Yes, a brand new Trail Blazers season is upon us! Our long, dark summer of off-season discontent has ended and now it’s time to bring on the basketball.
I’m aware that there are many folks in this city who don’t care much about the Trail Blazers—including some who read the Mercury. I get that. Allow me to posit, though, that if you live in Portland, whether you know it or not, your life is affected by the ebb and flow of this ragtag team in the northwestern corner of the NBA. You’ve no doubt noticed the flags draped in windows, the black and red caps, the bumper stickers, the jerseys worn by kids and even grown men, who frankly look silly. These are your denizens of Rip City, and they dwell amongst you. These people LOVE the Trail Blazers, and their mood each morning is affected by what happened on the court the night before.
If the Blazers win, it’s a good day, and smiles will be more pervasive; the annoyances of life will slide by just a bit easier. Perhaps you won’t have to fight quite so hard to merge onto I-5 on the way to work. Perhaps your veggie pizza will be made with a bit of extra love. Come springtime, you can actually feel it in the air: If the Blazers are in the playoffs, this whole city is happier, a little prouder. And man, if the Blazers ever make it back into the NBA finals, all of our collective boats will rise in a tide of joy and euphoria which shall envelop the entire city and beyond.
So it’s totally fine if you don’t give a shit about the Trail Blazers—but here’s 10 very good reasons why many of us believe you should.
1. Damian Lillard
You’ve heard of this guy, right? He’s our point guard and team leader. He’s a legitimate superstar now. And he’s a Portland guy! I mean, he didn’t grow up here. He’s from Oakland, but he seems to genuinely like it here. He just signed a long-term contract and has made it clear he’s going to stick around for a while. This is a big deal because, while we all might think Portland is great and the hippest place on earth, it’s long been considered a backwater for NBA big shots. We’re a “small market” where it rains throughout the season. We’re not LA, NY, Chicago, or Miami—the traditional destination for guys who have their own sneaker line. Having a superstar here in his prime is awesome, and Dame is a special superstar. He’s exciting to watch, flinging himself onto the floor with graceful abandon, launching ridiculously long shots and draining them with ease. He’s the undisputed best rapper in the NBA and has been known to attend local hip-hop shows to support the local scene. Lillard went to Weber State University in Utah and stayed for four years, while most NBA players leave their schools after one or two to collect a payday. On top of that, he overcame everyone’s expectations to be named Rookie of the Year in 2013. Last year, after being snubbed by the All-Star team in favor of an aging Kobe Bryant, Lillard torched the league with two 50-point games in two weeks, and then wrote a song about it. He’s outspoken in the realm of social justice (unlike some of his sponsorship-hungry peers), and was singlehandedly responsible for the most exciting 0.9 seconds of basketball in the last 20 years. Look up “Game 6 vs. Houston” on YouTube if you’d like to know more about that.
2. Scrappy Underdogs!
Everyone likes a good underdog story, and Portland is in the midst of a fine one. Last year the Trail Blazers had the lowest payroll of any team in the entire league. They had just lost four out of their five starting players—including perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge—and had one of the least experienced rosters around with an average player age of only 24. Several basketball pundits predicted they’d finish dead last with the worst record in all of basketball. Yet they defied these predictions and shocked everyone by busting their way into the second round of the playoffs and giving hell to the defending champs. This year expectations are higher, but the current trend in the NBA is for superstars like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant to cluster together on Death Star-like “superteams” such as Golden State and Cleveland (LeBron James and Kyrie Irving) and no one else is really expected to come close. Currently, the bookies in Las Vegas give the Blazers 80-1 odds at winning the title. So they’re saying there’s a chance! You want an awesome David and Goliath narrative? Look no further than your back door, Portland.
3. Two Nigerian Players!
There are only four players from Nigeria in the entire NBA, and two of them play for our team: Al-Farouq Aminu and Festus Ezeli. Al-Farouq Aminu is apparently descended from a line of Nigerian kings, and has thus earned the nickname “Chief.” He also has a lazy eyelid so he looks half asleep much of the time. But he’s not! He’s a great player! Festus Ezeli is nearly seven feet tall, and new to the team this year. He originally wanted to be a doctor and didn’t take up basketball until he was 15 years old. He tells a great story about how the first shot he ever made in a competitive game went in the wrong basket. Neither of these guys played on the Nigerian Olympic team, by the way, because the Nigeria Basketball Federation couldn’t pay the insurance premiums necessary to protect them from injury.
4. CJ McCollum!
This guy is so fucking awesome. Like Damian Lillard, he played four years (again, unusual) at a tiny school, Lehigh, and is the only player from there to be drafted into the NBA. CJ spent two sleepy seasons here in Portland before breaking out like a baller to become crowned the Most Improved Player in the NBA last year. He and Dame now form what many consider to be the only backcourt duo worthy of challenging the awesome dominance of Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. On top of that, CJ hosts a music-based radio show on JAM’N 107.5 and has launched his own high school journalism program (CJ’s Press Pass) at Madison High School. Role model, hello!
