Portland, Oregon, a town that has always had difficulty throwing things away, offers the opportunity to trace the trajectory of its once sole professional franchise by way of vintage store knickknacks and secondhand sundries.
As convenient as it is to say the collective memory of Blazer fandom exists in these shops with their foreboding Felix the Cat clocks that scan the room side-to-side, there are limits to a store’s preservation efforts; only so many Wells Fargo snap-backs can physically fit in a store. On my chance trip I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I figured the first item to send me back to my elementary or middle school days was likely to be the one.
Moments after I entered, I found, to my delight, locked underneath a glass display case, photos of rows of sinewy athletes—predating modern weight training—peering at me with the very special type of boredom that often accompanies workplace photos. The good-natured grin of Executive Vice President Harry Glickman and the shaggy-haired Geoff Petrie loomed large in the front row. However, there was no chance anyone could overlook the man who was not-so-discreetly placed far right, center row, in his impossibly electric blue suit: the team dentist. Looking at this photo wasn’t a voyage into the fertile lands of my imagination, and the advertising revolution had long arrived by 1973, which makes the glaring lack of artistry in this group photo perhaps an earnest attempt to acquaint potential fans to either the new expansion team or their corporate sponsor, Farrell’s. In 1973, the Portland Trailblazers didn’t have much to work with or hide, so it’s understandable that no one thought to conceal the folding chair that obstructs the view of the Portland signature in the distance. Although it was compelling in its simplicity, that photo wasn’t what I was there for.
This isn’t a knock against understated roster photos from 1970’s teams; if I’m being honest, it did transport me a bit, but it was mostly because of those chairs, which could have been raided from the multipurpose room of my middle school, where I ate pizza in the afternoon like Hedo Turkoglu and then pretended to be Damon Stoudamire during evening basketball practices. The issue is that the photo predates my Blazers team to a degree illustrated by the fact that the man I pretended to be was born in the same year that photo was taken. Also, 1973-74 wasn’t in itself a memorable season, outside amassing L’s at a level only bested by the 76ers. A claim to a future is more or less what I see from this image, taken the season before the eventual draftee, Bill Walton, would lead the young Blazers to their first postseason berth and only championship title. Despite what appeared to be a developing dynasty, by chance or destiny, the team quickly dissolved. Such would come to be a familiar phenomenon for the Blazers. The charmed times for the Blazers have seem to have their vertiginous highs cut short, either through injuries to number one draft picks (Walton, Bowie, Oden) or passing on a generational talent.
As a contrast, it might have made more sense to focus on the emotional upswells and pick up the entire set of Dairy Queen collectible cups that represent quite possibly the secondary apex of Blazer fandom. Problem is, I already have the set, much like every other Blizzard© connoisseur. The ubiquity of the cups isn’t difficult to reason: the team had Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, who played with a graceful ease that’s well displayed in a Wimbledon-esque cartoon illustration of him nonchalantly spinning a tennis ball on his finger in an improvised tennis net hammock. Clyde’s teammates didn’t lack marketable hobbies of their own. Kevin Duckworth, the avid fisherman, is naturally shown waist-high in a river with leaping fish, while Terry Porter’s golf club is raised in full extension, moments after a nicely placed shot, judging from his ear-to-ear smile. The glasses set achieved a level of success in reach and positive associations that re-booting the concept was bound to happen when the team could arguably go deep in the playoffs, reminding the viewers of happier time when the Blazers jockeyed for a title before Michael Jordan shoulder shrugged his team to a NBA title. There’s no embarrassment in losing to the best.
It was at that point, nearly exhausting the store’s material and definitely exhausted by the search for a relevant knickknack, that I felt Felix’s eyes bearing down on me, telling me with shifty glances that the search should end with a 1977 playoff ticket. The ticket looked like a Bauhaus-meets-Marine-Corps styled art attempt in its simplistic black and red font, numerals in various colors stamped on top of Army Green cardstock. The ticket was striking and it’s no accident it didn’t look a bit out of place in the same room as giant lithograph prints of modern art. The ticket was pretty enough for an art collector or the period, and the period had enough positive connotations for a Blazer fan. The memorabilia I was looking for, though, wouldn’t have any of those uncomplicated historical touchstones or its broadly celebrated design.
