I am not a professional sports journalist—but I really look the part. I'm an unassuming white male in a dress shirt, laptop at the ready, and often times I even comb my hair. Oh, I also have one of those fancy digital recorder things.
Yet still, why are all the other press-row reporters looking at me like that?
Oh yeah... it's because I'm drinking a beer in the one location within the Rose Garden where it's absolutely not okay to sip from a plastic cup of overpriced Bud Light. Raef LaFrentz could drink a beer on the bench—in uniform, mind you—and get fewer threatening glances than I'm receiving right now. First lessoned learned as a faux-sports writer: Real sports reporters are never alcoholics.
Don't worry guys; I'll drink it fast.
POSTING BAIL (OR DEBUNKING THE JAIL BLAZERS MYTH)
Rule #2 of being a professional sports journalist? When local teams win, they are beatific angels, strumming harps at the feet of God. When they lose, they are morally decrepit pieces of crap. Remember the Jail Blazers teams of old? Of course you do, the local (and national) media won't let you forget. Jail Blazers hysteria is based on a series of smaller elements: lazy journalism, the desire to turn an otherwise dull sports section into a crime blotter, mild stereotyping of the lives of successful African American men, and (most importantly) a basketball team that failed to win enough games.
There was never actually an official Jail Blazers lineup—it's not like they changed the logo and got an angry mascot—but if you needed to tag a team with this tired phrase, it would most likely be the 2003-2004 squad. That roster had four players with marijuana violations of one kind or another (Damon Stoudamire, Rasheed Wallace, Qyntel Woods, Zach Randolph), a few that had run-ins with police officers here and there, and even one convicted sex offender (Ruben Patterson). Certainly not a squad of dribbling Mother Teresas, but remember—they're a basketball team, not potential prom dates for your daughter.
Also, they were hardly the first players to don the Red and Black and bump chests with authorities. For example, the 1980-1981 team was home to Kermit Washington (who nearly killed an opposing player, Rudy Tomjanovich, during an on-court brawl left Tomjanovich unconscious in a pool of blood) and Bill Ray Bates (who sliced the ear of a Texaco employee in a botched robbery attempt)—yet, no Jail Blazers tag for them. The Blazers lineup of 2003-2004 was saddled with this naughty nickname because they arrived fresh on the heels of a Blazers bench that had come within minutes of wearing championship rings on their fingers.
More importantly, it was clear this '03-'04 team wasn't going to make the playoffs—meaning the press, and eventually the fans themselves, were going to make them pay. Evidently our tolerant city's love affair with alcohol and strippers was never supposed to extend to our professional athletes—at least, not those with losing records. Carry the Blazers to the playoffs and feel free to enjoy the wonders of Jiggles and Sassy's all you like (you hear that Steve Blake?), but once the losses outnumber the wins, this town will come down upon you with the moral fury that God-fearing Red States usually reserve for homosexuals or pregnant teens. Mississippi, specifically.
But the new Blazers? Not like that. As the media keeps reminding you, unlike those rampaging monsters of the recent past, this team's image is that of squeaky-clean youths who balance slam dunks with etiquette classes. These guys know which fork is for salad, how to walk with a stack of books on their heads, and the correct way to curtsy like a lady. (Seriously, you should see Taurean Green curtsy; he's like the belle of the debutant ball.)
Of course, this image makeover is a moot point. From a sports "journalist's" perspective, I don't care if the current Trail Blazers spend all their money on their church tithe, or tipping for lap dances in the champagne room—it shouldn't matter. They're a basketball team. Their job is to play basketball.
Rule #3 of being a faux sports reporter? Attend the post game press conferences presided over by head coach Nate McMillan, and conduct locker room interviews with the players. The problem? Interviewing someone who participates in hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews a year is akin to talking to a robot. Actually... talking to a robot sounds exciting; this is more like talking to your toaster. Players, and coaches, aren't programmed to say more than the standard template of responses—"It's a team effort," "We gave it 100 percent"—which is fine, since most sports journalists are not in the business of conducting interviews. Their job is to gather quotes, present these quotes in a way that tricks readers into thinking they're "interesting," and deliver them before deadline. Unlike my "peers," I'm not beholden to antiquated newspaper protocol—after live blogging a game, I often wander off to explore the mysterious world of the tunnels that snake beneath the Rose Garden.
It's there you can see Greg Oden—looking like a kid kicked out of the tree house gang—haunting the corners and waiting for the rest of the players to spill out of the locker room. It's also a great place to mentally match which spouse is waiting for which player (I'm horrible at this game), and to catch visiting players in all their off-the-court glory. My personal highlight was seeing the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming decked out in a glistening white cashmere turtleneck sweater, looking like he's arriving for a warm Thanksgiving dinner at the Huxtable house. Tightly surrounded by a giggling mass of fans with extended camera phones, poor, polite Ming was just trying to maneuver his 7' 6" frame onto the team bus—but looked defeated by the realization that both he, and that ridiculous sweater of his, weren't leaving anytime soon.
BRANDON ROY MAKES JESUS JEALOUS
But enough about the past, and the cashmere wardrobe of opposing players—here's the most important thing my press credentials have brought me. Rule #4: By any means necessary, obtain a clear glimpse at a downright historic basketball team. And at this point in the season, here's what I've surmised: A team like this year's Blazers are primed to fail. They are the third-youngest team in the league's history, with their franchise player being a 20-year-old with zero minutes played and a bum knee. And while I predicted a 36-win season in this very paper, it was a foolish guess, one tainted by my biased fandom and access to the players themselves.
Yet, here we are. It's the halfway point of the season and the Blazers have 26 wins, are battling for top position in the Northwest division, and the possibility of a playoff berth is pretty likely. It was easy to paint their winning streak of 13 games as just the byproduct of a young roster that doesn't know any better—a team playing above their potential. However, now that the dust has settled, you cannot deny that the Blazers beam with a natural chemistry and desire to win games. Close games. Last-second heroic games. The kind of games won by elite teams. All the while the legacy of Brandon Roy continues to grow—and while he won't take home All-Star honors, or find his name among the elite of the NBA, he's single-handily winning games for this franchise.
Games that I cover, as professional sports journalist.
Join Ezra as he live blogs every Blazer home game. This Friday Portland plays New York, at 7:30 pm. blogtown.portlandmercury.com