An Interview With Mike McLeod of “Fast Break”

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On Saturday in this space, I posted the film Fast Break, the wonderful and somewhat bizarre documentary following the 1977 Trail Blazers on their championship season. Curious to learn more about a film with so much apparent mystery despite depicting such a seminal moment in Trail Blazer history, I managed to track down Mike McLeod, who was the cinematographer and a producer on the film. Mike was kind of enough to chat with me, and in our conversation, he described the process of making the film, their guerrilla shooting style, the financial and creative troubles that delayed and minimized the release, as well as their unique access with Bill Walton, even accompanying him on a bike trip to Oceanside. If you haven’t yet seen the film yet, you can view it on YouTube here.

Audio of the interview is available here, or scroll down to read the transcript, slightly edited for flow.

 

JS: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I watched the film on Saturday and really liked it and immediately wanted to look up and see the story behind it and that’s how I tracked you down. I guess my first question for you would just be, how did the film come about?

MM: Well, it really came about because of Don Zavin, who as you understand is now deceased, long deceased. [He] was just really a fan of the Blazers and, you know, just had been bugging the Blazer organization to do something for a long, long time. And they hadn’t been paying much attention to him and he finally just decided to go ahead and document the team and the excitement of the season. I mean, the feeling about the Blazers was pretty intense around Portland at that time, so Zavin just took it upon himself to start filming.

From what I could find on the credits, it looked like you were listed as the co-director, co-producer, and the cinematographer? Is that correct?

Yeah, well I was brought aboard as the cinematographer and the, ‘slash’, producer, and things got a little sticky. In the end, once the footage had all been [gathered], there were some financial problems trying to pay the crew and everything like that. Basically we had to put a lock [on the film] for all the crew to get paid. We had to, basically, lock the film up. And so Zavin and an associate of his went out and raised the money and took the film back and paid everybody and went away for a year. So the film didn’t actually get edited for… oh, it was a year, year and half after it was shot before they sat down and were able to edit it.

It seems like at the time, it didn’t really get a huge response, even considering that it was a documentary following the team on the first championship – and only championship, as of now. So is that [the delay in releasing the film] related to why that [the lack of response] happened?

Well right, exactly. You know, there were the problems in getting the thing edited so it just sat. There was no momentum behind it. And Zavin, it was really sort of a tough situation for him. He had to first of all, mortgage his soul and that of his partner to get the film back so that they could work with it. And then it took a year to put it together. So I think all that time, they really just lost momentum. And there wasn’t any money at all to market it. So when it was finished, it was what it was. I think it played in a theater here in Portland. I remember, it played at some theater way out on the east side of Portland and I remember going out there and I think it was myself and a couple young kids that were the only people in the audience. And that’s the only time I saw it in 30 years was that one showing. There was no money at all to market and so it was just sort of, not an optimum situation.

Recently, it seems like it’s had a little bit of a revival. They showed it at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, the Clinton Street Theater—

Well you know, a writer, a guy who lives on the coast, his name is Matt Love – he wrote a book about the Blazers that came out about 2 years ago I guess. He resurrected the film. Somehow he got a CD made of it. Zavin’s wife works at the Northwest Film Study Center here in Portland. I think he contacted her and somehow he got a copy of it and had it made into a CD and released it with the book. That was the first time that I had heard that it even still existed. So he promoted it. And then this guy named Greg Hamilton, who’s sort of a local guy tied in with a couple theaters around town, he found it. And he’s a real Blazer fan. So over the last year and a half, he’s had a whole bunch of showings of it at a few theaters around town. So it’s really between those two guys. But it was Matt Love, who had heard the film had been made and went on a search and found it. So it’s really to Matt Love’s credit that it’s around.

Yeah, I mean I found it on YouTube of all places.

[laughter]

To get back to the production, when you were filming it, how did that go? What kind of access did you get through that season?

Well, you know, we never got official okay from the Blazers. It was one of those situations like you learn when you’re in the news business: if you have to ask permission, you might as well forget it. Sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission and get turned down. We just went ahead and shot whatever we could, made deals with the players and stuff like that. We would catch them, you know. At that point in time, that was back before basketball became a gazillion dollar industry. You could actually just show up at Blazer practices and hang around with the team and talk to the players and that sort of thing. And that’s what Zavin did. The Blazers just let it happen, [they] didn’t pay any attention. How he got so close to Walton, I’m a little unsure. Some of that had to do with Larry Colton, who was the writer who was writing a book that came out called Fast Break. You may have seen that.

Yeah, I did see that.

Yeah, that book really gives you a better idea of what the film was about. But anyway, Colton was hooked in with Walton. Somehow, he got hooked in with Walton and by hooking up with Colton and injecting Colton into the documentary, that brought Walton along. And Walton, you know who was famously hostile with the press, for some reason decided that in a few instances, he just let us come along. In those days, there weren’t huge crews or anything – just a sound guy and a camera guy and Zavin. And he [Walton] was very accommodating in a few occasions. And of course, bringing Colton along, it was killing two birds with one stone. Colton got material for the book, we got material for the film, and so it worked out for everybody.

