It’s 5:30AM and my phone’s alarm is screaming. It’s not the beginning of the work day, nor do I have class. I’m waking up at this ungodly hour to prepare for a spontaneous journey to Portland.
It’s the Lakers.
A perfect situation for a broke, college student to put off responsibility for a few days. But this trip isn’t about just a sporting event. It’s about indulging in new culture.
I’ve never been to the Rose Garden.
You see, I’m a native of the vast mountains, and endless skies of Montana. There isn’t much around to satisfy. By and large, Montana lacks art, diversity, progressive thought and any semblance of a social scene. I’ve made my best attempts to avoid succumbing to the barriers set in front of me. But in the back of my mind, I feel I’ll always be at a disadvantage in the professional world due to my state’s rudimentary culture.
So when it comes to sports, TV has been my avenue. There are no pro teams in Montana. Now, I don’t mind TV. And until last week I thought I’d shared in the same spectacle as those in the arenas.
The Rose Garden, however, disproved my theory. And despite Bill Simmons’ best arguments for fans preferring to stay at home with hi-definition broadcasts, computers and social media, I can never again believe I’ll be witnessing the game in the same way.
The christening began when a friend offered 24-hour notice for an expedition to see my beloved Blazers. I had work. The drive would take 10 hours each way. I thought about it. Blazers-Lakers; this is the game to see in Portland. I almost began to sweat with visions of Portland’s cranked up Kobe-hate. I couldn’t pass it up.
And besides, isn’t spontaneity what college is for?
At 6:00 a.m. the trip began. One white Subaru Outback, one girl and four guys. Delightful. No better way to make new friends than by utilizing every possible space available in a station wagon.
I’m 6’3.” A mid-sized car and I don’t mix. I start wondering what affects basketball players more; the grind of a 62-game season or not being able to properly stretch their extremities out. Delusional thoughts aside, I realize I’m an outsider in midst of my companions’ conversations. I buckle-up literally and figuratively for a 550 mile ride of unfamiliarity in front of me.
The drive is grueling. Armed with nothing more than smart phones for guidance, we eventually cross Washington to Oregon. The first gas station we stop at in Oregon is a surprise. We all study the gas pump attendant as if he were an endangered species. “Pump our gas for us?” we all look at him in bewilderment. Toto, we’re not in Montana anymore.
At 4 PM we arrive in Rip City. The buzz around town is eerily evident everywhere we go. From mall vendors, to mall rats; average Portlanders, to not-so-average Portlanders, the greeting is the same: “you going to game?” No other topics of conversation seemed necessary.
We arrive early like any rookie to a sporting event, to get an up-close look at the largest and most graceful athletes on the planet. I get a strange sense of pride when I can successfully identify a player’s height when I watch on TV. Seeing these athletes in person, however, is an entirely different story.
Metta World Peace resembles a gargantuan linebacker. Nicolas Batum’s lanky arms seem longer than the I-84 to Portland. But this size and scope truly became apparent as I first caught a glimpse of Andrew Bynum. To see a man of that stature move with the highest level of coordination is baffling. I reconsidered my questioning of the clichés that it takes legitimate center to win an NBA championship.
The atmosphere in the arena was pure ecstasy. Sitting in our modest 300-level seats, I figure all of Portland must be present during the pre-game chants of “Beat LA! Beat LA!” And even if all of Portland isn’t here today, an accurate measure of the total population number could be represented by the number of goose bumps I have during the pre-game Rip City war cries.
The Lakers start out on fire from the field. They shoot around 80% for the first quarter but the Blazers keep the game close. Thanks in large part to not turning the ball over and a few timely threes. I gaze at the stats board to see the Blazers remaining competitive in the game because they have kept their turnovers low—something they have not done in their previous games.
56-51 Lakers. Half-time.
The thought of the Blazers losing hadn’t sunk in until the intermission. My arrogant friends mock me with texts of “how about them Blazers?” I know there’s another 24 minutes before anything is final, but I fear for a depressed and defeated ride home.
Luckily for me, the Blazers and my new Rose Garden comrades had other plans. If I ever need reassurance during a moment of Blazer doubt, I need look no farther than the Blazermaniacs surrounding me.
The fanaticism during Portland’s third quarter brilliance is intoxicating. No hyperbole or strings of superlatives could do justice to the electric feeling shared in the Rose Garden during Gerald Wallace’s and-one abuse of Kobe Bryant, followed later by Wallace’s breakaway windmill hammer-dunk. And Jamal Crawford’s 27-foot three to close the third quarter? Basketball elegance.
I grinned ear-to-ear through the third, until the final buzzer and the loss became official. “Beat LA!” and they did.
As the crowd filed out to the streets of Portland the feeling remained palpable. Not only had the Blazers won, but so too, it seemed, had the entire city of Portland.
In this euphoria I walk down Multnomah St. towards a sobering sense of reality. Nothing for the rest of my sports calendar, and possibly for the rest of my life, can surpass what I’ve just witnessed.
No matter how many inches or pixels I have in my television, I now know the live experience is the only real way to fully understand the grace that unfolds on the basketball court.
The hysteria my new brothers and sisters of Portland can muster will never be replicated anywhere else.
There are only a few facts I know. The Blazers won, we have five-hundred fifty miles and 10 hours to go, and I’m now broke.
I regret nothing.