Befitting a franchise that has long prided itself on being ahead
of the curve, the Trail Blazers can boast of having
disillusioned fans before it became all the rage in the NBA.
Last season long-simmering frustration among the Portland
faithful boiled over. Savage boos resounded throughout the Rose
Garden. The team that holds the league record with 814
consecutive sellouts (from April 1977 to November 1995) rarely
played to a packed house. Even the once-bustling team store
downtown had to close its doors because of sagging sales.
It didn't help that Portland had been bounced in the first round
of the playoffs for five straight seasons (and went out again in
Round 1 last year). The antipathy was due in part to the team's
dubious character. For fans accustomed to being on a first-name
basis with the only major league team in town--remember Clyde,
Buck and Terry?--it was hard to root for an Isaiah Rider-led
consortium nicknamed the Jail Blazers.
Recognizing the seismic shift in public opinion, the
organization has been quick to make amends. Before this season
the Blazers reduced ticket prices and encouraged the coaching
staff to place goodwill calls to season-ticket holders. But the
most significant measure of damage control came on Jan. 21, when
management reached into the abyss that is owner Paul Allen's
pocket and re-signed point guard Damon Stoudamire to a
seven-year, $81 million contract. Stoudamire, a.k.a. Mighty
Mouse, is lethal in the open floor and runs neck and neck with
Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury as the NBA's best young
playmaker. What's more, he's a Portland kid with a sterling
reputation who grew up during the height of Blazermania. "It
might seem like a lot of pressure--being the guy from Portland
with the new contract," says Stoudamire. "But it's nothing like
the pressure I put on myself."
The Blazers' roster is almost unchanged from last year.
Determined to improve on his 42.3% shooting from the field,
Rider reported to camp in midseason shape. Arvydas Sabonis, who
has the same impossibly white, statuesque presence, if not the
mobility, of Mount Hood, is still the best passing center on the
planet. Portland also expects big things from 24-year-old
Rasheed Wallace, a wonderfully talented forward, but one who all
too often crosses the fine line between smooth and somnolent.
Still, it is Stoudamire who raises hopes in the Rose City.
"Damon is more comfortable with the system, so he'll be more
aggressive offensively," says coach Mike Dunleavy. "Overall, I
like what I see, especially our depth. But first we need to get
into the playoffs with home court advantage." If that happens,
the Blazers ought to renew a lapsed relationship not only with
postseason success but also with their fans.
Starters PVR* 1997-98 Key Stats
SF Rasheed Wallace 58 14.6 ppg 6.2 rpg 1.14 bpg 53.3 FG%
PF Brian Grant 118 12.1 ppg 9.1 rpg 0.74 bpg 50.8 FG%
C Arvydas Sabonis 45 16.0 ppg 10.0 rpg 3.0 apg 1.10 bpg
SG Isaiah Rider 82 19.7 ppg 4.7 rpg 3.1 apg 42.3 FG%
PG Damon Stoudamire 20 17.3 ppg 8.2 apg 4.2 rpg 1.59 spg
Top Reserves Bench Ranking (out of 29 teams): 9
G-F Walt Williams 148 10.3 ppg 3.4 rpg 2.1 apg 1.00 spg
C Kelvin Cato 222 3.8 ppg 3.4 rpg 1.27 bpg 42.8 FG%
G Greg Anthony[+] 227 5.2 ppg 2.6 apg 43.0 FG% 41.5 3FG%
1997-98 Record: 46-36 (fourth in Pacific)
Coach: Mike Dunleavy (second season with Trail Blazers)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 68)