Contrary to popular belief, the Portland Trail Blazers are not a collection of dour souls waiting nervously and irritably for their inevitable fall. Consider their warmup drill before what turned out to be the finale of their first-round Western Conference series against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon. Inspired by the college atmosphere in the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, to which Game 4 had been moved to escape the civil turmoil in Los Angeles (page 24), Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Cliff Robinson and Alaa Abdelnaby engaged in a Vegas-style show of dunking one-upmanship designed to win friends and influence people. "I admit it," said Drexler after the game, which ended in a 102-76 Trail Blazer rout, "we wanted to steal some of those Laker fans. And I think we did."
Now the Blazers are trying to steal some respect from around the league. All season they have had to deal with media charges that they are a dumb team. Quite often during practice, after coach Rick Adelman calls for a certain set, a couple of the Blazers will look at each other, scratch their heads and say good-naturedly, "Duh, what's dat?"
"See, things bother you if they're true," says Drexler. "But if they've got nothing to do with the truth, if they're way off the mark, then you can laugh about them." And Drexler laughs.
Perhaps he is being completely honest. But it's difficult for the Blazers to laugh off all the criticism routinely lobbed in their direction, criticism that falls most heavily upon the formidable shoulders of the 6'7" Drexler. This is the season in which Drexler, 29, has clearly elevated his game to the point where he now stands, in the estimation of most NBA insiders, right behind Michael Jordan as the league's best all-around player. "And the gap between them is not as great as a lot of people might think," says Jerry Reynolds, the director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings.
With the final two spots for the U.S. Olympic basketball team due to be announced in a few weeks, Drexler is clearly the best player not currently on the American roster. He is also the unquestioned leader of the Blazers—"Without Clyde, there would be no Trail Blazers," says the Denver Nuggets' Greg (Cadillac) Anderson, a boyhood friend from Houston—and so he takes a lot of heat for a team accused of being underachieving, underwhelming in the clutch and unable to execute in the half-court.
Portland rarely exhibited those weaknesses in its series with the Lakers, however. Drexler was nothing short of unstoppable, even in Portland's 121-119 Game 3 overtime defeat at the Forum on April 29, during which he had 42 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists. He was all over the box score in Game 4 too, finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. He topped that performance with a stupendous dunk, taking an alley-oop pass from Kersey that seemed headed for the seats and slamming it back into the basket. "I was in awe," said teammate Danny Ainge. "That ball looked like it was outta here."
Still, no one doubts that Drexler must perform as well, if not better, in the second-round series against Phoenix, which was to begin Tuesday in Portland. "That's exactly how I like it," says Drexler. "I like to feel the pressure. I like to hear people say bad stuff about our team, then go out and prove them wrong. That's what sports is about."
He says it all with a placid smile, and one has to believe he isn't kidding. There was a time when Drexler's air of unflappability seemed a bit phony, but since he has maintained it now for nine seasons, through Blazer thick and thin, it deserves to be taken seriously. He glides around controversy and intrigue as skillfully as he glides around defenders, and if an obsession to be politically correct is part of that, so be it. He positively burns to be a member of the Olympic team, for example, but about the strongest sentiment he will offer—on or off the record—is: "Yes, I did feel a little slighted when I didn't make it. And it'll be disappointing if I'm not chosen." With all comers he is unfailingly polite but also unfailingly wary. "The more I can leave things unsaid," proclaims Drexler, "the better I feel." And so he usually feels pretty good.
Drexler's lone bout with controversy came during a difficult 1988-89 season; it is worth mentioning only to illustrate the degree to which Drexler and his Trail Blazers have changed. Mike Schuler, who was then the Portland coach, considered Drexler a negative influence on the team, a player who didn't give his all in practice and who, despite streaks of brilliance, made bad decisions on the court. Schuler was fired in midseason and felt that his inability to get along with the franchise player was a major reason. Drexler, for his part, believed that Schuler drilled the team too hard and was also playing mind games with his close friend and former teammate, Kiki Vandeweghe, who now plays for the New York Knicks. Press Drexler further on the subject these days and watch those placid features turn stormy. Considering the positive direction in which Adelman turned the team after he took over, there is no doubt that Schuler, for all his acknowledged basketball genius, was the wrong man to coach the Blazers. (Subsequently, he became the wrong man to coach the Los Angeles Clippers, too.) But, still, did he have a point about Drexler's game?
"I would never say Clyde didn't practice hard," says Blazer assistant coach John Wetzel, who was present during the Schuler administration. "But I would say he is a little more focused now, more knowledgeable about the right things to do. He doesn't feel he has to prove himself every day, and that's led to a more constructive approach to his game."
On the court, yes, it was once true that Drexler was given to bad decision-making, even though his mistakes often came in spectacular packaging. But, be it the coaching change, hard work, maturity or a combination of all those things, every part of Drexler's game has steadily improved—shot selection, passing, court vision, defense. "You used to be able to count on spells of inconsistency from him," said Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka shortly before Drexler destroyed his team in Game 4. "I don't see those now, and I wish I did."
