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MARK HEISLER / SUNDAY REPORT

It's like Sam Bowie experience for Trail Blazers

Greg Oden's latest injury has a familiar feel in Portland.

December 13, 2009|Mark Heisler
  • Trail Blazers center Greg Oden works in the post against Pistons center Ben Wallace last month.
Trail Blazers center Greg Oden works in the post against Pistons center… (Don Ryan / Associated Press )

There was once a team from Portland called the Trail Blazers that was so beloved, their fans gave their adoration a name -- "Blazermania" -- and called themselves "Blazer Nation."

This was so cutting edge in the 1970s, it led the way for other villages to proclaim "Fernandomania," and "Red Sox Nation."

So, it wasn't just sad, but crushing, when the Blazermaniacs saw their team take an oft-injured 7-footer named Sam Bowie in the storied 1984 draft who went right on getting hurt, instead of a guard named Michael Jordan, who became the game's greatest player.

Twenty-five years later, they still hear about it from other villages like "Lakerdom," and "Celtic Nation," and, course, "ESPN SportsCenter."

That's not even the bad news, just the cruelest irony imaginable.

The bad news is, it's happening again.

Few franchises have had one story like this. This is like the Curse of the Bambino Squared.

For Portland, the gem of the Pacific Northwest, Greg Oden's second season-ending injury in three seasons was a community-wide disaster, like waking up to find they had just been moved from the banks of the Willamette River to the shores of Lake Erie.

"There's a punch-in-the-gut feel, sure," said Dwight Jaynes, a former Trail Blazers beat writer and columnist at the Oregonian and Portland Tribune, "but for longtime fans, there's a big deja vu too.

"I mean, this is the Bill Walton Franchise. The Sam Bowie Franchise. I think a lot of people are asking themselves, 'When does it end?'

"Yes, it really was depressing for Portland fans. More than people on the outside can even imagine."

This particular team occupies a special place in Blazermaniacs' hearts, wiping away the "Jail Blazers" years with a roster full of wholesome, talented young players, a standup coach, Nate McMillan, and a brash but media-friendly general manager, Kevin Pritchard.

The closer anyone is to the engaging Oden, the most wholesome of them all, the more heartbreaking it is.

When he went down against the Houston Rockets, fans chanted, "Oden! Oden!"

When he was carried off, he kept asking for updates on the game, addressing his teammates at halftime as if they were all he cared about.

"He told us to keep fighting," Brandon Roy said. "He feels like he's letting us down."

The emotional night ended with a 90-89 victory over the Rockets, ending Portland's three-game losing streak and giving everyone a reason to believe it could still be OK . . . or to go into denial.

Oden was overrated, anyway. They won 54 games last season when he was a minor factor. Now they could go back to riding Roy. The team, which was pressing, could just go out and play.

Real life has since intruded in the form of an East Coast trip, which they started 1-3, losing the first game to the 6-15 Knicks.

The gods seemed to be mocking them with Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw out too, which meant half their eight-man rotation was gone, and McMillan back home after blowing out his Achilles' tendon.

Picking up the pieces of their broken hearts, the Trail Blazers are carrying on, but there's no missing what they have lost, for the moment.

One kind of future seemed at hand if Oden became the player he was originally expected to be -- the unlimited kind.

In fact, he was gaining on it as his minutes increased and his fouls went down, averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in his previous five games.

Another kind of future looms without him: The Trail Blazers are a nice team, but not on the Lakers' level, like about four others in the Western Conference.

Meanwhile, half the league's GMs may now be musing that they might have taken Kevin Durant over Oden, along with 90% of the pundits and 120% of the bloggers.

At the time, anyone who thought that (not counting pundits and bloggers, who have nothing to lose backing longshots) kept it to themselves.

That's how it works. In 1984, no one, but no one, knew how good Jordan would be.

If the Rockets, who picked first, had any inkling, they'd have taken MJ over Hakeem Olajuwon.

The Trail Blazers had Clyde Drexler, who was special himself, and played Jordan's position, and a doughnut hole at center.

It would be nice if it didn't matter to Blazer Nation, or anyone else's nation.

As we love our children -- not because they turn out as we hope, but because they're our children, in theory -- that's how it should be with our teams.

The result isn't the payoff, everyone just thinks it is. The love is the payoff.

Red Sox fans, who weren't alive in 1919 when Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees, were haunted for 85 years.

It was almost as bad for outsiders who didn't care but had to listen to them bleat about it all that time.

Meanwhile, half of New England wrote books or started blogs about it. When they finally got their payback in 2004 with the Sox coming from 3-0 down to beat the Yankees, it was so spectacular, it made every day of those 85 years worth it.

So there's hope for Blazer Nation, at least by the year 2094.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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