Wisdom may be a scarce commodity in the NBA, but there's some
sense of how to build a championship contender. Start with two
bona fide stars. If money permits, round up a third--or, in the
case of this year's Los Angeles Lakers, a fourth. Surround them
with serviceable teammates who fill their circumscribed roles
well and lack delusions of grandeur, a "supporting cast" as a
certain retired Chicago Bulls shooting guard used to say ad
nauseam. Then allow a few years to ferment. "Playing my whole
career with a guy like John Stockton, I can tell you how
important it is to have another guy opponents have to be
concerned with," says Karl Malone. "It seems the best teams,
even going back to the last generation with the Lakers and
Celtics, have all had at least two real top guys."
How then to explain the Portland Trail Blazers' success? After
most of the country has long gone to bed, the Blazers have
quietly rolled to a 16-4 record through Sunday, second only to
Utah's 17-4. Yet had there been an All-Star Game this season,
Portland probably would have failed to send a representative for
the fifth straight year. The Blazers, in fact, have so little
star power that if the current TV schedule holds, they won't
appear on NBC until they begin postseason play. And forget about
role players with well-defined tasks: The duties on this team of
generalists are as vague as the term impeachable offense.
Portland's best pure passer is its center, ponderous Arvydas
Sabonis; power forward Rasheed Wallace often defends all three
frontcourt positions in the same game; and while almost every
Blazer has three-point range, there's no designated outside
shooter. "We're kind of weird that way," says swingman Jim
Jackson. "We don't really have hard-and-fast roles."
What Portland does have is unmatched depth and a roster that's
more versatile than a Swiss army knife. Sacramento Kings forward
Chris Webber is essentially right when he says the Trail Blazers
have "two starting lineups." Seven Portland players--Jackson,
Sabonis, Wallace, guards Isaiah Rider and Damon Stoudamire, and
forwards Brian Grant and Walt Williams--are averaging nine
points or more, and each had scored at least 21 in a game this
season. But forward Stacey Augmon, center Kelvin Cato and point
guard Greg Anthony also are in the regular rotation. "Hey, I'd
love to have two or three true superstars in their prime," says
Blazers president Bob Whitsitt. "Our strength is that we come at
you with different looks and different identities."
Every game presents a new battery of choices for coach Mike
Dunleavy, who, with playing time at a premium, has become a
clock-watcher a la Dilbert. He professes no formula for
dispensing minutes, other than to "ride who's going good"--and
that system can yield some bizarre results. On March 8, for
instance, Williams played 29 minutes as a starter in a 92-73 win
over the Vancouver Grizzlies. The next night, in a 103-98 defeat
of the Kings, he got only seven minutes of garbage time.
"There's a minutes crunch, but when a guy doesn't get in, it's
never anything personal and never anything consistent," says
Dunleavy. "If you don't get the minutes you want one night, you
can bet the next night will be different. You just have to check
your ego at the door."
Asking NBA players to sublimate their egos, of course, is like
asking Courtney Love to sublimate her narcissism, but the
Blazers are grudgingly making the supreme sacrifice. Take the
case of Jackson, who four years ago scored 25.7 points a
game--tops among guards--while with the Dallas Mavericks, and
now says he is happy averaging just 9.3. Or consider Wallace,
who willingly ceded his starting job to Grant earlier this
season. "I'm not going to lie and say that we don't all like
playing a lot, scoring and taking shots," says Stoudamire, who's
averaging a career-low 12.3 points, "but the bottom line is that
we cats want to win, and we're realizing that it has to be about
we, and not about I."
If so, they're in the right place to harbor such sentiments. In
this quirky city--town, really--of loggers and lagers, a pair of
new work boots passes for conspicuous consumption, while
membership in a food co-op is the ultimate status symbol.
Scattered about the Rose City are dozens of municipally owned
yellow bicycles that are free for anyone to ride. The user just
leaves one on the curb for the next person who needs it.
Staggeringly few bikes ever disappear. This sharing-is-caring
approach counts among its admirers Monica Lewinsky, who sagely
observes in Monica's Story: "Portland is a city where recycling
is more than just a big word."
The Blazers' socialist bent might blend with the local
zeitgeist, but part of their success is owed to raw capitalism.
After dropping out of Washington State in 1974, Paul Allen, and
a bookish buddy named Bill Gates, founded a small company called
Microsoft. Today Forbes puts Allen's net worth at $21 billion, a
fortune that has enabled him to do anything he wants: from
buying the Trail Blazers in 1988 to purchasing the NFL's
Seahawks in '97 to recently breaking ground for a Seattle museum
dedicated largely to Jimi Hendrix. If getting a ring means
lavishing a Mount Hood-sized $80 million contract for seven
years on a solid, if stolid, player like Wallace, well, there's
plenty more where that came from. "It's one reason we're
stacked," says Stoudamire, himself the beneficiary of a
seven-year, $81 million deal. "Paul's willing to pay top dollar."
