Losing Their Grip Their once-ardent fans turned off by players' misdeeds and front-office ineptitude, the Trail Blazers are showing how quickly an NBA franchise can alienate its customers

December 24, 2001

Cheering for the Blazers today seems almost dirty, tantamount to
selling one's soul for a cheap thrill.
--Martin Fisher of Bend, Ore., in a letter to The Oregonian,
Nov. 11, 2001

On the morning of Dec. 7 the Portland Trail Blazers gathered
outside their arena to serve breakfast and distribute Christmas
trees to families in need. It was clear that Rasheed Wallace
would rather have been anywhere else. The team's best player and
co-captain, Wallace spent most of the 90-minute session speaking
on a cellular phone, the hands-free device dangling from his
right ear, and, like most of his teammates, he checked his pager
incessantly. When a Blazers employee suggested that Wallace wear
a Santa Claus hat, he declined, saying cryptically, "I'm a
supervisor." At one point a teenager beseeched the 6'11" Wallace
for an autograph. "You ain't got a Sharpie?" Wallace responded.
As the kid retreated to find Wallace's preferred writing
implement, the player cursed at no one in particular and yawned
uninhibitedly.

A similar lethargy had been in evidence among the Trail Blazers
the previous night. With thousands of the Rose Garden's 19,980
seats unoccupied, Wallace & Co. slogged through a 95-89 loss to
the Charlotte Hornets. Save first-year coach Maurice Cheeks and a
few bench players, the Blazers seemed as indifferent to the
game's outcome as the fans, who reserved their loudest cheers for
the T-shirt giveaways during timeouts. After the defeat David
Fahey, a Portland electrician, looked at the $75 ticket stub for
his last-row loge seat and shook his head. "I'm a die-hard
Blazers fan," he said, "but this is embarrassing."

Bad management, bad actors and bad basketball have alienated
fans in many NBA cities, but Portland offers a compelling case
study. The only pro sports franchise in a small market (pop.
529,121), the Blazers have been a civic treasure for three
decades, the NBA's answer to the Green Bay Packers.
Blazermaniacs packed 12,666-seat Memorial Coliseum for a
league-record 814 straight sellouts from 1977 to '95. Even
today, those arriving at Portland International Airport are
greeted by a large poster of the downtown parade held after the
franchise won the 1977 title, an image that's as much a part of
the local tableau as Mount Hood and Multnomah Falls. Clyde
Drexler, Terry Porter, Mychal Thompson and dozens of players
like them became year-round residents, volunteering at the Boys
Club and playing Santa at the mall (not to mention donning the
red-and-white hat). "You had to have been here," says Bill
Schonely, the beloved Blazers announcer for 28 years who was
forced out by the team two seasons ago. "The community embraced
these guys, and they hugged back."

Now the relationship is strictly arm's length. Average
attendance at the Rose Garden had dropped to 19,171 at week's
end, a 5.5% decrease from last season. According to a source at
the local NBC affiliate, which will televise 25 games this year,
ratings for the Blazers are down as much as 50% from the
mid-'90s. (Over the summer, after an attempt to squeeze more
money out of its deal with AT&T engendered a bitter, public
dispute, the team failed to renew a contract to air 25
additional games on cable.) In November, The Oregonian asked
readers whether they remained Portland fans. Of the 107
respondents, 57 identified their feelings as "fed up, no longer
on board, good riddance" and 27 had "big-time misgivings but
still [follow] the team somewhat." Only 23 were in the "Go
Blazers forever" camp. "I watch sports to have fun," wrote Gary
Lewis of Tigard, Ore. "I don't watch the Blazers anymore."

Only 18 months ago Portland came within minutes of winning the
Western Conference championship before bowing to the Los Angeles
Lakers. Although the current Trail Blazers are flush with talent
and depth, through Sunday's games they were 11-11 despite their
$84 million payroll, which is second only to the New York
Knicks'. These Blazers don't induce mere apathy among many
Portlanders; they inspire antipathy. "I don't even talk about the
Blazers on my show, because I know listeners will tune out," says
Colin Cowherd, a Portland sports-radio host on KFXX. "Check that.
Sometimes we have a contest to see who was most disgusted and
left the game earliest."

