It's Damian Lillard appreciation week across the basketball world, and that's great. But that's not exactly what's happening here. This is about Cliff Robinson. This is about Brian Grant and Rasheed Wallace. This is about me in a bar, sometime during college, squinting at a crappy television across the room, and watching Brandon Roy pull up for a 30-footer to kill the Rockets.
True, the current Blazers have won 11 of their last 12 to crash the playoff race in the West. They've beaten Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and Golden State since Christmas. Lillard dropped 51 on the Warriors last weekend, and he's averaging 30 and 8 in the month of February. CJ McCollum is the most improved player in the NBA. Meyers Leonard is Portland's hilarious answer to Draymond Green. But more than anything, that Warriors game last weekend helped me appreciate the tradition here.
Lillard is just the latest incarnation. Weird, awesome things are always happening in Portland. East Coast games finish, it's almost time for bed, and then, for basically my whole life, it's always been a good idea to check out the Blazers game.
Open Floor podcast: Blazers big man Meyers Leonard on his NBA journey
Even when they're bad, they're good. The fans are loud enough so that all home games are competitive regardless. They haven't won an NBA title since 1977, but that only makes them easier to love. They have the best logo in the league. The uniforms are top five at least, and the Rose Garden has the prettiest floor in basketball. I still don't know what #RIPCITY means and I will always prefer Top Pot to VooDoo Donuts, but these are minor criticisms.
Watch Cliff Robinson
He was the first NBA player I remember recognizing outside of Jordan, because at 5 or 6 years old, playing in the NBA Finals and having the same name as Clifford the Big Red Dog was all I needed to know. More importantly, though, watch the video.
People embed videos in articles all the time, and nobody ever actually clicks them to watch. But click for Cliff. And then, the next time someone starts waxing poetic about the new stretch–four revolution that's sweeping the NBA, think back to that video with Rod Strickland and the '95 Bulls. Where were you when Cliff Robinson invented the future?
Watch the Jail Blazers Era in 24 seconds
And then, go to this Eastern European website to watch Rasheed Wallace's episode of MTV Cribs. Nobody had ever thought to connect the words "master bedroom" and "urinal" before, but Rasheed did, and that's important.
The Jail Blazers legacy hasn't aged as well, as the NBA's done its best to outgrow that post-Jordan wave of angst and crime. It's for the best. Nobody in Portland misses Ruben Patterson.
But for the record, if you were rooting for the Lakers in that Western Conference finals, I don't want to know you. Likewise, if someone approaches me on the street and wants to talk Bonzi Wells, that's a pretty good sign that there will be a lifelong bond.
Watch Arvydas Sabonis and think about basketball
Arvydas Sabonis was never as good as Shaq. Rasheed Wallace was never as good as Duncan, Clyde Drexler wasn't Jordan, and Damian Lillard isn't Steph. There are plenty of people who would call this history depressing, but that's OK, because anyone who sees it that way doesn't understand what makes the NBA work. Basketball has 82 games stretched over five months, playoffs that last another three months, and the entire time, we know that two, maybe three teams have a real shot at winning a title. This sport only works because it gives us characters who are vivid enough to keep us entertained along the way.
Sabonis was Marc Gasol with an extra 50 pounds on him, and like five no-look passes every quarter. He was apparently even better in Europe before a knee injury slowed him down, but as far as I'm concerned he played his entire career at 38 years old. He'd look sweaty and a step slow at every turn, until he'd unlock quickness that seemed impossible.
Anyway, Shaq was the most dominant big man ever. Sabonis had knee pads, pudgy dad strength, and ballerina feet. Who was more fun to root for?
Watch Brandon Roy kill the Rockets
I remember when Brandon Roy declared for the NBA out of high school and confused the entire basketball world. For a lot of high school stars of his era—Ndubi Ebi, Korleone Young—that's where things would've gone off track. But Roy worked out for the Blazers, realized how far away he really was, and withdrew his name before he'd lost eligibility. Then he had to qualify for school. He took the SAT three times, and in the meantime, he worked an $11-an-hour job cleaning sewage out of shipping containers on the Seattle docks, waiting to see if he could attend college. He eventually broke through on the final try, and over the course of a few years at Washington he took his team to the Sweet 16, and transformed himself into a lottery pick. In Portland, he won Rookie of the Year, made three All-Star teams, and then got hurt. But before the degenerative knee condition that cost him a career, he signed an $82 million deal to make sure he'd be taken care of for life. Again, there's a way to frame his career as tragedy, and there's a way to see this as the coolest kind of basketball story.
Read Bill Walton describe the sports world
Last year: "The perfect thing about basketball is that it is the most complete, surreal, and special game of all, where all you have to do is wait for the opening tip and then each and every player, each and every component, has a chance to make a contribution on every single play. Basketball, yeah, shine a light. Unlike football, which is basically a halfway house between the army and prison, and baseball, which is a bunch of out-of-shape guys standing around, taking steroids, and waiting for the game of life to come to them. Basketball, yeah. Who can play? Who's in shape? Who's got game?"
That should be read aloud before every NBA game. Not kidding.
And, obviously, watch Damian Lillard
Against the Thunder:
Against the Cavs:
Against the Rockets:
Against the Warriors:
You don't have to click any of those videos. Just know that Lillard is the closest thing basketball has to living, breathing proof of the clutch gene. He's like Steph Curry, but less refined, which makes it even more fun to watch him go nuts.
The Blazers' season makes no sense. This team was never supposed to be this good. Lillard had struggled down the stretch last season, and when LaMarcus Aldridge (and three other starters) left, it looked like the Blazers were stuck with a small backcourt that couldn't guard anyone, no big men, and a franchise player that was due $100 million and probably wasn't even an All-Star. Now we're here, and I'm glad Lillard somehow missed the All-Star Game, because an angry Damian Lillard is as entertaining as anything the NBA has to offer.
This is just a reminder that none of this is an isolated incident. After the 51-point game, I started thinking about how much I've loved watching the Blazers all year, and then realized that it's like this almost every year.
As for the rest of this season, I have no idea if they can keep this going. The schedule isn't easy down the stretch, and the big men are awfully young. And Lillard can't possibly stay this hot, can he?
I know it will be fun to watch him try. It's tradition.