In recent years it’s been illustrative to hear the highlights of Mike and Mike’s patchwork references that, without fail, neatly skip over the Jail Blazer era—unless the broadcast calls for a one-sided cautionary tale or a Rasheed Wallace “ball don’t lie” quip. Basketball fans of that era know the stunning bank of material omitted that ranges from teammates sucker-punched in practice to sweaty headbands used as projectiles against teammates to broomsticks brandished in gymnasium brawls. All of those anecdotes could be useful in enlivening a Wednesday night blowout against the Nuggets. You could say the team had chemistry issues. Many of these farcical incidents could have been laughed off if the steady stream of off-court incidents eventually returned to a sane equilibrium, but there was no respite, and unfortunately, there were other claims that were genuinely troubling in nature. These involved domestic abuse and animal abuse, all of which made a loaded team’s near trip to the finals as a heavy favorite likely to be stricken from the record. There is a lot to be said about these events—almost an endless amount considering all the players, journalists, team personnel and league representative privy to inside details—which makes their collective reticence endlessly frustrating because the fans are left with speculation and hearsay. The situation was doubly confusing as a youngster when I didn’t have the life experience to know when people are enlarging petty incidents to massive proportions because they are easy to speak about or avoiding discussing issues of domestic abuse because of the gravity of the problem and the resulting difficulty discussing it. Understanding the anger and disappointment in my community was difficult, for me at least, and a deeper understanding wasn’t forthcoming.
The era’s ugliness makes on-court success difficult to celebrate, too. The stories holding the most imaginative details, not necessarily the most condemnable actions or laudable, capture the public’s attention for understandable reasons: they are easy to construct with little context. And in addition to that, it is fun to imagine a giant yellow Hummer pulled to the side of the road and searched for a bag of marijuana. What kind of bag? A small sandwich bag or a convenience store thank you bag or something that once held a Subway footlong? Passing through an airport metal detector with marijuana tucked in tinfoil is another head scratcher that blushed the cheeks of Portland and probably won’t encourage the Blazers to proposition the nice people at Reynolds Wrap for a BlazersXReynolds collaboration. No party wants to make that wrap and no market (without a healthy sense of irony) exists to buy it.
It seems any mention of those years might solicit “yellow Hummer” or further questioning, so call off the free in-arena trinkets as well. For anyone who came of age around then, it’s a shame to see Pippen, Grant, Rasheed, and our home-town guy, Damon Stoudamire, have their stories locked away in the Blazers’ confiscation drawer without a fighting chance to have their portraits screen-printed on pint glasses. But I recognize it for what it is: damage control. Years later it’s noticeable that fan discussion favors the players who create their own story in a context vacuum. Rasheed Wallace’s record-setting 40 technical fouls and on-court humor was enough to create an anti-establishment figure who, in hindsight, is seen as unapologetically bucking the stifling NBA norms under David Stern. It’s doubtful the man quietly sorting through rack of Tommy Bahama shirts or anyone else in the vintage store knows of a Damon anecdote that neatly encapsulates his playing days, but he very well might have one about Rasheed.
Clearly vintage stores aren’t spurring on Jail-Blazer conversations; for that you’ll likely need a change of venue. Anecdotally I’ll say those (at time frustratingly) discursive conversations are usually found at bars and other locations where a string of non sequiturs is accepted as a story. It’s here, on a patio reeking of American Spirits, blocks or miles away from the Rose Garden, where stray details of Damon play out like a game of fact or fiction. A strangely resonating profile of my hometown’s Franklin High School graduate emerges when conversations occasionally recall the time when Damon quietly donated $200,000 to recreational sports in Portland, Oregon. Although you wouldn’t believe it since that sort of generosity is usually repeated by PR Managers banking on transferable goodwill, you can trust many kids the in Portland area swung a baseball bat or tennis racket thanks to Damon footing the bill.
Our dear Tommy Bahama enthusiast isn’t alone in being led away from the era’s contemptible deeds in favor of a hermetically sealed, unobjectionable life—which is to say no life that has ever been lived. When walking the crowded aisles with their odd assortment of Elvis’s lean-to-bloated face and NBA kitsch material, my memory fails me and the products of yesteryear do nothing to anchor a stable memory but do serve in showing how the convoluted past is more difficult to recall than I once thought. I was deluded to think sports could exist in a separate world where it’s preferable to avoid discussing the troubled past—which clearly isn’t an illusion the Blazers had, given their internal thinking and deliberate reticence. They’ve clearly thought of their development over the years and have saved us the effort of making sense of their organizational growth at the expense of allowing us to learn from it as well. I’ve shuddered and grinned in equal measure when remembering my youth: these emotions reveal a life worth examination and the same can be said about fandom. Not every party shares that favorable view on examination. It’s also likely they don’t see the need for a space where true reconciliation can happen, which makes the ground I stand on, hardwood or carpet, the most realistic platform to sort through all of the Blazers' unacknowledged junk and treasure.