The contrast between the old and the new was thrown into sharp
relief last March, when the team retired Drexler's number 22
jersey. At halftime of the game against the Vancouver Grizzlies,
Drexler, flanked by former teammates, spoke eloquently about his
fondness for the community. That he made only perfunctory mention
of team president Bob Whitsitt and owner Paul Allen was lost on
no one. A standing ovation followed. Then, less than two minutes
into the second half, Wallace was ejected for arguing a call. The
Blazers, in first place at the time, fell to the lowly Grizzlies,
then dropped 16 of their remaining 24 games, including three
straight losses to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

In populist Portland, which feels more like a large village than
a small city, the dubious character of the players is Exhibit A
in the fans' estrangement. The linchpin of the team, Wallace,
attended his introductory press conference in Portland wearing a
T-shirt reading, F*CK WHAT YOU HEARD. In the five seasons since
he has been a serial boor, twice setting the league record for
technical fouls. In one game late last season he threw a towel in
the face of teammate Arvydas Sabonis and had to be restrained
from going after coach Mike Dunleavy. Though he vowed before this
season to silence critics with his performance, all his shooting
percentages are down from last year. At week's end he was leading
the league in technicals with eight, on pace to accrue 30.

Wallace's primary complement, 36-year-old Scottie Pippen, has
shifted to cruise control now that he's earning the fat payday
($18.1 million this season) that eluded him in Chicago; through
Sunday he was averaging 9.0 points, the fewest since his rookie
year. Fourth-year swingman Bonzi Wells is an emerging star, but
he hasn't captured the public's imagination. Not that he minds.
"We're not really going to worry about what the hell [the fans]
think about us," Wells says. "They really don't matter to us.
They can boo us every day, but they're still going to ask for our
autographs if they see us on the street. That's why they're fans
and we're NBA players."

More offensive still is the off-court conduct of a team
nicknamed the Jail Blazers. The NBA's patron saint of
transgressing, Isaiah Rider, was arrested on a misdemeanor
charge of gambling in public the same week the team acquired
him, in 1996. On top of a series of suspensions and bad acts
during his three tumultuous seasons in Portland--including a
citation for marijuana possession after he was caught smoking
pot out of a soda can--he called the city a "racist area,"
adding, "Forty miles from here, they're probably still hanging
people from trees." In 1998 forward Gary Trent, already on
probation for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, assaulted an
acquaintance outside a Portland community center for at-risk
youth because the victim mistakenly triggered the burglar alarm
at Trent's home. (Trent served five days for probation violation
and reached a settlement with the man.) Last season the team
signed guard Rod Strickland less than two months after his
second drunk driving conviction in four years.

Whitsitt, in turn, touts former guard Greg Anthony as more
emblematic of the Blazers' sterling character. In 1999, however,
the team forced Anthony to apologize to beat writer Rachel
Bachman for allegedly making inappropriate sexual comments.
(Anthony, who was traded last summer to the Chicago Bulls for a
second-round pick, says, "The charges are absurd. I was told by
team management that if I apologized the whole thing would go
away.") "When players are getting paid as much as these guys,
the fans have a right to expect them to behave themselves," says
Harry Glickman, the team's founder, president from 1987 to '94
and now president emeritus. Adds Schonely, "What management
doesn't realize is that Portland fans would rather root for a
so-so team of good guys than a contender filled with bad apples."

That notion has been lost on Whitsitt, who has taken so many hits
he calls himself "the Portland pinata." Following the 1999-2000
season he traded power forward Brian Grant, a civic-minded,
throwback player, for the troubled Shawn Kemp. In July, after
dealing Steve Smith, the 1998 J. Walter Kennedy Award winner for
good citizenship, to the San Antonio Spurs, Whitsitt signed the
Seattle SuperSonics' free-agent swingman, Ruben Patterson. Two
months earlier Patterson had entered a modified plea to attempted
rape for allegedly forcing his children's nanny to perform a sex
act while his wife was in the hospital for surgery. Although at
his sentencing Patterson asserted the act was consensual, he was
forced to register in Oregon as a convicted sex offender. "When
you get the facts, his situation is no different from other
folks' who haven't been publicized," Whitsitt says. "He really is
a good guy." (Last February, Patterson was convicted of
misdemeanor assault after breaking the jaw of a man he believed
had scratched his BMW.)

"The Blazers seem to have forgotten that the fans are the
customers," says Thompson, a Minnesota Timberwolves broadcaster
who still has a home in suburban Portland. "When you're the only
game in town, it's easy to get lazy." (Told of Thompson's
impressions, Whitsitt says, "I wouldn't use Mychal's comments.
Every year he's trying to get a job with us, O.K.?")

In his eighth season in charge of the Trail Blazers after eight
years as president of the Sonics, Whitsitt operates like a
Rotisserie team owner, amassing the best players available with
little regard for unity. "I wasn't a chemistry major," he says.
The result is a tantalizing collection of talent that invariably
combusts. With roles and substitution patterns ill-defined, the
players' grousing over minutes has become as predictable in
Portland as overcast skies. "We have no identity," says point
guard Damon Stoudamire.