Yeah, I mean the Walton footage I think is some of the best in the whole film: the stuff on the bike, the stuff when he’s sitting by the lake and giving his philosophy on things, or the scenes from the basketball camp. How much Walton footage did you have by the end of it?

We had quite a bit of Walton footage. Yeah, definitely, he was far and away the most developed character, which I thought was great because obviously he was the world famous guy, you know? But a lot of it that we shot didn’t get incorporated in the film. I always felt that was kind of a shame because I know what was shot and I know what’s in the film. And a lot of stuff that was shot that was very cool is just not there. And for whatever reason, that just was kind of a shock to me to see what was missing.

What kind of stories did you shoot that you wish had made it in?

There’s an amazing thing to be said, to be depicted, about black ballplayers and white fans, that whole thing – especially in Portland, a very white city. You had these giant black guys who were very famous and there’s just sort of this undercurrent with the interaction with fans and that whole thing. There was a lot that could have been developed around that, knowing what footage was shot, but it wasn’t. Maybe Don didn’t want to get into anything too overtly political, I don’t know. But it just wasn’t developed. I think he just decided that he would go with Walton, who was obviously the star, so that’s where he put his emphasis.

The film could have benefited a voiceover or something, more use of Colton. Develop Colton as a narrator because there was just a lot that wasn’t said. It ended up being kind of an existential ‘70s movie, you know? [laughter] Where you kind of just had to sit back and just watch it. [laughter]

Yeah it definitely has like a psychedelic kind of feel between the music and some of the shots, especially the stuff of Walton and even some of the shots of Maurice Lucas. Without the narrator, I guess you could kind of take it your own way.

Yeah.

So were you on the bike trip with Walton?

Yeah I shot it.

What was that like?

Well it was pretty cool. It was pretty funny with the interplay between him and Colton always trying to catch up. Walton being so famous, and as the film depicts, showing people being awed when they realized who he was and that sort of thing. It was just a very special few days.

Yeah I bet. So how much stuff did you get through the year? Did you follow the team the entire regular season and playoffs, or did you show up for certain points that you knew would be important?

I really can’t remember much of that. I think we started really pretty late in the season. It escapes me. I would have to look at the film again to get my bearings but I think we started pretty late. It was pretty intense. It wasn’t like the filming was all strung out. We were trying to grab people when we could and everything was on the fly. We didn’t have a lot of resources so we didn’t have a lot of time with a lot of people. Actually, as it turned out, we had probably more time with Walton than with anybody else, which is surprising.

One of my favorite shots from the film was when, I forget who the two players were, but they were sitting in their hotel room, watching a commercial for Hilton. It was just kind of funny to see them in this cramped hotel room looking at this commercial, dreaming about the nice Hilton Rewards.

[laughter] I remember we sent a camera crew with the team down to L.A. We got a camera guy who was like 6 foot 6 and we put him on platform heels. Because you put the camera on your shoulder, and you know I’m an average size guy, and so whenever I’m shooting these guys, you’re looking up their noses. So we thought, let’s just get this giant guy if we can. We did that on that trip, I remember. We did some funny things like that just to get more eye level with these guys. But I think that footage [the footage of the two players watching the commercial in their hotel room] was shot by that other cameraman we hired.

At the time, sports documentaries weren’t quite as rampant as they are now, like the 30 for 30 series. You had like NFL Films [back then] I guess, but did you have a lot of references for the style that you wanted to go for? Or was it just, get as much footage as you can?

At that point, it [documentary filmmaking] wasn’t a stylized vehicle. It was basically cinema-verite, you know? Get what you can. This was before video. Film was very expensive, cameras were very expensive, there weren’t a lot of people shooting. The major thing in that project was just get as much as you can. I had a vision in my mind of how I thought the documentary might come together as you’re shooting it and so you tend to shoot a certain way. You form it in the camera. That’s the nature of that kind of filming. But in the end, when we had the financial problems and I had to step completely away from it and just wait for whatever Zavin did a year, a year and half later, it became a vehicle that my point of view in terms of how I approached the shooting didn’t match Zavin’s vision of whatever his vision was. And I didn’t have any input at all. So what you see is a film that was shot with sort of a style in mind and a final edit that didn’t really match that. But in those days, documentary filmmaking was what it was. Today, a lot of documentaries aren’t documentaries. They’re tightly scripted and you know exactly what you’re going for. And if you got the resources, you’re working for a cable channel or something like that, you have a lot of time to think things through beforehand and pick and choose your opportunities to shoot, when and where, how long, and how big a crew, and what kind of fancy stuff you can bring along to make everything look good. Back in those days, we didn’t have any of that stuff [laughter]. Especially we were doing it on the sly. What we did spend some money on was a good Aeroflex camera and some good lenses. We did spend some money on that, but that’s about as far as it went.

Although watching it now, the style of the film almost fits with what we think of as NBA basketball back then and how it was rougher around the edges—

Oh yeah, exactly. Right, exactly. Basketball, then and now, are completely different animals. That era’s gone. That was before players were making millions of dollars, you know?

