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Losing Their Grip
L. Jon Wertheim
December 24, 2001
Their once-ardent fans turned off by players' misdeeds and front-office ineptitude, the Trail Blazers are showing how quickly an NBA franchise can alienate its customers
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December 24, 2001

Losing Their Grip

Their once-ardent fans turned off by players' misdeeds and front-office ineptitude, the Trail Blazers are showing how quickly an NBA franchise can alienate its customers

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Cheering for the Blazers today seems almost dirty, tantamount to selling one's soul for a cheap thrill.
—Martin Fisher of Bend, Ore., in a letter to The Oregonian, Nov. 11, 2001

On the morning of Dec. 7 the Portland Trail Blazers gathered outside their arena to serve breakfast and distribute Christmas trees to families in need. It was clear that Rasheed Wallace would rather have been anywhere else. The team's best player and co-captain, Wallace spent most of the 90-minute session speaking on a cellular phone, the hands-free device dangling from his right ear, and, like most of his teammates, he checked his pager incessantly. When a Blazers employee suggested that Wallace wear a Santa Claus hat, he declined, saying cryptically, "I'm a supervisor." At one point a teenager beseeched the 6'11" Wallace for an autograph. "You ain't got a Sharpie?" Wallace responded. As the kid retreated to find Wallace's preferred writing implement, the player cursed at no one in particular and yawned uninhibitedly.

A similar lethargy had been in evidence among the Trail Blazers the previous night. With thousands of the Rose Garden's 19,980 seats unoccupied, Wallace & Co. slogged through a 95-89 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Save first-year coach Maurice Cheeks and a few bench players, the Blazers seemed as indifferent to the game's outcome as the fans, who reserved their loudest cheers for the T-shirt giveaways during timeouts. After the defeat David Fahey, a Portland electrician, looked at the $75 ticket stub for his last-row loge seat and shook his head. "I'm a die-hard Blazers fan," he said, "but this is embarrassing."

Bad management, bad actors and bad basketball have alienated fans in many NBA cities, but Portland offers a compelling case study. The only pro sports franchise in a small market (pop. 529,121), the Blazers have been a civic treasure for three decades, the NBA's answer to the Green Bay Packers. Blazermaniacs packed 12,666-seat Memorial Coliseum for a league-record 814 straight sellouts from 1977 to '95. Even today, those arriving at Portland International Airport are greeted by a large poster of the downtown parade held after the franchise won the 1977 title, an image that's as much a part of the local tableau as Mount Hood and Multnomah Falls. Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Mychal Thompson and dozens of players like them became year-round residents, volunteering at the Boys Club and playing Santa at the mall (not to mention donning the red-and-white hat). "You had to have been here," says Bill Schonely, the beloved Blazers announcer for 28 years who was forced out by the team two seasons ago. "The community embraced these guys, and they hugged back."

Now the relationship is strictly arm's length. Average attendance at the Rose Garden had dropped to 19,171 at week's end, a 5.5% decrease from last season. According to a source at the local NBC affiliate, which will televise 25 games this year, ratings for the Blazers are down as much as 50% from the mid-'90s. (Over the summer, after an attempt to squeeze more money out of its deal with AT&T engendered a bitter, public dispute, the team failed to renew a contract to air 25 additional games on cable.) In November, The Oregonian asked readers whether they remained Portland fans. Of the 107 respondents, 57 identified their feelings as "fed up, no longer on board, good riddance" and 27 had "big-time misgivings but still [follow] the team somewhat." Only 23 were in the "Go Blazers forever" camp. "I watch sports to have fun," wrote Gary Lewis of Tigard, Ore. "I don't watch the Blazers anymore."

Only 18 months ago Portland came within minutes of winning the Western Conference championship before bowing to the Los Angeles Lakers. Although the current Trail Blazers are flush with talent and depth, through Sunday's games they were 11-11 despite their $84 million payroll, which is second only to the New York Knicks'. These Blazers don't induce mere apathy among many Portlanders; they inspire antipathy. "I don't even talk about the Blazers on my show, because I know listeners will tune out," says Colin Cowherd, a Portland sports-radio host on KFXX. "Check that. Sometimes we have a contest to see who was most disgusted and left the game earliest."

The contrast between the old and the new was thrown into sharp relief last March, when the team retired Drexler's number 22 jersey. At halftime of the game against the Vancouver Grizzlies, Drexler, flanked by former teammates, spoke eloquently about his fondness for the community. That he made only perfunctory mention of team president Bob Whitsitt and owner Paul Allen was lost on no one. A standing ovation followed. Then, less than two minutes into the second half, Wallace was ejected for arguing a call. The Blazers, in first place at the time, fell to the lowly Grizzlies, then dropped 16 of their remaining 24 games, including three straight losses to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

In populist Portland, which feels more like a large village than a small city, the dubious character of the players is Exhibit A in the fans' estrangement. The linchpin of the team, Wallace, attended his introductory press conference in Portland wearing a T-shirt reading, F*CK WHAT YOU HEARD. In the five seasons since he has been a serial boor, twice setting the league record for technical fouls. In one game late last season he threw a towel in the face of teammate Arvydas Sabonis and had to be restrained from going after coach Mike Dunleavy. Though he vowed before this season to silence critics with his performance, all his shooting percentages are down from last year. At week's end he was leading the league in technicals with eight, on pace to accrue 30.

Wallace's primary complement, 36-year-old Scottie Pippen, has shifted to cruise control now that he's earning the fat payday ($18.1 million this season) that eluded him in Chicago; through Sunday he was averaging 9.0 points, the fewest since his rookie year. Fourth-year swingman Bonzi Wells is an emerging star, but he hasn't captured the public's imagination. Not that he minds. "We're not really going to worry about what the hell [the fans] think about us," Wells says. "They really don't matter to us. They can boo us every day, but they're still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street. That's why they're fans and we're NBA players."

More offensive still is the off-court conduct of a team nicknamed the Jail Blazers. The NBA's patron saint of transgressing, Isaiah Rider, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of gambling in public the same week the team acquired him, in 1996. On top of a series of suspensions and bad acts during his three tumultuous seasons in Portland—including a citation for marijuana possession after he was caught smoking pot out of a soda can—he called the city a "racist area," adding, "Forty miles from here, they're probably still hanging people from trees." In 1998 forward Gary Trent, already on probation for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, assaulted an acquaintance outside a Portland community center for at-risk youth because the victim mistakenly triggered the burglar alarm at Trent's home. ( Trent served five days for probation violation and reached a settlement with the man.) Last season the team signed guard Rod Strickland less than two months after his second drunk driving conviction in four years.

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