Moreover, many will never forgive the 45-year-old Whitsitt for
failing to relocate to Portland from Seattle. While Whitsitt
defends that choice--"Red Auerbach ran the Celtics from
Washington, D.C.," he points out--detractors find it a revealing
snub. "This might sound provincial, but we expect the president
of the Portland team to live in Portland," says Jon Spoelstra,
who ran the Blazers' marketing office from 1979 to '89 and wrote
the bestseller Marketing Outrageously with Dallas Mavericks owner
Mark Cuban. "Fans are used to having an absentee owner but not
absentee management."

Others say that Whitsitt is following the marching orders of
Allen, the Microsoft cofounder whom Forbes estimates to be worth
$28 billion. Allen's wealth has its decided advantages. He built
the $262 million Rose Garden in 1995 with scant reliance on
public funds and thinks little of lavishing nearly $60 million
over three years on a marginal player like Kemp. He's also
undaunted by the prospect of diminishing revenues. When you're
willing to pay $30 million in luxury tax for a mid-level playoff
team, do you really lose sleep over a few thousand empty seats or
the financial consequences of fan backlash? (Allen declined to
speak to SI.)

For a team often insensitive to its fans, Portland is
hypersensitive to criticism. Top brass, including Whitsitt, has
requested meetings with Oregonian editors, then arrived toting a
stack of articles with the passages the team deems objectionable
highlighted. Two seasons ago reporter Abby Haight wrote a story
praising the Indiana Pacers' new arena, Conseco Fieldhouse. The
following day the Blazers contacted sports editor Dennis Peck,
expressing outrage that Haight had implied the Rose Garden wasn't
as nice a venue. "As a courtesy, we listen," says Peck, who has
also been chided by the team after positive stories about former
Blazers, such as Grant, have appeared. "But [ultimately] we
ignore it. We're here to do journalism."

In the final game of the playoffs last season, Blazers fan
Katherine Topaz and her boyfriend's eight-year-old son brandished
a TRADE WHITSITT sign. When Topaz refused to put it away, she was
ejected from the Rose Garden. After her plight made national news
and she became a symbol of the disenfranchised fan, Whitsitt
apologized to Topaz and the team sent her a gift basket--albeit
with $5.38 in postage due.

To some extent, the sea change in Portland is symptomatic of the
times. During Thompson's era players were paid handsomely but
bought their groceries at Fred Meyer like every Portlander and
lived in subdivisions where neighbors baked them cookies after
good games. Today's multimillionaires reside in gated mansions
and often have a staff to do their shopping or pump their gas.
(Allen makes sure the players' cars are waxed and washed during
each practice.) Whitsitt raises a fair point when he says, "The
'when-it-was' era had three players [Drexler, Porter and Jerome
Kersey] who were with the franchise 10 seasons or longer. That's
special, but with today's free agency and salary cap and media
and fan pressure, you can't find that anywhere."

Whatever the case, Portland fans who are feeling alienated may
never return. "You have to work twice as hard to get them back,"
says Spoelstra. "Look at the Hornets. They led the league in
attendance and now can't draw flies." (Crowds in Charlotte have
dropped from an average of 24,042 in 1996-97 to 10,303 at week's
end.)

Perhaps in a tacit admission that the team could use an image
makeover, a new television ad for the Blazers features Wallace
and Wells sneaking onto a court to play one-on-one after the
janitor has gone home. The running joke in Portland, however, is
that the way things are going, all the Blazers may soon be
playing in an empty gym. As the team is fast learning, selling
your soul is one thing. Finding willing buyers is quite
another.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Out of hand Even Stoudamire, a Portland native, admits the talent-laden Blazers lack an identity. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN GRESS (2) Ho, ho, ho! At an event to give Christmas trees to underprivileged children, Dale Davis (left) kept his distance, while (below, from left) Pippen, Erick Barkley and Wallace hardly exuded holiday cheer. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Double negative Patterson (21), a convicted sex offender, and the volatile Wallace haven't filled the void left by Drexler & Co.

"WE'RE NOT GOING TO WORRY ABOUT WHAT THE HELL [THE FANS] THINK,"
SAYS WELLS. "THEY DON'T REALLY MATTER TO US."

"I DON'T EVEN TALK ABOUT THE BLAZERS," SAYS A PORTLAND
SPORTS-RADIO HOST. "I KNOW MY LISTENERS WILL TUNE OUT."

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