For sure, that was back when they could go on cycling trips to Oceanside and nobody would really be following them.

[laughter] Yeah, right.

So in your career since then, it looks like you’ve done a lot with nature photography especially, and I saw you won a Peabody Award and some other things. You’ve had a lot of success but do you wish Fast Break would have taken off a bit more than it did?

Well, yeah. I do, but I had no control over it, so it is what it is. Can’t cry over spilled beans. It would have been nice. It was interesting, I think that exactly at the time Fast Break came out, a feature film came out called Fast Break. I don’t know if that had any bearing on it because of confusion. But as I say, this was produced up in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t a Hollywood release and there wasn’t any money to market it. The nature of the film was—I think if you were a sports fan, you could really enjoy it, but as far as an all around watchable movie, I’m not sure it was that watchable.

So what kind of stuff do you do now?

Well I’ve been writing the last couple years so I haven’t been doing any production at all. The last production I did was 10 years ago. I’ve done a lot of documentaries, a lot of political-themed documentaries. I worked for a series called Frontline for 10 years. I’ve done a lot of investigative stuff, not all sports stuff. In fact, most of it is investigative documentaries.

My last question is just what is your favorite story or anecdote from making the film and being around the team during that year?

My favorite? Well, one of my best friends died on that production and so that whole thing – Walton was also there when that happened – was pretty emotional. The first part of the book, Fast Break, details what happened pretty explicitly. I always think of the film in that regard and that was a real tragedy. But as far as the enjoyable parts, I would have to say that the bike trip with Walton was pretty cool. It was fun to shoot. Walton, the famous guy, was giving us access, which I thought was pretty special because the country was pretty rabidly pro-Walton at that time. He was arguably the most famous athlete on the planet at that moment and we had a couple gorgeous days at the coast to shoot with him. And that was really, really enjoyable. So it’s those two aspects of the film, that are what I remember.

Vojvoda Od Nosa Berba

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Sunday, Croatian basketball club KK Cedevita announced their acquisition of former Trail Blazer guard Nolan Smith under the headline, “Potpisao novi playmaker,” which translates to “Signed a new playmaker.” Blazer fans may question the accuracy of “playmaker” in reference to Smith, who’s limited skills brought him equally limited minutes in his two seasons in Portland, even as the team did everything short of holding fan tryouts for bench contributors. But the Blazers have been Potpisao-ing enough new playmakers this offseason with draft pick C. J. McCollum, free agents Mo Williams and Earl Watson, and developing them internally with Will Barton, that no evil eyes should gaze in the direction of Smith, despite the quick failure of the Blazers’ 21st overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft, picked one spot ahead of Kenneth Faried. Sam Bowie he is not, even if he once humble-brag-ily referred to himself as such. The Blazers have their shiny new bench unit and it was just that time for the former Duke Blue Devil to make like the 11th-Century Hungarian King Ladislaus I, and build a new empire in Zagreb.

Upon his arrival on the banks of the Sava River, Smith will join a Cedevita squad excited to add him for his talents in areas other than video-bombing. In the same article on the team website announcing the acquisition, the writer calls Smith (translated from Croatian with Google Translate), “a brilliant, educated playmaker who should be a big boost Cedevita (sic) in the new season.” Apparently, the academic reputation of Duke University spans more of the globe than the less kind perception of “dookies” in the United States. As for the noted “big boost,” the depth chart on KK Cedevita’s Wikipedia page already lists Smith as the starting point guard of a roster currently featuring only one other American, former Ohio Bobcat forward of Croatian descent, Ivo Baltic (Croatian citizen and former Michigan State Spartan, Goran Suton is a backup center). But in addition to the earlier advice to avoid evil eyes, do not think either that Smith has been exiled from the warm glow of the Association to some eastern bloc backwater.

Croatian basketball, and the club KK Cedevita, has a rich culture of its own and connections that far outstretch the country’s limited borders. The God from New York City, God Shammgod, played for Cedevita in 2008 and his legendary signature crossover move, referred to as a “Shammgod,” is believed by some Internet-goers to have been independently created first by former Croatian swingman Danko “El Yeti” Cvjeticanin back in the early 1980s. Also of note, El Yeti’s son Filip was a sophomore forward on last year’s Florida Gulf Coast “Dunk City” team that exploded into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, the god of Zagreb and Croatian basketball in general has long been the late Portland Trail Blazer star, Drazen Petrovic. The arena that the two larger clubs in Zagreb (Zagreb and Petrovic’s former Cibona) call home is named the Drazen Petrovic Basketball Hall (which, by the way, would have been an infinitely cooler choice for the Blazers’ arena than the “Moda Center”), and in 2011, a Cedevita squad led by former Indiana Hoosier Bracey Wright won the Drazen Petrovic Cup, a one-game competition between the Croatian league winner and the Croatian domestic cup winner (like a Super Cup or the Community Shield, for you soccer heads). The prior season, Cedevita was even coached by Drazen’s brother Aleksandar, who earned the 2010-2011 Eurocup Coach of the Year honors.

