Contrary to popular belief, the Portland Trail Blazers are not a collection of dour souls waiting nervously and irritably for their inevitable fall. Consider their warmup drill before what turned out to be the finale of their first-round Western Conference series against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon. Inspired by the college atmosphere in the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, to which Game 4 had been moved to escape the civil turmoil in Los Angeles (page 24), Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Cliff Robinson and Alaa Abdelnaby engaged in a Vegas-style show of dunking one-upmanship designed to win friends and influence people. "I admit it," said Drexler after the game, which ended in a 102-76 Trail Blazer rout, "we wanted to steal some of those Laker fans. And I think we did."
Now the Blazers are trying to steal some respect from around the league. All season they have had to deal with media charges that they are a dumb team. Quite often during practice, after coach Rick Adelman calls for a certain set, a couple of the Blazers will look at each other, scratch their heads and say good-naturedly, "Duh, what's dat?"
"See, things bother you if they're true," says Drexler. "But if they've got nothing to do with the truth, if they're way off the mark, then you can laugh about them." And Drexler laughs.
Perhaps he is being completely honest. But it's difficult for the Blazers to laugh off all the criticism routinely lobbed in their direction, criticism that falls most heavily upon the formidable shoulders of the 6'7" Drexler. This is the season in which Drexler, 29, has clearly elevated his game to the point where he now stands, in the estimation of most NBA insiders, right behind Michael Jordan as the league's best all-around player. "And the gap between them is not as great as a lot of people might think," says Jerry Reynolds, the director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings.
With the final two spots for the U.S. Olympic basketball team due to be announced in a few weeks, Drexler is clearly the best player not currently on the American roster. He is also the unquestioned leader of the Blazers—"Without Clyde, there would be no Trail Blazers," says the Denver Nuggets' Greg (Cadillac) Anderson, a boyhood friend from Houston—and so he takes a lot of heat for a team accused of being underachieving, underwhelming in the clutch and unable to execute in the half-court.
Portland rarely exhibited those weaknesses in its series with the Lakers, however. Drexler was nothing short of unstoppable, even in Portland's 121-119 Game 3 overtime defeat at the Forum on April 29, during which he had 42 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists. He was all over the box score in Game 4 too, finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. He topped that performance with a stupendous dunk, taking an alley-oop pass from Kersey that seemed headed for the seats and slamming it back into the basket. "I was in awe," said teammate Danny Ainge. "That ball looked like it was outta here."
Still, no one doubts that Drexler must perform as well, if not better, in the second-round series against Phoenix, which was to begin Tuesday in Portland. "That's exactly how I like it," says Drexler. "I like to feel the pressure. I like to hear people say bad stuff about our team, then go out and prove them wrong. That's what sports is about."
He says it all with a placid smile, and one has to believe he isn't kidding. There was a time when Drexler's air of unflappability seemed a bit phony, but since he has maintained it now for nine seasons, through Blazer thick and thin, it deserves to be taken seriously. He glides around controversy and intrigue as skillfully as he glides around defenders, and if an obsession to be politically correct is part of that, so be it. He positively burns to be a member of the Olympic team, for example, but about the strongest sentiment he will offer—on or off the record—is: "Yes, I did feel a little slighted when I didn't make it. And it'll be disappointing if I'm not chosen." With all comers he is unfailingly polite but also unfailingly wary. "The more I can leave things unsaid," proclaims Drexler, "the better I feel." And so he usually feels pretty good.
Drexler's lone bout with controversy came during a difficult 1988-89 season; it is worth mentioning only to illustrate the degree to which Drexler and his Trail Blazers have changed. Mike Schuler, who was then the Portland coach, considered Drexler a negative influence on the team, a player who didn't give his all in practice and who, despite streaks of brilliance, made bad decisions on the court. Schuler was fired in midseason and felt that his inability to get along with the franchise player was a major reason. Drexler, for his part, believed that Schuler drilled the team too hard and was also playing mind games with his close friend and former teammate, Kiki Vandeweghe, who now plays for the New York Knicks. Press Drexler further on the subject these days and watch those placid features turn stormy. Considering the positive direction in which Adelman turned the team after he took over, there is no doubt that Schuler, for all his acknowledged basketball genius, was the wrong man to coach the Blazers. (Subsequently, he became the wrong man to coach the Los Angeles Clippers, too.) But, still, did he have a point about Drexler's game?
"I would never say Clyde didn't practice hard," says Blazer assistant coach John Wetzel, who was present during the Schuler administration. "But I would say he is a little more focused now, more knowledgeable about the right things to do. He doesn't feel he has to prove himself every day, and that's led to a more constructive approach to his game."