The Babble and the Blazers

A Daily Babble Production

Faithful readers of the Babble may have noted that the Portland Trail Blazers have been showing up in this space with abnormal regularity as of late.  A cursory glance through our archives indicated a minimum of eight Blazer-related pieces since the season started, including all sorts of love for Brandon Roy, observations of Sergio Rodriguez, some trade rumor analysis, the long overdue props for Joel Przybilla and a chat with the great folks from Blazer's Edge.

Innocent enough, I thought.  Until, that is, an Edge member referred jokingly to my "crush" on the team in the comments of an interview I did over there.  It wasn't the first time an observer had broached the subject.  The good-natured ribbing got me thinking about my relationship with the Blazers, especially since I've got no doubts about the fact that I'm a diehard Celts fan and have too many of the scars to show for it.  So in the name of Mike Piazza, I'm taking a few moments not only to playfully deny a crush on the Blazers but to admit to a growing fascination with the team.  Since the Celtics are on their way to Portland, and I'll be in kill mode all day tomorrow, today seems like the day for an explanation.

 

The out-of-the-norm interest in the franchise goes back more than a decade and has been caused by a combination of factors, none greater than my relationship with a long-time pal by name of Acks.

Growing up on Long Island, we were the two kids who rooted for out-of-market NBA teams.  You know where I stand, and as you might imagine, Acks is a big-time Blazers fan, though he has never explained why.  We're talking about the type of guy who in the late '90s once disconnected all the phones in his house during what turned out to be a family emergency because he wanted to catch a Sunday afternoon Blazers-Jazz game on NBC in peace.

Naturally, despite the fact that he's still as good a friend as I've got, we've been a bit antagonistic toward each other over the years, particularly regarding these teams.  I pulled for the ultra-talented Blazers against the hated Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.  When they imploded and blew a 15-point fourth quarter lead in Game 7, I was the first one in Acks' ear letting him know about that one. 

Over the next few years, a combination of my being peeved over the Blazers giving the Lakers a route to the Finals, my enjoyment of Acks' sports-related misery and the disasters that befell the Jail Blazers increased my dislike for the team.  Babble devotees know by now that, too often, I don't shy away from a chance to (fairly or otherwise) play character police with these athletes, and I didn't cut the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Darius Miles, Bonzi Wells and Ruben Patterson much slack during the early part of this decade.  Not that they deserved it. 

The team wasn't any good, and rubbing it in Acks' face was the cause of a lot of good-natured fun for me and an expanding vocabulary for him.  Problem was, you might remember that our team wasn't exactly filling up the rafters with banners during the early portion of this decade either.  And in May 2007, I reached an all-time frustration level with Portland when the Blazers (rather than our Celtics) strolled out of Secaucus, N.J., with draft lottery victory in hand and the inside track to long-coveted Greg Oden.

Ten years earlier, I had irrationally vowed hatred of the San Antonio Spurs after they swooped in to take the '97 lottery and thus a Wake Forest kid named Tim Duncan from the 15-win Celtics.   The oath might not have lasted to the second week of the season.  I fell in love with Duncan's fundamental style, his professionalism and the fact that he was a winner.  With the Celtics buried in lottery purgatory, it was easy to enjoy his TD's success from afar, simply as a fan of the game.

Though I spent the latter portion of lottery night 2007 advising Acks over the phone to enter witness protection, it wasn't long before the same feeling I had about Duncan began to take over about Oden.  As was the case with Duncan, I had joined the rest of the country in monitoring Oden in college but with an added interest because of he lottery prospects of a bad Celtics team.  As the jealousy subsided (a process helped considerably by the fact that the Celtics made a couple of moves to improve their immediate outlook that summer), I sympathized for Blazers fans at large (while mercilessly riding my loyal friend) when Oden went down for the year before the season started. 

During last year's preseason, I wrote a piece at my old site about why the Blazers' zillion national television appearances could still be worth watching even without the big Buckeye.  That was when the long-coming realization hit me that there was a lot for me to like about this team.  Given the aforementioned habit to play character police, I loved that the team had taken the approach of bouncing the criminals and locker-room cancers by any means necessary.  I liked that they finagled their way into the best player in the 2006 draft from the seven spot.  I alternated between being disgusted and grudgingly impressed with the front office for dumping Sebastian Telfair on us.  Even without Oden, this team had a promising coach in Nate McMillan, two young studs in Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, a host of young overseas talent and the likelihood that this team would be both good and likable in the no-longer-so-distant future.  The interest began creeping.