For a player with limited ability by NBA standards, a basketball-mad country like Croatia can offer Smith a level of competition low enough to succeed, but with enough of a challenge to force improvement in his areas of weakness. He can build a career there or he can head elsewhere in Europe or he can try to eventually find his way back to the Association. It is a small world, after all. Word to the God and El Yeti.

Saturday Matinee: Fast Break

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This is not the 1979 comedy of the same name starring Gabe Kaplan and Bernard King, but a 1978 documentary following the 1977 Trail Blazers on their championship run. Featuring wonderful and extensive behind-the-scenes footage, the film is wildly dated but in the best way. See a young Maurice Lucas vibing in an inner tube, Bill Walton biking through the country, and enjoy the phenomenal music throughout.

Octopus, D-Miles, and a 25-year Spending Report

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Paul Allen has an estimated net worth of $15 billion. He has a 414-foot yacht, Octopus (in addition to its slightly smaller sister, Tatoosh), featuring two helicopters, two submarines, a 63-foot tender, 6 smaller tenders, a Jet Ski dock, a music studio, a swimming pool, and a basketball court. He co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and still owns a reported 138 million shares of stock. As an investor, he helmed the online growth of Ticketmaster and solely funded continued efforts towards suborbital commercial space flight as well as the first privately funded orbital launch system, Stratolaunch Systems. Through his company, Vulcan Inc., Allen renovated an entire wing of Seattle from an overlooked post-industrial neighborhood into a pricey – some might say soulless – Whole Foods-friendly haven of high-end apartments and Tom Douglas restaurants that now boasts Amazon’s headquarters and currently aims to become a world-renown center of biotechnology (interestingly, Allen was also a key supporter and financier of a movement in the early 1990s to turn much of the same South Lake Union area into a green space in the style of Central Park called the Seattle Commons until the proposal was rejected by the Seattle City council in 1995 and 1996). He owns an NFL franchise expected to seriously contend for a Super Bowl this year and holds a minority in stake in one of the country’s premier soccer franchises that recently acquired American star and noted rapper Clint Dempsey from the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, and he also controls the stadium that both franchises call home. Oh yeah, and he has that humble little basketball team in Portland that maybe you’ve heard of. So if he can do all that other stuff, why aren’t the Blazers better?

Earlier this summer, Allen celebrated the 25th anniversary of his purchase of the Trail Blazers all the way back on June 1st, 1988, and throughout those 25 years, his immense wealth has continuously spurred debate among Portland fans about how Allen should best spend his money to build a sustained championship contender. Ignore, for now, the inherent absurdity of people with mere Internet connections and Microsoft Word (like me!) discussing the merits of differing potential financial decisions by a self-made billionaire responsible in many ways for the current landscape of said Internet and Microsoft Word. As fans, we expect that if $15 billion can buy two of the world’s largest yachts, redefine a large sector of a major city, and luxuriously dabble in space flight, then assembling a collection of basketball talent should require approximately the same amount of financial difficulty as flipping the valet an extra hundo to make sure the Porsche 959 gets prime placement in front of El Gaucho. But maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question. Can it even be assumed that vast sums of money provide a clear competitive advantage within the structure of the NBA? Is success as easy as just knowing which checks to write and having the heavy bank accounts to back them up? Examining Allen’s spending history with the Blazers seems as good a place to find these answers as any. For all of his faults, no one can say Allen hasn’t been a passionate, attentive, and intelligent owner willing to spend plenty cash.

In those early years from ’88 until the mid-1990s, Allen looked almost like an early beta-version of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. A youngish billionaire and devoted fan, Allen became an instant fixture at the old Memorial Coliseum, exuberantly cheering on the team from his courtside throne. Yet as a team builder, Allen appears relatively most hands-off during this Bust-a-Bucket era of Rip City. The roster he inherited from prior owner Larry Weinberg already included Clyde Drexler, Kevin Duckworth, Terry Porter, and he of the lovely singing voice, Jerome Kersey. While the Blazers actually struggled in the first year under Allen, finishing under .500, the team (as you probably know or remember…) made the NBA Finals in two of the next three seasons. In doing so, the only players added under Allen who became key to those Finals campaigns were Buck Williams (traded from the Nets for Sam Bowie! in 1989), “Uncle” Cliff Robinson (2nd round draft pick in 1989), the late Drazen Petrovic (brought over from his native Croatia in 1989), and Danny Ainge (traded from the Kings in 1991 for Byron Irvin, a 1st round pick that became Pete Chilcutt, and an advance copy of OG Microsoft Encarta). Hence, the most consistently successful period in the billionaire’s history as owner resulted from very little spending and almost entirely, and certainly ironically, from inheritance.

After the two Finals defeats, and possibly in response to the disappointment from them, the Blazers entered the next period of the Allen ownership when the Wazzu dropout really started to flex his stacks. His first act of Ca$hin Out was to replace the cozy but charming Memorial Coliseum with the modern Rose Garden. Funded almost entirely by Allen and his companies, construction on the new arena began in 1993 and finished for it’s opening in 1995, and apart from that brief, bizarre mess of holding company bankruptcy and other dumb financial hullabaloo in the mid-2000s that need not be rehashed, the Rose Garden has been Allen’s personal monument, from his apartment and helipad on the roof all the way down to the years of sponsor-less name (which just ended, obviously). The pharaohs had the pyramids, Allen has his arena, and maybe it’s somehow relevant to the metaphor that the pyramids were both monuments and tombs.

