Adelman did have his moments of doubt: Would a strong-minded veteran who has tasted success—Ainge earned two championship rings in Boston—accept the role of reserve? But, as it turned out, that role was exactly what Ainge wanted. "The idea of playing 25 minutes a game at this stage of my career appealed to me," says the 31-year-old Ainge. "You get the opportunity to see what's going on, and you're going against nonstarters a lot of the time. Plus, I had played that role well when I did it in Boston early in my career. People were always telling me in Sacramento that I was one of the best players on the team, and I always told them, 'All that means is that we must not have a very good team.' "
The only snag for Ainge has been off the court, because he has moved his family (wife Michelle and four children between 10 and two) from an as-yet-unsold large house in Sacramento to a two-bedroom apartment with a loft in Lake Oswego, a Portland suburb. At least that has provided incentive for him to stay at the gym for extra work. "My wife has city-league tennis as an outlet," says Ainge, "and I have basketball."
The only member of the Blazer organization not overjoyed by Ainge's presence is Petrovic, who has descended to fifth-guard status, behind not only Ainge but also veteran Danny Young, whose solid defense is valued by Adelman. A couple of weeks ago Petrovic complained publicly that he was not being treated fairly and gave the Blazers until Nov. 30 to either upgrade his playing status or trade him. "If nothing is done, I'm going back to Yugoslavia," said Petrovic. Since the Blazers were 7-0 at the time, the complaint had a rather pathetic cast to it. The Blazers fined Petro $500 for "comments derogatory to the team," a sum that was rescinded when Petrovic backed off his ultimatum last week.
As for now, Petrovic will have to be content with the adoration—inexplicable even by Portland's Blazermaniacal standards—bestowed upon him every time he enters a game at Memorial Coliseum. The roof almost came off the place when he hit his first shot against Golden State last Friday night. Actually, Petrovic's protest underscores Portland's roster strength. Though he is not worth anywhere near the $1.2 million the Blazers paid to lure him away from European stardom, he is most definitely better than the average scrubeenie.
If the Blazers aren't making their Yugo happy, they've done an excellent job of keeping their Cadillacs content, having given generous contract extensions to Drexler, Williams and versatile forward Jerome Kersey. Drexler, who was severely underpaid at $1.2 million a year—yes, these are strange times—signed a deal over the summer that added a year to his existing five-year contract. During that extra season, 1995-96, Drexler will be paid more than $8 million, which would now be the highest one-season sum in team sports history (but might not be by then). "It means a lot when a team makes a commitment to you, and, believe me, that was a commitment," says Drexler.
On Oct. 18 the Blazers added a year to Williams' three-year contract, guaranteeing him $4 million in 1993-94. And two weeks ago Kersey signed a four-year extension worth about $11 million—it was tacked on to his present contract, which expires after next season.
Some $23 million in contract extensions is a high price to pay for stability, especially since Porter, who's in the second year of a six-year, $13.2 million deal, and center Kevin Duckworth, who's in the third year of an eight-year, $14 million pact, are not exactly destitute, either. But who's to say that all those outlays aren't worth it? "When players get involved in contract squabbles, it can consume them," says former Blazer star Geoff Petrie, now Portland's senior vice-president of operations and the point man in contract negotiations.
At any rate, the Blazers are playing like a team that knows it will be on top for a while. They have more versatility than a Swiss army knife, what with Kersey, Williams and, especially, Robinson able to swing among different frontcourt positions, the 6'7" Drexler capable of moving to small forward, and Ainge adept at bouncing between the two guard positions. Even the laid-back Adelman finds Portland's devastating offensive play-through Sunday the Blazers were averaging 125.9 points per game, second only to Denver's 130.1—"a little eerie." Drexler, for example, shot 1 of 16 from the floor in the second game of the season, against Sacramento, yet has been 91 of 158 since then. Porter continues to be the ideal point guard for this team. He's heady and capable of counterbalancing Drexler's occasional lapses into acrobatic chaos, but he is also a slasher who can make the spectacular play.
The 275-pound Duckworth didn't exactly adhere to his off-season pledge to "get into the weight room and stay out of the kitchen," and the Portland party line that his weight is "redistributed" might be stretching the truth a bit. But heavy or not, Duck averaged a solid 16.9 points per game and shot 51.1% during the season's first 11 games. Kersey is the Blazers' do-everything guy, a player who fills up a box score (fifth on the team in scoring, second in rebounding, first in blocks, fourth in assists, fourth in steals) almost as well as Drexler. And Williams is still the ultimate team player; his scoring average was at a career low of 12.6 and may dip even further as Ainge's and Robinson's minutes increase, but his rebounding, interior defense and work ethic will remain a constant. "Buck is the most positive personality I've ever been around in sports," says Adelman.
Funny, but that's what most of the Blazers say about Adelman, a former Portland player—doesn't anyone ever leave that place?—and an ex-roomie of Petrie's. Two seasons ago the Blazers were ripped apart by bad chemistry—the feuding between coach Mike Schuler and Drexler was the primary reason—and Adelman had a lot of work to do when he took over after Schuler was fired midway through the 1988-89 season. He did it. Players praise Adelman's congenial yet firm manner and his feel for the game, the gift of a scrappy guard who was never a superstar.