5. There is No “I” in “Team”!
The NBA is rife with examples of superstar-laden teams with bloated payrolls that implode and go down like giant lead zeppelins. Egos clash, tempers flare up, no one passes the ball, and the biggest losers are the fans that have to sit through an awful groan-inducing season. Here in Portland, we are currently witnessing the opposite side of this fiasco. This team seems to genuinely like each other. Look no further than their spunky Instagram feeds to see pictures of them goofing on the latest dance moves or playing paintball as a team out in some prairie. At their pre-season opener, the Blazers formed a unified huddle during the national anthem, firmly stepping into the heated national debate on police brutality, a subject on which team captain Lillard has spoken and rapped about often. This will surely be a season in which NBA players are given a national platform to speak out on various issues, and we can all be proud to have a team that isn’t afraid to do so.
6. One of Our Players Could Be Playing Pro Baseball Right Now
That’s right, back-up shooting guard Pat Connaughton was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. As a pitcher, no less! He barely saw playing time for the Blazers last year, but he’s sticking with it, practicing his fastball on the offseason and planning a switch over to baseball only after his basketball dreams have been fulfilled. Damn, an actual two-sporter, like the legendary Bo Jackson. On top of that, Pat recorded the second highest vertical jump ever recorded in the NBA draft combine. He’s superhuman!
7. The Trail Blazers Travel Farther Than Anyone
Because of our remote location in the corner of the United States, the Portland Trail Blazers have to log more travel miles than any other team in the entire league. It’s not easy to be a Trail Blazer! This also means that Blazers fans inhabit a larger territory in square miles than any other fanbase in the NBA. We may not have more fans, but we probably have more trees—and those are important, too.
8. The 420 Connection
It’s no secret that many NBA players enjoy their mary jane from time to time. Alert stoners were quick to pick up on the fact that the two NBA teams located in states with legal weed also had auspiciously dank names, “Blazers” and “Nuggets” (Denver). The cannabis industry has seized upon this hot topic and now hosts “Blazers vs. Nuggets” events every time the two teams play, which happens a lot because they are in the same Northwest division. Watch for this exciting rivalry to take on new dimensions as legalization becomes more ubiquitous. As many a Trail Blazer fan knows, it’s pretty damn fun to watch a game while high. Check out the smoking area outside the Moda Center during halftime and you’ll see what I mean. Blazin’!
9. Ed Davis Gained 20 Pounds!
This guy is my favorite Trail Blazer. You have to check him out. Last year he was skinny as a pole, yet he still ripped down rebounds with more tenacity and success than the titanic men he was up against night after night. Apparently he spent the off-season pumping iron and sucking down protein bars, because he’s looking quite buff this year. Davis has played on a handful of other teams in his short career and never really found a home, so here’s hoping he’s found one here in Portland. He’s a fan favorite and if you like guys with a lot of heart and hustle, you too will find yourself on the “Phys. Ed” Davis bandwagon.
10. The Fans Are Awesome Here
Sure, every place thinks they have “the best fans in the NBA.” But Portland actually does. Blazers fans have experienced heartbreak like almost no other basketball team. It’s a long line of tragedies—some minor, some not—that have beset this team ever since winning an unlikely championship way back in 1977. Our star players get injured, or leave us for brighter lights elsewhere, or the team crumbles at the worst possible moment (see “Blazers vs. Lakers Game 7 meltdown”). We’ve almost come to expect it now. The result, though, is a fanbase that’s particularly fervent and devoted to our team. Going to a Blazers game is a little like attending a hybrid of a concert, a circus, and a monster truck rally. Maybe that doesn’t actually sound fun to you, but you can’t deny the wonderful energy that fills a place when everyone there is all yearning for the same thing. Perhaps it’s similar to what religious devotees experience when they gather at Mecca, or when those hippies clasp hands around Burning Man in the desert. Mind melding! It can be a fine thing when people gather for a common goal, especially if that goal is something as innocuous as winning a game of basketball.
Sure, sports are a distraction. That’s exactly what they’re supposed to be. And I’d like to suggest that these upstart Trail Blazers are the best kind of distraction from the foibles of our ridiculous real world. I urge you to check them out this season because, like it or not, their success has the power to make your day in Portland just a little bit better. And after they start really kicking ass this spring, the parties are going to be killer.
Arthur Bradford is a writer and filmmaker in Portland and hosts a weekly call-in radio show with comedianBri Pruett on XRAY.FM called “Sex, Drugs, and Basketball” (Thursdays at 8 pm). He also likes the Blazers. A lot.