While the arena marked the start of Allen’s philosophical shift from the fan who oh-by-the-way is a multi-billionaire to the empire-building Vulcan we know (and love?) today, he furthered the transition with greater involvement and increased financial commitment in the construction of the roster. When the second act of Allen’s ownership hit its zenith on June 4th, 2000, in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, coming within 12 minutes of a nearly assured NBA championship, the payroll had ballooned to a staggering $73 million. For reference, the salary cap that season was $34,000,000, with the champion Lakers’ payroll in 2000 coming in at just around $55 million. For further reference, even the luxury tax level for the upcoming season (2013-2014) is “only” $70,307,000. Accounting for inflation, $73 million in 2000 would be worth about $96 million in 2012, and only last year’s Lakers at $99 million had a payroll even close to that level this past season. I’m not sure that you realize how crazy this. Also in contrast to the mainly homegrown ’91 and ’93 Finals teams, only one player on the ’99-‘00 roster, Jermaine O’Neal, was acquired through the draft. The rest came via blockbuster trades (Scottie Pippen, Damon Stoudamire, Steve Smith), not a “blockbuster” per se but still a trade worth seeing in theaters (Rasheed Wallace), a straight to Blu-Ray trade (Bonzi Wells), free agency (Brian Grant, Detlef Schrempf, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Joe Kleine, Antonio Harvey, John Crotty, Gary Grant), and Sabonis (Sabonis). Despite how wildly impractical and ill-conceived this era looks in hindsight, if anyone other than Sheed (30 points on 50% FG shooting) had stepped up in that fateful Game 7, Allen would be hailed as an owner willing to do whatever it took to bring a championship to Portland, GM Bob Whitsitt would be remembered as the shrewd architect who assembled the right talent to best the Shaq & Kobe Lakers, and Bonzi Wells’s number 6 jersey would be hanging right up there next to Dave Twardzik’s 13.

Of course, as lavish parties often do, the whole thing went on a bit too long until finally imploding in a Jail Blaze of infamy. Trader Bob lived long enough to see himself become the villain as Allen invested resources in the more volatile markets of Shawn Kemp, Zach Randolph, convicted rapist Ruben Patterson, and the immortal Darius Miles. As a middle-schooler who worshipped Miles and his fellow “Antennas Up” wunderkinds on those fun Clippers teams to the extent that I once saved allowance (or drugged my Mom, more likely) to buy $95 authentic Clippers road shorts, I still can’t quite believe that it was the same Darius Miles who led us on the guided tour to rock bottom. In a few years, Miles managed to berate coach Maurice Cheeks with a string of racial epithets during a film session, get suspended for doing so, get secretly paid by Allen while on unpaid suspension for doing so in a scandal uncovered by the Oregonian’s John Canzano (boosting Canzano’s meteoric rise as voice for a generation of Portland-area contrarian curmudgeons), while also missing two seasons due to micro-fracture knee surgery, violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and leading to countless “I saw Darius Miles at [fill-in-random-location-in-Portland] and he looked [fill-in-some-descriptor-of-not-in-condition-to-play-NBA-basketball-or-operate-heavy-machinery]…” stories. In early 2006, when fan interest and ticket sales hit historic lows, a representative from Vulcan Capital said that the “economic model is broken,” that the team stood to lose around $100 million over the next three years and that “all options are on the table.” Many took the vagueness of that comment, and others, to infer that the team might leave Portland – presumably to Allen’s home Seattle should the Supersonics leave as expected (and as they ultimately did). Due to how terribly everything ended, most fans now choose to black this entire period out of their memories, but evaluating the overall strategy of this era is slightly trickier than it may seem. The excessive spending arguably brought the franchise the closest to a championship since 1977 (that argument, briefly: the Blazers lost 4-1 in the ’90 Finals, ’93 was Michael Jordan starring as Michael Jordan, and the 2000 Eastern Conference was terrible), although it did also come frighteningly close to ending professional basketball in Portland…SO THERE’S THAT.

In keeping with the theme of reactionary strategy shifts, Act III of Allen’s reign appeared to respond to the poor player choices and inflated payrolls of the past by emphasizing more careful talent evaluation – with the promotion of Kevin Pritchard into the GM role – and using Allen’s money not to overpay for free agents but to horde cheap young assets. The quick success of the ‘06 draft class with LaMarcus Aldridge, and especially Brandon Roy, immediately canonized Pritchard in the eyes of fans. But it was Allen’s more focused spending that allowed Pritchard to literally purchase those extra 2nd round draft picks from cash-poor or just plain stingy teams and use those picks to build the back-stock of potential talent stashed on the bench and overseas, effectively tipping the odds of finding 2nd round contributors in the Blazers’ favor. Using this strategy of volume shooting the bottom of the draft paired with careful evaluation and aggressively hitting specific targets at the top of the draft, the team reaped the likes Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless, Dante Cunningham, Jeff Pendergraph, and Paddy Mills (yes, I’m including Pat Stacks here), as well as signing a few discount free agent veterans, to supplement those aforementioned stars. A little luck in winning the 2007 Draft Lottery didn’t appear – at the time – to hurt much either. But though fans and media-types tend to laud the strategy of this era as supremely intelligent, and the team still seems to use many of the same tactics today, it’s also been the least successful length of time in Allen’s tenure. I don’t mean to say that the disastrous injuries to Roy and Greg Oden are somehow the fault of the ownership strategy. Yet in the interests of rating outcomes in this fake science, it does seem notable for comparison’s sake that the smart, celebrated strategy promised an imminent dynasty, but delivered only two first round exits.