And then came the part that finally forced me into constantly advocating for the Blazers in my daily personal life: Somehow, almost without my noticing it, Acks morphed into a self-loathing Blazers fan.  While the rest of the rabid Blazer community sung Kevin Pritchard's praises and lived the dream during a 13-game winning streak in December, Acks became miserable.  He steadfastly believed that tanking for Derrick Rose was the only way to go (despite the uncertain ramifications of such behaviors demonstrated by, say, the 2007 lottery).  He didn't like Steve Blake at all.  He somehow thought that KP hadn't gotten enough for Zach Randolph, despite the fact that it became evident with each passing day of the 2007-08 season that getting rid of Randolph under any circumstances was a tremendous feat. 

Over the course of 2007-08, Acks and I experienced a complete role reversal in our conversations about the Blazers.  We talk nearly ten times a week, and instead of my having to argue that his team wasn't that good (a standard between any two friends who root for different teams), I fought to convince him that it was on the right track because I felt that he had so vastly underrated the value of what was going on there.  While I saw a 41-41 season as a great way to raise morale around the team and its fan base as well as giving the youngsters some great experience for the following year, Acks saw a missed tanking opportunity.  His abhorrence of Pritchard only grew with the faith shown to Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster (I don't totally disagree here), so much so that he refused to give credit for the draft night moves that yielded the Roy-Aldridge-Rudy Fernandez core that Oden would join on the floor in 2008-09.  I saw upside in Jerryd Bayless as a potential future point guard.  He hated getting the pick from Indiana.  The list goes on.

It finally reached a point of absurdity this season when he not only abandoned Greg Oden a month into his active NBA career ("less productive than a pile of horse manure, soft and a bust" are the only repeated comments of his about Oden that I can print) but also started openly taking shots at Brandon Roy.  If I wasn't impressed enough with Roy already, Acks calling his team's best player a "third option, at best, on a good team" finally put me over the edge.  That's criminal.

Celtics fans have it made these days.  We root for the defending champs, and our team is currently 28-4.  Lakers and Cavs fans are rooting for teams with super-duper stars and legitimate championship contenders.  Hornets and Magic fans could be looking at another decade and a half of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard respectively.  After perhaps those five teams (and maybe the Spurs, one of the best-run franchises in all of sports), there can't be too many cooler fan situations around the league than rooting for the Blazers. 

They've assembled a likable core of players who don't get in off-court trouble and for the most part don't cause distractions.  Their fans are getting to watch the growth of the finally-healthy most heralded young big man since Tim Duncan.  They've got smooth international flavor with flashy Sergio Rodriguez and rookie sensation Rudy Fernandez coming off the bench.  LaMarcus Aldridge only continues to get better, and Roy has ice in his veins.  The coach and general manager are committed to winning and fielding a team whose players conduct themselves as professionals.  This is a team whose fans have watched it build itself from the ground up, and it is inching ever closer to a period of title contention that could last a while, all the while exceeding expectations in the present.

All of that on its own probably makes this team worth focusing on with some regularity.  Experiencing daily the frustration that one of my closest lifelong friends can't seem to grasp this at all just makes it doubly so.

I talk Blazers hoops several times each week - with someone who I feel should probably be their biggest advocate - and come away feeling as though I'm defending the Pritchard-era Blazers from a firing squad.

So in my effort to fight fire with fire, I've found myself paying more attention to the Blazers than ever before.  Given what's going on at the Rose Garden these days, I can't help but like what I see.

I'm no fan of the Blazers and never will be anything but the hardest of diehard Celts boosters.  But as a lover of the Association and the game of basketball, I'll be forever intrigued by the franchise's progression through the full rebuilding cycle.

***

So that's my too-long personal narrative about a team that has caught my eye over the last few seasons.  Anyone else have any teams or players around the league that seem to merit an undue amount of his or her attention?  If so, how did this come about?  As always, feel free to let us know in the comments.

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