Whitsitt, in turn, touts former guard Greg Anthony as more emblematic of the Blazers' sterling character. In 1999, however, the team forced Anthony to apologize to beat writer Rachel Bach-man for allegedly making inappropriate sexual comments. ( Anthony, who was traded last summer to the Chicago Bulls for a second-round pick, says, "The charges are absurd. I was told by team management that if I apologized the whole thing would go away.") "When players are getting paid as much as these guys, the fans have a right to expect them to behave themselves," says Harry Glickman, the team's founder, president from 1987 to '94 and now president emeritus. Adds Schonely, "What management doesn't realize is that Portland fans would rather root for a so-so team of good guys than a contender filled with bad apples."
That notion has been lost on Whitsitt, who has taken so many hits he calls himself "the Portland pi�ata." Following the 1999-2000 season he traded power forward Brian Grant, a civic-minded, throwback player, for the troubled Shawn Kemp. In July, after dealing Steve Smith, the 1998 J. Walter Kennedy Award winner for good citizenship, to the San Antonio Spurs, Whitsitt signed the Seattle SuperSonics' free-agent swingman, Ruben Patterson. Two months earlier Patterson had entered a modified plea to attempted rape for allegedly forcing his children's nanny to perform a sex act while his wife was in the hospital for surgery. Although at his sentencing Patterson asserted the act was consensual, he was forced to register in Oregon as a convicted sex offender. "When you get the facts, his situation is no different from other folks' who haven't been publicized," Whitsitt says. "He really is a good guy." (Last February, Patterson was convicted of misdemeanor assault after breaking the jaw of a man he believed had scratched his BMW.)
"The Blazers seem to have forgotten that the fans are the customers," says Thompson, a Minnesota Timberwolves broadcaster who still has a home in suburban Portland. "When you're the only game in town, it's easy to get lazy." (Told of Thompson's impressions, Whitsitt says, "I wouldn't use Mychal's comments. Every year he's trying to get a job with us, O.K.?")
In his eighth season in charge of the Trail Blazers after eight years as president of the Sonics, Whitsitt operates like a Rotisserie team owner, amassing the best players available with little regard for unity. "I wasn't a chemistry major," he says. The result is a tantalizing collection of talent that invariably combusts. With roles and substitution patterns ill-defined, the players' grousing over minutes has become as predictable in Portland as overcast skies. "We have no identity," says point guard Damon Stoudamire.
Moreover, many will never forgive the 45-year-old Whitsitt for failing to relocate to Portland from Seattle. While Whitsitt defends that choice—" Red Auerbach ran the Celtics from Washington, D.C.," he points out—detractors find it a revealing snub. "This might sound provincial, but we expect the president of the Portland team to live in Portland," says Jon Spoelstra, who ran the Blazers' marketing office from 1979 to '89 and wrote the bestseller Marketing Outrageously with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "Fans are used to having an absentee owner but not absentee management."
Others say that Whitsitt is following the marching orders of Allen, the Microsoft cofounder whom Forbes estimates to be worth $28 billion. Allen's wealth his its decided advantages. He built the $262 million Rose Garden in 1995 with scant reliance on public funds and thinks little of lavishing nearly $60 million over three years on a marginal player like Kemp. He's also undaunted by the prospect of diminishing revenues. When you're willing to pay $30 million in luxury tax for a mid-level playoff team, do you really lose sleep over a few thousand empty seats or the financial consequences of fan backlash? ( Allen declined to speak to SI.)
For a team often insensitive to its fans, Portland is hypersensitive to criticism. Top brass, including Whitsitt, has requested meetings with Oregonian editors, then arrived toting a stack of articles with the passages the team deems objectionable highlighted. Two seasons ago reporter Abby Haight wrote a story praising the Indiana Pacers' new arena, Conseco Fieldhouse. The following day the Blazers contacted sports editor Dennis Peck, expressing outrage that Haight had implied the Rose Garden wasn't as nice a venue. "As a courtesy, we listen," says Peck, who has also been chided by the team after positive stories about former Blazers, such as Grant, have appeared. "But [ultimately] we ignore it. We're here to do journalism."
In the final game of the playoffs last season, Blazers fan Katherine Topaz and her boyfriend's eight-year-old son brandished a TRADE WHITSITT sign. When Topaz refused to put it away, she was ejected from the Rose Garden. After her plight made national news and she became a symbol of the disenfranchised fan, Whitsitt apologized to Topaz and the team sent her a gift basket—albeit with $5.38 in postage due.
To some extent, the sea change in Portland is symptomatic of the times. During Thompson's era players were paid handsomely but bought their groceries at Fred Meyer like every Portlander and lived in subdivisions where neighbors baked them cookies after good games. Today's multimillionaires reside in gated mansions and often have a staff to do their shopping or pump their gas. ( Allen makes sure the players' cars are waxed and washed during each practice.) Whitsitt raises a fair point when he says, "The 'when-it-was' era had three players [ Drexler, Porter and Jerome Kersey] who were with the franchise 10 seasons or longer. That's special, but with today's free agency and salary cap and media and fan pressure, you can't find that anywhere."
Whatever the case, Portland fans who are feeling alienated may never return. "You have to work twice as hard to get them back," says Spoelstra. "Look at the Hornets. They led the league in attendance and now can't draw flies." (Crowds in Charlotte have dropped from an average of 24,042 in 1996-97 to 10,303 at week's end.)