It’s a somber Friday in Portland after the Trail Blazers were ousted from the NBA Playoffs by the Phoenix Suns last night at the Rose Garden. The Suns essentially euthanized a Blazers seasons where 311 games were missed by starters due to injury.
If you’re at work right now, pretend 35 percent of your co-workers are sick at home. That’s what it was like being a member of the 2009-10 Trail Blazers team. This wasn’t meant to be a championship run. Heck, half the season looked like triage.
Starting forward Nicolas Batum missed the first 45 games of the season with a bum shoulder. Center Greg Oden — the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft — missed the final 61 games with a fractured patella. (Although he was still able to make an impact elsewhere this season.) Brandon Roy, the heart and soul of the franchise, missed a stint of games midway through the season with a hamstring pull and then suffered a partially torn meniscus just before the playoffs started.
Roy returned to the Blazers’ lineup in Game 4 just eight days removed from knee surgery. He was never able to perform at 100 percent, but I’ll be damned if a generation of Portland parents didn’t name their son Brandon or Roy. I haven’t seen such adoration by fans since Minnesotans went ga-ga over Kirby Puckett in the early 1990s.
Look, I’m still an Orlando Magic fan. And there’s probably a good chance you don’t care about the NBA. Pro sports often yield the same tired underdog stories, the cliché David vs. Goliath allusions. The Blazers were a little more like Million Dollar Baby: Against all odds, they fought through adversity and severe limitations and found success. But in the end, after so many limbs had been taken and they were stuck on life support, there was simply nothing that could be done.
(Bad analogy, perhaps, but the Blazers’ luck was so bad this season, head coach Nate McMillan suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon while scrimmaging in December. That would be the first part cut from a Hollywood script. Even team owner, Paul Allen, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma!)
You want to know what it’s like to go all-in on long odds with a short stack? Try being a Blazers fan. Because for all of their bad luck and the dozens of reasons they had to throw in the towel, this city stuck behind its team through torn tendons and ligaments, embarrassing penis photos, front office discrepancies and the unwatchable Steve Blake. Rip City did indeed rise up when the Blazers needed them.
I winced through last night’s game on Comcast SportsNet Northwest as play-by-play guy Mike Barrett and analyst Mike Rice constantly bragged about the Blazers fans. (Rice, during Game 5 in Phoenix, even took time to berate the Suns’ fans for leaving blowout games early.) I have never witnessed such clumsy, disgraceful hometown bias in professional sports and it was an insult to in-game broadcast.
However, writing this eulogy for the Blazers’ season this morning, I tend to agree with Barrett and Rice on this: The Blazers’ faithful may have seen an early exit coming, but it never once stopped them from believing this could be “the season.” That’s the whole point of being a sports fan, too. There’s no soul in rooting for the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Yankees or the Duke Blue Devils — programs and franchises who are expected to win.
The Blazers were lovable losers the whole season, even as they won a surprising number of games along the way. While this season will sting for a month or two, I’ve got no doubt Blazers fans will push all-in again next season, betting on the same long odds with everything they’ve got.
Just like a true sports fan.