Looking back through history, it’s fascinating to see that for all the stock put in the perception of “plans,” “strategies,” “road-maps,” etc., all it takes is a few bits of luck to turn genius to scapegoat or insanity into vision. But such is life and now we arrive at the present, after another season out of the playoffs and still wondering about the future of the roster and the best route to construct it. Where will it go from here? While Allen hasn’t yet exhausted the possibilities of mega-billionaire-dom, he has explored the main trilogy of detached fandom, fearless spending, and careful long-term investing, all with mixed results. Maybe the next phase won’t focus on spending at all, but on extracting value from every possible source. The employee layoffs and the Moda Center nonsense, while not at all popular with fans for obvious reasons, could represent a sort of cultural shift within the organization towards cold efficiency and away from relying upon the comfort that Allen’s money has always provided. Certainly, the recent 1st round picks of “NBA-ready,” 4-year college players Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum (I don’t know what to make of Meyers Leonard), the influential position of analytics guru Ben “Wiz” Falk within the franchise, and the way the team eschewed big-money free agents this offseason to fill out the bench with bargain players, all point to the overall priority of low-risk decisions with clear value. If the strategy works, maybe the secret to success for billionaire owners will prove to be a Zen lesson in forgetting that they’re billionaires at all, acting instead with a survivalist’s focus on detail and leaving nothing to waste. And if it doesn’t work, Allen has the deep pockets to always fall back on the “needle-moving” Brooklyn Nets’ strategy of recklessly spending unreal amounts of money with no regard for any kind of economic sustainability. After all, that seems to work in soccer to bring premier talent to smallish northern cities known for grimy bars and dreary weather, and instantly transform a mid-table also-ran into an international juggernaut. Come to think of it, maybe we should just wait until basketball becomes cool in Dubai.

It was a garden of roses

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Tuesday, Trail Blazers President Chris McGowan announced at a press conference that the Rose Garden arena would henceforth – or at least for the next ten years – be named the Moda Center, after a local health care company that provides services to Oregon, Washington and Alaska, and will pay reportedly in the ballpark of $4 million per year – or the combined yearly salaries of Victor Claver and Joel Freeland – for the name. McGowan has made clear his priority to sell the arena’s naming rights, most recently in an interview a few weeks ago with the Oregonian’s Mike Tokito, so the news of the sale should come as little surprise, even if the sponsor itself will strike many as somewhat of a shock. The new name marks the first time in the arena’s 18-year history — and 43-year history of the franchise if including the Veterans Memorial Coliseum — that the Blazers have sold the name to their home. Allow me to join what looks like the majority and say that the imminent reality of the team playing in the “Moda Center” sorta sucks.

Lamenting the ongoing corporatization of sports – or “sport”, in the interest of sounding more genteel and intellectual – can very easily head down a dangerous road of nostalgic romanticism that ends with Bob Costas waxing poetic about how Stan Musial used to play the game for Cracker Jacks and smiles, so I’ll do my best to keep this brief-ish. It’s 2013 and with the amount of money invested in professional athletics and being produced each season in revenues, even those who fetishize the purity of the game like Costas (and me!) would admit that corporate-sponsored stadium names and even the not yet realized future of corporate-sponsored jerseys in American sports are ultimately inevitable barring some major collapse of the economic system. But having such a realist’s awareness of the environment doesn’t make it any less disappointing in that moment when marketing strategies and “corporate partnerships” finally conquer something as plainly communal, and often mythologized, as what we call our basketball gymnasium.

A point of pride for many fans, the Rose Garden had been one of the last holdouts from sponsorship, joining the Pistons’ Palace at Auburn Hills and the Knicks’ Madison Square Garden in that distinction. While a sponsored name on the door won’t effect the product on the court or affect the (already plenty sponsored) in-game fan experience, those other two arenas should exemplify the intangible quality lost when a corporation’s name supplants the civic name. The Garden is of course the accepted “Mecca of Basketball” as its age (45 years old) and relevance within New York City have elevated its global prestige beyond that of nearly any arena sponsor. In fact, it is its own sponsor in a way, property of the publicly traded Madison Square Garden Company that also owns the Knicks, the NHL’s New York Rangers, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, a few other teams and theaters, as well as its cable television division.

