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Bad Guys Gone Good

It's Not Easy to Explain Trail Blazers' Success This Season, but It Starts at the Top

May 07, 1999|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Portland Trail Blazers?

Are they still in this division?

Not only in it but on top of it. By this time of year, the little scamps are usually down at the precinct, sitting for their pictures, but happily (for some), things change.

The Lakers imploded even earlier and more spectacularly than usual. The Seattle SuperSonics, who won or shared division titles four of the last five seasons, misplaced their coach and threw themselves onto the junk heap of history. Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers romped home, winning the Pacific Division title for the first time since the days of Clyde Drexler and Kevin Duckworth.

Whatever happened to the "Jail Blazers"? Where have all the felons gone, long time passing?

Darned if they know.

"I wondered about the chemistry," says Brian Grant, the young power forward who has made such a move as a leader, he's now compared in Portland to the sainted Buck Williams.

"I knew we had the talent, but I was just wondering how we were going to make the talent mold together."

So how did they do it?

"I don't know," Grant says.

It wasn't something you would have predicted, or, for that matter, they would have predicted.

"I'm not going to lie," point guard Damon Stoudamire says. "I couldn't have pictured this in my wildest dreams. . . . The one thing we tried to focus on at the beginning of the year--that we didn't do last year when I got traded here--was win games you're supposed to win. . . . And when I say games you're supposed to win, you're supposed to beat Vancouver, you're supposed to beat the Clippers, you're supposed to beat Denver, teams like that.

"When I was here last year, we lost to Denver, Vancouver. Denver twice!"

The Nuggets won 11 games all last season, three against winning teams. The Nuggets almost beat them a third time, after which Coach Mike Dunleavy was asked about his young team.

"If I knew the answer to that," Dunleavy said, "I wouldn't have just majored in psychology, I'd have a PhD by now and written five to 10 books."

The answer turned out to be improbable enough. To all those emotional kids who were already upset enough about one thing or another, they started this season by adding two overlooked free agents, Jimmy Jackson and Greg Anthony, and going to a 10-man rotation, which figured to add to everyone's list of complaints. . . .

But didn't.

They finished the season with no one averaging 14 points, but they were No. 5 in scoring and No. 10 in defense. If they can make this last--they're hopeful, even if they're not sure--they'll have become a team.

See? It can happen.

Trader Bob's Back in Town

"We're not L.A., OK? People aren't coming to Portland because it's sunny, it's got the entertainment capital. . . . Guys usually don't call up and say, 'I'm dying to come to Portland.' . . .

"We've always been willing to be aggressive, we've always been willing to be risk-takers. And ultimately, the players get the opportunity to show us that we're right. But if we're wrong, we don't keep trying to force the round peg into the square hole. We make a change and we move on."

Trail Blazer General Manager Bob Whitsitt

****

In the Pacific Division, you have your Lakers, who are in a sunny, entertainment capital, and your other teams, which are essentially guerrillas hiding in the hills.

In an era in which recruiting is everything, no one can match the Lakers, who rebuilt themselves overnight by signing Shaquille O'Neal, who was so taken with the area, he garaged a Mercedes-Benz out here for years.

None of the guerrillas, however, is as bold or clever as Whitsitt, who built the SuperSonics into a power before falling out with owner Barry Ackerley and fleeing to Portland. Now Trader Bob has Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's billions to play with. Even Laker officials fret about that parlay.

The Trail Blazers, who never had a lottery pick, have acquired seven from other teams, even if the more talented the new guys were, the louder they were ticking.

In his early days with J.R. Rider, Whitsitt compared him to Wyatt Earp, noting, "The legend sometimes is bigger than the reality." Unfortunately, the reality soon caught up to the legend.

Kenny Anderson, whose glow was dimming, got a seven-year, $47-million contract, in the hope he'd thrive away from New York and expectations. "We just said, 'Come out, be Kenny Anderson,' " Whitsitt said after signing him. Unfortunately, Anderson took them at their word.

Rasheed Wallace, a 6-11 gazelle with shooting range, was great until he got six years at $80 million and was paired with Grant ($55 million), a tough, inside player. On paper, they looked like a good fit but not on the court.

There were Rider's arrests and suspensions; the night he left early, pointing to his girlfriend in the stands to come with him; brushes with the law for traffic violations, busting up an airline terminal, etc. Throw in a few sundry arrests for such as Gary Trent--nothing major, only enough to make the police blotter--and an image was born.

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