Though the Blazers' Terry Porter had somewhat of an off year, he is still among the top half-dozen point guards in the league, yet Drexler, the team's shooting guard, had more assists (512 to 477) than Porter during the season and had 34 compared to 21 for Porter in the Laker series. The fact that Drexler is now both a shooting and a passing threat when he posts up gives the Blazers a flexibility that only a few teams have ever enjoyed. (Two of those teams come to mind immediately: the Boston Celtics when Larry Bird was healthy and, of course, the Lakers when Magic Johnson was playing.) And then there is Drexler's sudden emergence as a three-point threat. He doesn't really fit the description of a long-range bomber, being a take-it-to-the-basket guy with a less than picturesque form on his jumper, but he made 34% of his 338 three-point attempts during the season. "Most of the time the three-point shooters are not great drivers," said Bertka. "When you have both those aspects, like Drexler does, the defense has big trouble."
The expression that many observers use to describe what has happened to Drexler's game is "toned down." Drexler insists that his style was never "toned up" enough to need toning down. But he's keenly aware that his natural ability has been a cudgel with which his detractors have knocked his play. "He's got talent," they would say, "but he doesn't know how to channel it." That criticism still drives Drexler crazy. Placidly crazy, but crazy nevertheless.
"Athleticism is something you work on to achieve the maximum results," says Drexler. "I came out of college with a 43-inch vertical jump, and I think I could still reach that on a day when I'm totally injury-free. But don't you think I worked on that jump every single day? I think I could run a 4.4 40 today, too. But strength, speed, all those things, I worked on. I was a gym rat, just like any of those other guys who supposedly didn't have much natural ability. The guys I consider superior athletes are people like Jerry Rice, Michael [Jordan] and Hakeem [Olajuwon], guys who are obviously naturally talented but who also have a high skill level. I'd like to be considered in their class."
Drexler, the fourth of Eunice Scott's seven children, claims to have been short and chubby in his early years in Houston, as hard as it might be to conjure up a rotund Clyde the Glide. When he was 12, he began taking martial-arts lessons from an older friend in the neighborhood, and his coordination and confidence improved. That he grew to 6'6" by the time he was a high school senior didn't hurt, either. He learned basketball from a brother, James, four years his elder, a six-footer whose high school athletic career was cut short by work responsibilities. "The funny thing is that James had one of these picture-perfect jump shots, high, high arc, perfect form, the whole thing," says Drexler. "Exactly what my jumper doesn't look like."
Drexler played one season of high school baseball, as well as a lot of sandlot football, but he eventually gave up those sports to concentrate on basketball. (Today he's an excellent tennis player and an improving golfer.) "All you heard back then was to concentrate on one sport, and I think I got caught up in that," says Drexler. "My one regret is that I didn't get a chance to play two sports at a pro level. Baseball, maybe, or even football, as a quarterback or wide receiver."
Drexler was raised in the Crestmont section of Houston. His mother was head cashier, and his stepfather, Manuel Scott, a butcher for the same large supermarket chain. All the Drexler children attended college. One sister, Denise Drexler, is a city auditor in Galveston, Texas, while sweet-shooting James owns a barbecue restaurant in Houston. When Clyde went to the University of Houston, where he later became one of the fabled Phi Slamma Jammas, he wasn't escaping from anything, didn't feel angry or trapped, and never thought he had to become a professional athlete to be a success. Jordan and Magic, to name two, came from similarly unpressured backgrounds, but their competitiveness has never been questioned, as Drexler's once was.
"Clyde plays with as much fire and determination as any player in the league," says Adelman. "Just because he's laid-back off the court or doesn't seek recognition or hasn't been one of the superstars the league has chosen to market, doesn't change that. He's one of the fiercest competitors I've ever known."
If anything, Drexler was accused of being overly competitive, even foolhardy, for playing in a late-season game against Seattle last month despite a badly sprained right knee. As he dressed for the trip home after Game 4 against the Lakers, a giant ice bag strapped to his knee made a small puddle beneath his feet. The knee doesn't bother him during games, but it tends to swell and must be drained from time to time. On Sunday he looked longingly at his sleek black loafers but shook his head and instead laced up a pair of sneakers. "Can't wear shoes after games," said Drexler, pointing to an ugly raised bump on his left foot. "I don't know exactly how I got this, but it won't go away." He smiled and shrugged. "Well, it's that time of year."
And what time of year is it for the Blazers? Time for a playoff fadeout? Or time to play for the championship that eluded them in 1990 when the Detroit Pistons beat them in five games? At the very least, Portland will have to make it to the NBA Finals for the season not to be considered disappointing. Drexler has clearly removed any remaining "duh" from his game and replaced it with a resounding "wow!" But he will feel fulfilled only if his team can do the same.