However, The Palace at Auburn Hills may be a more fitting example to the Rose Garden. The Palace opened in 1988, only 7 years before the Rose Garden, and its first season also saw the Pistons’ first of their three NBA championships. Yet despite its championships and role as host for the famous “Malice at the Palace” brawl (a fantastic name by the way that would not have been possible if it happened in, say, the American Airlines Arena), the perception of The Palace among fans across the league would likely not feel so particularly “Detroit” – think of their famous PA guy introducing “CHAUNC-eeeeyyyyy b-b-b-b-BILLUPS!” – if it were called the OnStar Center. The Rose Garden may not have had the history of The Garden or even The Palace, but its uniquely clean name was another welcome signifier of the unique relationship that Portland has with its basketball team.

Now that I’ve established why it sucks, could there be any ways that it doesn’t suck? The cynics, who probably saw the lack of a sponsor before as another example of Paul Allen’s tyrannical domination over all facets of Blazerdom, can see the sale as a loosening of Allen’s 25-year Vulcan grip. Given Allen’s admissions in the past of his personal connection to both the arena and the Rose Garden name in particular, and $4 million being probably around what Allen paid Usher to come out to the yacht to jam on some Johnny Cash covers (note: this really happened), it could appear to be the beginning of Allen’s withdrawal, at least in the sense of his seeming propensity to micromanage every aspect of the franchise.

More immediately though, the sponsorship – as McGowan mentioned in the presser – will hope to key some revitalization of the Rose Quarter, an area that can’t at this point become any less “vitalized”. To be honest, I’m not even sure what’s left in the Rose Quarter anymore. My last experience there apart from quickly walking through it to and from the arena was a time I went to Cucina Cucina! sometime in the Mike Dunleavy era and I’m pretty sure that my mom or dad (or both?) got sick off some clam pasta. The ideal model for such revitalization is clearly the wildly successful L.A. Live district surrounding the Staples Center. However, the Staples Center has two NBA teams, an NHL team, great weather year round, and is located in an otherwise bleak area at the heart of one of the world’s major cities, whereas the Rose Garden has only one team that plays mainly in a dark, rainy part of the year in a much smaller city that boasts great, affordable restaurants and bars within a short drive, or walk, or bike ride (if you want to get real Portland-y with it). 

Hopefully, the fancy new corporate partnership brings new money and new restaurants and new nearby places to drink in new celebration of new things to celebrate. Hopefully, a new name won’t start to wash away some the unique identity of Portland and its basketball team, or worse, process and repackage that identity to sell it back to us through “locally-sourced” overpriced theme restaurants. Whatever happens, I’ll be the one telling his future grandkids about how Brandon Roy used to play the game for Cracker Jacks and smiles and I’ll definitely still call it the Rose Garden. At least until some new suits buy the name and then I’ll stubbornly refuse to call it anything else than the Moda Center.

What’s in a number?

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Sorry, I can’t talk about Brandon Roy without getting all hyperbolic and misty-eyed. I believe that Roy was the greatest Trail Blazer of all-time – as far as what he means to the city and his positive impact on the franchise – and while that assertion may seem premature or overly sentimental or statistically indefensible, that’s sort of the point, I think. Let the “experts” and pundits and Skip Bayless feign objective detachment with their blown smoke of statistical measures and arbitrary criteria for greatness. A fan’s attachment is a pure and undeniably addictive emotional experience that can swing as quickly as a team wins and loses, as a player succeeds and fails. 

What separates certain players and teams as great is their ability to conjure a sustained emotion in a fan that transcends the fleeting feeling about whatever happened in the game last night. To recognize the unique power of those particular emotions and to hopefully immortalize them, we have halls of fame and retired jerseys, and its even why championship trophies matter as much as they do (had the 1977 squad lost that Finals series, they still would have exemplified a triumph of unselfish and beautiful basketball, and they still would have been remembered fondly by those who were there, but the lasting mythology would not exist).

Archaeologists say that the buildings of the ancient Greeks and Romans were often painted with bright colors, but the passing of time has eroded the color along with much of the building and left only the bleached white marble pillars that remain today. Similarly, history tends to fade a player’s emotional impact until a career is reduced to just some lines of numbers in the almanacs and the dwindling memories of a few old-timers spinning yarns on barstools – unless, that is, the player is immortalized with a hall of fame induction or a retired jersey. A player may treat it like laundry but to fans, a certain jersey number can become a cherished relic, and preserving it is to preserve a moment in the fans’ own history. 

I know this all sounds wistful and hopelessly romantic and whatever, but without sentimentality, we’re all just a bunch of dispassionate lumps spending too much time and money to watch basketball. Or we’re Laker fans, which is the same thing. So yeah, what I’m trying to say in all this long-winded nonsense is that Brandon Roy the basketball player means a lot more to me – and to most fans, I hope – than his disappointingly brief, injury-plagued career with a couple of first round playoff exits. While Sweet Mo Williams has every right to wear whatever number he wants (so long as its not one of the ten already retired) and even has a nice story about his kid pointing out the seven members of the Williams family, I fear that every year that passes with a new player donning the number 7, the memory of Roy’s greatness erodes a little more.

