Over just a few days, most of the Trail Blazers hit the trail.
When LaMarcus Aldridge, in the least surprising Portland development since rain in November, left for the San Antonio Spurs and the chance of a ring, four out of last season’s five starters had left the building, not to say the metropolitan area. Suddenly, most of the souvenir jerseys worn at the Rose Garden last year are as outdated as the term “Gov. Kitzhaber.”
Except, of course, for the diehards whose shirts read “Drexler.”
But wishing Aldridge farewell – and thanks – brings back feelings that go deeper than last February. Stirring as it was to see him pounding down the court last season with his three fellow departees, it’s not hard to call up the vision of Aldridge in other company.
In bannered images much larger than life-size – but seemingly no more than appropriate – Aldridge once loomed over the Rose Quarter in company with Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and the confident invitation, “Rise with us.”
And it seemed we all would. After all, they were the complete package: the dominant big man, the driving power forward, the sharp-shooting guard. Obviously we were entitled to think about a dynasty, about finally an end to celebrating the anniversaries of 1977, about the Blazers powerfully contending for a title years before we reached, say, 2015.
Instead, our future was literally cut off at the knees – first Oden’s, then Roy’s.
Being Portland, we continued to hope and believe, faithfully. Closets throughout Oregon still contain crumpled t-shirts reading “Oden ’08: Worth The Wait,” worn in the firm belief that Oden’s losing his rookie year to injury was just a passing blip in our glorious destiny. The Boston basketball writer Bill Simmons once wrote about Blazer fans’ response when Oden did play: “The best way to describe the crowd’s support for Oden: It’s like watching 15,000 parents rooting for their kid, only all 15,000 parents fathered the same kid.”
But as people keep discovering in other contexts, love is not always enough. Shortly afterwards, we discovered, agonizingly, that Brandon Roy – R-O-Y, Rookie Of the Year, All-Star, played his college ball just up the road in Seattle – had knees held together mostly by force of habit.
It turned out we would not be rising together.
Of course, being Portland, we diligently worked to love and believe in the new sets of Trail Blazers. Aldridge tried, too, until time started to run out.
Even around here, time runs differently for different people, in different ways of life. By legend, Oregon time runs slower than say New York or Los Angeles time, rolling gently forward like the Interstate Bridge at rush hour.
Last week, Phil Knight said he would retire as chairman of Nike, a position he’s held for about four decades, and even now he doesn’t seem to be actually going anywhere. Ron Wyden has represented Oregon in Congress since 1981, and likely will for the foreseeable future. Peter Courtney, looking like the permanent president of the Oregon Senate, first entered the legislature the same year, just before Ronald Reagan became president.
An athlete’s time runs much faster. In athlete’s time, 2008, when the rising of Oden, Roy and Aldridge was promised, was a thousand years ago. Oden and Roy have faded from our conversation – although Oden will come up as long as we’re discussing the Blazers’ unfortunate history with big men. By athletic actuarial tables, even Aldridge is now probably closer to the end of his career than to the shining, Portland-promising beginning of it.
Being Portland, we’re saddened by his leaving. When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami, when Robinson Cano left the New York Yankees for Seattle, local fans were furious. Here, it’s more like our feelings were hurt.
Portland doesn’t just want to cheer for the Blazers, it wants to love them, to have them love us back, to bring them home to dinner, to have them retire here and live happily ever after. It’s why the whole Jail Blazers period was so painful; it wasn’t just embarrassing, it was family members getting in with the wrong crowd.
Aldridge’s leaving, following the departures of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, definitively ends the most recent Trail Blazers episode. But it also blows away the last wisps of an earlier time, when Portland had a future built on three certain superstars, and the path just rose upward.
Aldridge’s decision ends a year, but it also brings back a moment.
Even though the moment never actually happened.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/12/15.