertheim: I think there are two different answers. In the case of the Seahawks, this was a way for him to do something for the city of Seattle. About 10 years ago, the Seahawks appeared to be leaving the Pacific Northwest and Allen stepped in and ensured that the NFL would stay. I think he's interested in the team and goes to games, but it doesn't appear to be a passion. Allen told me his emotional investment in the two teams is "equal" but there's a lot of evidence to suggest that his love and interest for the Blazers goes deeper. For one, he's owned them much longer. He's been through extreme highs and lows with them. He also is intrigued by the quantitative side of basketball. Maybe not unlike writing code for computers -- the source of his insane wealth -- it's like a big puzzle to him.
SI.com: You mention the highs and lows. What was his role in the "Jail Blazers" era?
Wertheim: That whole story an almost biblical ring to it. It was like something from the classical mythology. An ambitious advisor (Bob Whitsitt) convinced Allen that he should try and buy the best team, consequences be damned. He spends insanely (Luxury tax? What luxury tax?), bringing in talented but morally bankrupt players. The experiment combusts. The team not only loses, but embarrasses the franchise, the community and, by extension, the owner, in the process. Yet the inability to purchase success only makes it more seductive to the man who can buy everything. So Allen resists selling the team, ships off the problem children, recommits to "winning with character," as he put it. The community is embracing the franchise again and, the Blazers even got some providence, landing the top pick in last year's draft. Greg Oden is out this season but I think the Blazers will challenge in the West in a few years and -- this was clear from the just a few in town -- Portland is again supporting its only pro sports team.
SI.com: In the end, is he good for sports?
Wertheim: Unquestionably. In a lot of ways, he's an ideal owner. He cares immensely about the franchises. He's a fan, who doesn't lounge in the suites, but sits in the front row, chomping on popcorn and standing to look wide-eyed at replays on the scoreboard. He has almost comically deep pockets. On the other hand, he doesn't meddle or make ultimatums and operating under the mistaken impression that he's bigger than the players. In the course of this story, plenty of people offered evidence of some of Allen's eccentric characteristics and social discomfort. But no one used the kind of adjectives that often associated with bosses. In dozens of interviews, words like "malicious," or "deluded" or "overbearing" or "dishonest" never surfaced. The sports world tends to resist "weird." Sports are still the province of the popular crowd, of back-slapping Alpha males. But there are lots of owners and executives who -- while better dressed, more outgoing and more socially polished -- could learn a lot from Allen.