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NBA PREVIEW / WESTERN CONFERENCE

Repairing a broken trail

Portland is poised to enjoy a new Blazermania, but without the wild guys from the first version.

October 28, 2008|Mark Heisler | Heisler is a Times staff writer.

Blazermania never dies, it turns out, although it did have to go into hiding for all those years while the Portland Trail Blazers tried to find it and kill it.

Talk about retro. Remember the birth of the adoring folk movement in 1977 when the team won its title and a headband-wearing Bill Walton pedaled his bike to the victory parade?

Remember someone stealing Walton's bike?

For years, the Lakers' most feared rival wasn't in San Antonio but Portland, before the Trail Blazers turned into the wild bunch known as the "Jail Blazers" and started terrorizing the town.

It's still early for Greg Oden, 20; Brandon Roy, 24; LaMarcus Aldridge, 23, and today's young Trail Blazers, but the place once known as Rip City pulses with the old fervor.

"[Coach] Nate McMillan and I talk about this all the time," General Manager Kevin Pritchard said. "We know we have a young team. We want to get better every single month and hopefully by April, we'll see where these young guys are."

In the best part, the young players aren't just good, they're nice, so fans can again watch the news without fear of heartbreak of embarrassment.

"It's huge what's going on up there with the Blazers," Lakers announcer and former Trail Blazer Mychal Thompson said. "You combine all that with the second deepest team in basketball behind the Lakers, they've got something special going on up there.

"For the next 10 years, it's going to be the Blazers and Lakers battling it out for the Western Conference."

Or maybe with reserves such as Channing Frye, Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw -- and no salary-cap problems that mean someone has to go -- the Trail Blazers are the deepest team.

In any case, with the teams in tonight's opener on national TV and Oden facing the other great young center, Andrew Bynum, it's like Old Times, Day One.

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Bad times, worse times

The fans 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.

-- Portland's Bonzi Wells,

Sports Illustrated, 2001

If the perception was that an innocent town was set upon by ill-mannered basketball players, it was actually a team effort with a white-collar component.

Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and cashed out to enjoy his billions, had arrived in 1988 as a dream owner, building the Rose Garden by himself, forgoing profits with a payroll that approached $100 million.

However, Allen was Seattle-based, detached and insulated by his staff at Vulcan, Inc., whom NBA people called "the Vulcans" and, indeed, seemed on their own planet.

The team was entrusted to Bob Whitsitt with orders to win, which he didn't interpret as find us some nice young guys to develop. The Harry Houdini of general managers, he turned the roster into Hole in the Wall, offering second, third and/or fourth chances to Rasheed Wallace, J.R. Rider, Gary Trent, Ruben Patterson, et al.

Worse, some of their nicest players were serial partyers like Damon Stoudamire, who was arrested for smoking marijuana with Wallace in Stoudamire's SUV, which a friend was driving late at night, at 84 mph, on Interstate 5 in Portland.

An entire Trail Blazers administration, devoted to unloading the problem players, came and went from 2003 to 2006 with President Steve Patterson also warring with the local media.

The Trail Blazers had long been institutionally arrogant, demanding meetings to complain about the smallest, or wholly imagined, slights like claiming that a story in the Oregonian about Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse slighted the Rose Garden.

Now the relationship became so contentious, the Oregonian hired an outside ombudsman to write about it.

The real question was who among the Trail Blazers could get along with anyone in the community?

With the dot.com bubble over and losses mounting as Allen's bandidos, who weren't any easier to coach than police, sank in the standings, the owner -- still ranked by Forbes as the third-richest man in the U.S. with $22 billion -- put the arena into bankruptcy when the city wouldn't help bail him out.

By then there was no longer such a thing as Blazermania. The community gave up on the team, in self-defense.

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Bringing it back home

You could say the Trail Blazers got lucky, but they made their own luck.

A new president, Larry Miller, arrived from Nike, a local institution that managed to do business without warring with all the other local institutions. Miller brought in Cheri Hanson, a respected NBA executive who had grown up in the organization as the daughter of the team's first publicist.

In Pritchard's first draft in 2006, he pulled off a coup, going in with the Nos. 4 and 7 picks and coming out with the two prizes, Aldridge and Roy.

A year later, they hit the jackpot, drawing the first pick in the lottery to get Oden.

The fervor was cranking up last fall when Oden was lost after knee surgery. Still, the team they hoped could win 35 games with him, started 22-13 before finishing 41-41.

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