Forget the arbitrary objective measures, Brandon Roy deserves to have his number retired only if we, as fans, decide that his importance to the franchise deserves such lasting recognition. Moving on from the past doesn’t always mean burying it.

A Perfect Night to Dress Up Like Hipsters

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In Madagascar, people say that love is like seaweed: you go to her, she leaves you, you leave her, and she follows you. In the Association too, it seems, love can be as fickle as Malagasy seaweed. A player might at first look like The One with whom to share the great banner that will hang in the rafters forever. But what feels like only a moment later, he’ll flee to the glamorous shine of the South Florida sun and leave you to pick up the pieces of torn knee ligaments and discarded secret handshakes amid the empty arena seats. Here’s to new beginnings.

As the Trail Blazers off-season entered its jilted lover phase with Greg Oden’s move to Miami, Portland fans found themselves in a precarious emotional spot between wishing for the health and happiness of their former son in his new home, and more quietly and guiltily harboring hopes for Oden’s further demise so as to prevent further pain for themselves. On Thursday though, the Trail Blazers introduce their newest signing, Mo Williams, who if nothing else, should bond with Blazer fans over similar feelings of heartbreak. Sweet Mo – as I’ve just decided to nickname him – once spoke about retiring early from basketball at age 27 after LeBron James famously took his talents to South Beach in 2010 and left Williams, whose talents were still contractually obligated to Lake Erie, to find new meaning in the Taylor Swift catalog and shoot 26.5% from 3-point range before a well-needed mid-season move to the Clippers. After a year and half on that other side of the Staples Center, Mo spent last year in Utah, averaging 12.9 points in 30.8 minutes per game for the Jazz but still trying to find the special part of him that LeBron nurtured before he destroyed it along with Williams’s heart and everything else.

After signing a reported 2-year (the second year is reportedly a player’s option), $5.6 million contract using the Blazers’ available midlevel exception (trying to write out contract info is the least fun part of this gig), Sweet Mo’s place within the Blazers’ style of play seems clear, even if his place within the rotation does not. The Columbian’s Candace Buckner tweeted that Portland GM Neil Olshey had been in touch with Williams since the NBA’s free agency period opened on July 1st, a revelation that does not come as much of a shock given the current roster motif of undersized, 3-point shooting combo players. Running a unit of Damian Lillard, C. J. McCollum, Sweet Mo, Wessy Wes Matthews, and Dorrell Wright would surely excite the fans who lack common sense but dig on Napoleonic complexes gone wild and the proliferation of long-range bombing (I see you, late Kim Jong-il!) (Although…Wright isn’t a terrible defender against bigs and Matthews has a stout base to handle duties in the post and let’s just move on before I talk myself into this). More likely though, Sweet Mo’s clock will come in the third guard role, the first man off the bench to spell either Lillard or Matthews. The Oregonian’s Mike Tokito reported that Williams’s agent said Williams would be the Sixth Man for the Blazers but that might be a little Jerry Maguire gift of gab. The Thomas Robinson apostles, the Dorrell Wright supporters, even the resilient cult of Meyers Leonard and the struggling Victor Claver carpool probably have something to say in that regard (as staunch member of the Will Barton Movement, I omit him from this group because Sixth Man is not aspirational enough for a revolutionary).

The obvious minutes casualty here is rookie guard and 10th overall pick, C. J. McCollum. But given McCollum’s injury sabbatical last season in college, along with his defensive and playmaking inconsistencies in Las Vegas Summer League, some insurance in that department couldn’t hurt, especially if the alternative means Earl Watson dusting off those elderly legs and asking coach Terry Stotts which team Dolph Schayes is playing for nowadays. As it stands now, Watson looks to be spending the majority of his 82 games on his Suit & Tie like the other rulers of the ‘90s. Anyway, don’t be surprised to see McCollum slowly assume the 3rd guard role from Williams over the course of the season if the rookie’s development continues to progress.

All of it though, will depend on which edition of Mo Williams reports for duty. For that short time riding in the right hand of LeBron, Sweet Mo was an elite shooter, hitting at about 43% from beyond the arc. Then in LeBron’s absence, he quickly became an emotionally fragile punch line, or a Drake rap ballad, which is the same thing. Yet for most of Sweet Mo’s career, he’s been an above average (37ish%) 3-point shooter with a steadily double-digit per game scoring average, only averaging less than 10 PPG for one season (his rookie season) in his entire career. As the last addition of the Blazers’ offseason drive towards a stronger bench unit, Sweet Mo’s reliable production and veteran experience could be the final piece to the playoff puzzle. Don’t look now but the Blazers are looking mighty deep, and like they also say in Madagascar: cross in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.

 

One last note because it seems fitting in the earlier Oden context: Nowhere does the heartbreak and moving on from Oden feel stronger to me than in the dancing pudgy old dude who regularly appears on the Jumbotron during 4th quarter timeouts, finally retiring his Oden replica jersey. I mean this in complete honesty and without the tiniest bit of snark: to me, that guy made Oden’s #52 jersey his own more than Oden ever did. Keep on keeping on, dancing pudgy old dude.