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The Quiet Owner: Paul Allen (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday November 27, 2007 11:28AM; Updated: Friday November 30, 2007 9:23AM
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By L. Jon Wertheim

Allen sits with pals like Gates (right) at games but shies away from players like Oden.
Allen sits with pals like Gates (right) at games but shies away from players like Oden.
Jack Smith/AP

Even against this relief, Paul Allen cuts a singularly eccentric figure.

Here is a man who combines Cuban's passion with Howard Hughes's instinct for publicity. Allen is, unmistakably, fanatical about his teams, the Blazers in particular. He attends nearly every home game and knows every stat and requests video on the most obscure draft prospects. Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard -- his seatmate at most games -- was speaking with a guest recently when he excused himself to respond to the 12th text message Allen had sent him by BlackBerry that day. It was 10:42 in the morning.

Oh, boy!

Yet Allen is so modest that, according to one former executive, Rose Garden personnel are under instructions not to show him on the arena scoreboard. He seldom addresses fans. He rarely grants interviews. He agreed to speak with Sports Illustrated by phone but asked to meet the writer in person first. While Allen is gentle and thoroughly pleasant in conversation, he is almost aggressively unforthcoming. What, specifically, draws him to sports? "Sports are events the community can rally around and get excited about, and that's a wonderful thing to experience," he replies blandly. Is he surprised how big a role team ownership plays in his life? "Football and basketball are different games, but they both have their interesting points, and they're both enjoyable for the fans." Does he perceive himself, as others do, as being such an introvert? "There are other owners in sports who do more interviews or are more, well... acting in different ways. But I see my role as trying to put everything in place behind the scenes to make things successful."

Allen is similarly impenetrable to his players. Steve Blake, Portland's point guard, is in his second season playing for Allen but claims, "I've never really met the man." Greg Oden, the team's gilded rookie, out for the season with a knee injury but nevertheless the face of the franchise, describes his relationship with Allen this way: "He's the dude who signs my checks." Center Joel Przybilla says of Allen, "He's courteous but sort of shy and self-protective." The team recently held a practice on the full-size NBA court at Allen's estate on Mercer Island. (According to one Blazers employee, the court is ringed with Monets and Renoirs encased in protective glass, lest a multimillion-dollar masterpiece get dinged by an errant pass.) Allen, however, was away on his yacht at the time.

Last season, the Blazers unexpectedly won a big game, and their coach, Nate McMillan, asked the owner if he wanted to address his minions. The locker room went quiet, and players leaned in to hear what the boss had to say. Allen avoided eye contact with them, and his words were slow in coming. But then the omnipotent owner finally spoke. "Guys," he said in a barely audible voice, "great game."

This parable begins in a faraway kingdom called the Emerald City. It was the late 1960s, and Paul Allen was a quiet, studious, relentlessly curious kid at Seattle's Lakeside High, the son of two educators. He'd played some recreational basketball and gone with his father to Washington Huskies football games, but as far as his talents went, it was brains over brawn in a blowout. He had a nimble imagination and interests that ranged from rocket ships to rock music.

It was at Lakeside that Allen discovered computers. He envisioned a day when the personal computer would transform lives. He had a buddy in the computer club who shared his passion, a scrawny lawyer's son two years his junior named Bill Gates. The two boys may have gotten strange looks from classmates when they spoke enthusiastically about "laptops" and "memory chips," but they were convinced that they were glimpsing the future. Allen foresaw a vast computer network that would one day connect the citizens of the world, and even newspapers would be available on screens!

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