The biggest game of the Trail Blazers’ season is less than an hour from tip-off, and Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis sit outside the arena munching chicken wings and jalapeño poppers.
Sports pundits have given the upstart Blazers little chance of winning on this night. They’re playing the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, winners of 10 of their last 11 games against Portland—but Meloy and Ellis aren’t too concerned.
“We’re good luck for the Blazers when they play the Warriors,” says Ellis. The last time they saw these teams match up, Damian Lillard went off for a career-high 51 points, shocking the league and handing Golden State a rare loss.
Meloy and Ellis moved to Portland back in 1999, during the infamous “Jailblazer” era. They were casual fans then, living “humble, impoverished lives in a warehouse.” Meloy was an aspiring musician, and Ellis was “doing oil paintings and selling them at fire-sale prices.” Then Meloy formed the Decemberists, which went on to become one of the most popular bands in the nation, and whose album art, posters, and stage sets are designed by Ellis. The couple always felt that their “creative sensibilities lined up perfectly,” so in 2010 Meloy took a break from music and they set to work on The Wildwood Chronicles, a magically awesome trilogy of young adult books written by Meloy and illustrated by Ellis. It was during this time of literary collaboration that the two took their Blazer fandom to the next level.
Meloy marks the day he became a die-hard fan as “when Lillard hit that shot” in 2015. The shot he’s referring to is Damian Lillard’s legendary buzzer-beating three pointer, which vaulted the Blazers into the second round of playoffs for the first time in 14 years. (Google “Lillard 0.9” to relive the moment.)
These days Ellis and Meloy live on a farm outside of town with their kids, several llamas, and a few goats. They still like to watch Blazers games together. Tonight, Meloy is wearing a jacket with a custom, Ellis-designed “Rip City” logo stitched on the back. He’s also sporting a cool woolen “Rip City” cap, which Ellis knit herself.
“I should set up an Etsy shop or something,” Ellis says.
As game time approaches, we make our way inside the arena, winding through the annoyingly large contingents of Bay Area fans that flood the Moda whenever the Warriors come to town. Clad in black and red, Meloy and Ellis blend right in with the Blazer faithful.
Most NBA teams have a cache of celebrity supporters. Toronto has Drake, the Knicks have Spike Lee, and the Lakers have scores of Hollywood elite sitting courtside. But here in Portland, our “celebrities” are more understated. We live in an oddball outpost, one of the smallest and most remote cities to host an NBA team. It’s part of why Blazers fans are so devoted, and it’s also why even indie-type artists like Meloy and Ellis find themselves caught up in the basketball fever that grips this city each winter.
It’s not uncommon to see other Portland notables roaming the hallways of the Moda Center. Ever since she and Fred Armisen cast a few Blazers in a Portlandia skit, Carrie Brownstein has been known to show up to games, and her Sleater-Kinney bandmate Janet Weiss is also an avid supporter. Meloy and Ellis are in the same basketball fantasy league as musician Steve Malkmus (Pavement, the Jicks), who opined at length about the Trail Blazers on the defunct sports-junkie site Grantland.
“Sports and art are supposed to exist in parallel universes,” says Ellis, “though they really don’t in Portland, do they?”
She’s got a point. The vibrant black-and-red color scheme and funky vintage Blazer logo has inspired many sweet knock-off designs. Hip T-shirt makers like Grafletics cut their teeth mining the cross section between hipster cool and Blazermania. There’s something about the perennial underdog nature of the Blazers that inspires DIY artists in this town. And it doesn’t hurt that team captain Lillard has cultivated a legitimate hip-hop career and can regularly be seen supporting local music showcases.
The Blazers get off to an awesome start in the game, torching the champs for 40 points in the first quarter alone. Lillard is having a fantastic night, showing up his better-known counterpart, Steph Curry, in nearly every way.
Portland takes a 12-point lead into the half, but Meloy isn’t ready to rest easy.
“There’s no lead the Blazers can’t squander,” he says.
This has been true for the Blazers’ season up until this point—but perhaps this game would mark a turnaround?
Outside of this unlikely Blazers halftime lead, it’s an exciting time for Meloy. He’s gotten the band back together, and the Decemberists have just released a new album called I’ll be Your Girl. Ellis has found fertile ground, too; her artwork is in more demand than ever, though she offhandedly mentions there’s one organization she wishes would come knocking.
“Those Blazers game day posters,” she says. “I’d love to do one of those.” (Hint, hint, Blazers PR!)
The second half brings about the inevitable Warriors comeback, led by the stellar play of Kevin “The Slim Reaper” Durant. Getting burned by that guy has been a particularly painful experience for Blazers fans since 2007, when the team passed up the chance to draft him in favor of the tragic bust known as Greg Oden. The game goes right down to the final seconds—but to our joy, the Blazers have held tight, and they take down the champs for the second time in the past three regular seasons. And Meloy and Ellis have managed to witness both of them.
Afterward, we venture “backstage” to watch Coach Terry Stotts give his post-game presser. Meloy wants to ask a question, but we look out of place with the sportswriter crowd, and I’m scared we’ll get our press passes revoked. We stick around to watch the players come out and meet friends and family. Meyers Leonard is wearing a massive puffy fur coat, which delights Ellis. Draymond Green of the Warriors is in a good mood, despite the loss. Green is on Ellis’ fantasy team, and Meloy urges her to get a picture with him. “You do it,” she says, and Meloy gamely complies.
Later on, Blazer legend Bill Walton strolls out and Meloy says, “I want to get a picture with him.”
I’ve heard that Walton is an avid music fan, so I approach the big man and ask if he’s familiar with the Decemberists.
“Never heard of them,” he says.
“It’s a Portland band,” says Meloy, humbly.
I snap a quick picture of the two of them. When Meloy sees himself next to the seven-foot-tall Walton he remarks, “I would’ve made a very good hobbit.”
The Blazers did, in fact, turn their season around after that game, winning 13 straight (as of this writing), including a second victory over the Warriors. The Blazers now hold third place in the competitive Western conference and are poised for an exciting playoff run. Our upstart team is at it again, defying the pundits and seducing casual fans into the fray. They’re the hottest team in the NBA right now, and it all started with that fateful Valentine’s Day game when they beat the champs.
So I can’t help but wonder: Are Meloy and Ellis really lucky charms for the Blazers?
“I’m not saying the Blazers will always beat the Warriors if we’re at the game,” said Ellis. “I’m just saying the Blazers have never lost to the Warriors when we’ve been at the game. So... you do the math.”