Beyond the inordinately high wage scale, Allen's opulence has
also created a veritable workers' paradise. Players fly aboard
the league's most decadent team plane (witness its five-star
cuisine and the color TVs mounted on every armrest), and often
emerge from their sparkling practice center to find their
Humvees and Range Rovers washed and waxed. The Blazers' brass,
however, bristles at the suggestion that Allen's bottomless
pockets give Portland an unfair advantage. "We could be like
Rocky and put the guys in a sweaty gym with no lights and make
them hungry," says Whitsitt, who's also president of the
Seahawks, "but we do things first-class, and that's one way we
sell Portland to the players. We're not Los Angeles, we don't
have sunshine every day, we're not a big media market. So we
sell the community, the tradition and the way the organization
It was precisely those inducements that lured Grant, the
Blazers' most reliable player. After three years of hard time in
Sacramento, he turned down more money elsewhere to sign a
seven-year, $56 million contract with Portland before last
season. "I was looking for a solid organization, but one in a
city where I'd want to raise a family--and I found it here,"
says Grant, who lives in Tigard, a suburb, with his wife, Gina,
and three children. "I don't even mind the rain. It reminds me
of sitting in my grandma's house in the summertime and hearing
the rain beat against her tin roof."
Befitting a player who spent his summers during high school not
at a fancy hoops camp but cutting tobacco in rural Ohio for
$3.50 an hour, the 6'9" Grant is a plow horse whose average of
10.9 rebounds ranked fifth in the league through Sunday. Against
the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 20, he snatched 24 rebounds,
the most by a Blazer since Bill Walton had 26 in 1977-78. With
his Sideshow Bob dreads swaying to and fro, Grant has a
Rodman-like penchant for retrieving loose balls, and he scores
12.7 points a game, many of them on tip-ins. "It's got to be
embarrassing for other guys to see what Brian is doing," says
Portland assistant coach Bill Musselman. "A lot of players don't
see rebounding and hustle as ways to make it in this league, but
Brian is all about winning."
Otherwise mellow to the core, Grant fuels his intensity on the
court by swigging three cups of Starbucks--being it's the
Pacific Northwest and all--before every game. Now he has an
added source of motivation. Late last summer he made the
acquaintance of Blazers fanatic Dash Thomas, a 12-year-old
suffering from brain cancer. Though Dash lived an hour from
Portland, in the small town of Sublimity, Grant visited him
dozens of times during the lockout to play video games or
H-O-R-S-E. As Thomas's health deteriorated, Grant's visits
became more frequent, and after Dash died on Feb. 2, Grant
dedicated this season to his memory. "He was so mature for his
age, you'd never guess he was 12," says Grant, who adorns his
basketball shoes with Dash's name. "This is the first time I
ever had to watch a friend die, but I really think Dash was a
It's because of players like Grant and Stoudamire, a personable
Rose City native, that the Blazers are rekindling a warm and
fuzzy relationship with the community. The fans gorged
themselves on the team's success in the early 1990s when it went
to the Finals twice. Since then the Blazers have lost in the
first round of the playoffs for six straight seasons--often with
players whose only connection to the area was through local law
enforcement. But the public is starting to jump back onto the
bandwagon, and, bolstered by a 14% decrease in ticket prices at
the Rose Garden from last season, Blazermania is again a
Portland epidemic. "This team has a lot of personality off the
court," says Chad Watson, owner of a Vancouver, Wash., rental
company, who bought a $20 standing-room ticket for last Friday
night's 91-77 loss to the Jazz. "On the court they have lots of
threats and no weaknesses."
No glaring ones, perhaps, though an authentic team leader might
stem their propensity for mental lapses. Two of Portland's
losses have come at the hands of markedly inferior teams, the
Warriors and the Charlotte Hornets. In the defeat by Golden
State, the Blazers were leading by three in the waning seconds
when Rider inexplicably doubled down, leaving his man, Chris
Mills, wide open for a game-tying trey. In a critical juncture
against Utah, Wallace was ejected for arguing a call that was
wholly unobjectionable. "It's just brain lock," says Dunleavy.
Also, there have been a few minor insurgencies by the laboring
class. Rider, who has otherwise suppressed his inner sociopath
so far this season, did have a recent discussion with Dunleavy
over playing time that the coach concedes "was less cordial than
we would have liked." John Crotty, who backs up Stoudamire and
Anthony at point guard, unsuccessfully requested a trade before
last Thursday's deadline. Three years after he was drafted
straight out of high school, fan favorite Jermaine O'Neal
remains lost in the frontline logjam and will file for free
agency this summer. "I want to stay, but I also want to play,"
he says with a sigh of resignation. "We're just so deep."
That canyonlike depth, particularly given this shrink-wrapped,
four-games-a-week regular season, should help guard against
fatigue and injury. If one of the Blazers encounters misfortune,
a line forms to replace him. "With all the matchup problems we
can create, we think it's going to be tough for anyone to beat
us in a seven-game series," says Grant. "But the first thing we
need to do is prove that we can get out of the first round."
Yes, it might be premature to reserve one of those yellow bikes
for transport to the Blazers' victory parade. Even if, so far
this season, everything in egalitarian Portland is coming up
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBA PHOTOS COFFEE CLUTCH Tireless work on the boards has made the caffeine-swigging Grant a cornerstone of the frontcourt.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GIVE 'EM THE HOOK The 7'3" Sabonis is Portland's most gifted passer and, with 12.6 points a game, its third-leading scorer.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH DEALIN' DAMON His points may be at an alltime low, but Stoudamire directs an attack that's the third most prolific in the league.
The Blazers' socialist bent blends with the local zeitgeist, but
part of their success is owed to raw capitalism.