I still can’t believe Dame hit that shot.
I’ve had a whole off-season to reflect on last year’s playoffs, and I keep coming back to that.
I mean, of course I believe it. Dame’s a killer. Hitting shots like that — at the buzzer, from almost half-court, to close out a series … that’s what he does. He’s cold-blooded.
And the fact that he did it at home, at the Moda Center, in front of the best basketball fans in the world?
Listen, I’ve seen that arena rocking before. B-Roy, aka “The Natural,” at the buzzer in 2008. Dame’s game-winner in 2014 against the Rockets in the first round. Or just any home game, really. Fans in the (503) will get up like that for a regular-season game in the middle of November.
But that night, when Dame hit that shot … I honestly thought we were going to start an earthquake.
It was just special.
But it’s easy to forget about those moments, you know, after how our season ended. When your last basketball memory is walking off the court after getting swept in the conference finals, in front of the same fans who ride for you night in and night out, no matter what, it’s easy to forget how special the run that had gotten us there really was.
The 53 wins in the regular season. Dame’s game-winner to close out the Thunder in the first round. That four-overtime marathon against Denver in the second round, when I don’t think one single fan left the Moda Center until it was over. Game 6 at home, where we were down 3–2, facing elimination … and we survived. And then Game 7 on the road with everything on the line, and us finding a way to win after being down big.
It was a hell of a run.
And that’s one thing that hasn’t been lost on me this off-season: the growth we experienced last year. You have to learn how to win in this league. It’s a process. It’s nice to say you have goals and that you want to win championships. But until you get thrown into the fire, you can’t truly grasp what it takes to accomplish those goals.
Until you get thrown into the fire, you can’t truly grasp what it takes to accomplish those goals.
Last season, I think we truly got to grasp it. We were one step away from the NBA Finals, and we didn’t finish. We couldn’t put a full game together against the Warriors. We didn’t execute in the fourth. We had mental lapses. We ran out of gas.
We just didn’t have what it takes. We didn’t know.
Now, going into this season, I believe we do.
We have the experience. We have the leadership. And we have a few new pieces who are going to fit really well, and I think all that will help take us to the next level.
And we still have our biggest weapon.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Portland basketball fans are the best basketball fans in the world. And it’s not just some rah-rah thing, like they can show up and get loud for games. That’s part of it, but it only scratches the surface.
The Blazers have been the biggest show in town since long before I got here.
Since Sidney Wicks.
Since Bill Walton.
Since Clyde the Glide.
For the longest time, basketball was the only major sport Portland had. So the city poured its heart and soul into this team.
But I also think that part of the connection comes from the fact that we’re isolated up here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s like we’re far away from the rest of the world. From NYC, it takes about as long to get to London as it does to PDX.
I mean, I didn’t know anything about Oregon when I came here. Even now, when I talk to people back home, they don’t know anything about it. Remember, I’m from Canton, Ohio — the (330) — and I went to college at Lehigh in PA. And I’ll never forget when I came to Portland for the first time, for a predraft workout back in June of 2013. I landed at PDX and drove over the bridge on I-5 into downtown. I saw the river, the bridges and the three mountains to my right on the city side. It was summertime, so the sun was out, everything was green and everybody was outside … it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
I immediately got this vibe, like, Yeah, I could live here.
It was summertime, so the sun was out, everything was green and everybody was outside … it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
And this was before I even knew how deep the connection between the city and this team runs.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out walking downtown, and I’ll see someone with a black-and-red pinwheel tattoo. I can spot it from a mile away. I’ll be walking downtown to RingSide Steakhouse, or to one of my favorite tea spots, and I’ll see a guy with pinwheel tatted on his calf, or a girl with one on her ankle.
People even come up to me sometimes while I’m at dinner, all polite, like, “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but….” Then they’ll pull up their shirt sleeves, show their pinwheels and say something like, “I got this tattoo X amount of years ago. I’ve been supporting you guys forever. I just want you to know I appreciate what you do.”
And I’m left sitting there waiting for my dinner to come, thinking, Man, how lucky am I to play in a place like this, with fans like these?
This team … it’s synonymous with this city. Rip City. The City of Roses. Stumptown. PDX. The (503). There are so many nicknames.
But whatever you call it, it all boils down to the same thing.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I learned what it meant to be a Portland Trail Blazer.
It was my rookie year and I had fractured my foot on the last day of training camp, so I was injured to start the season. We split our first two games on the road then came back to the Moda Center for the home opener. And even though I wasn’t playing, they announced my name over the P.A.
And as soon as they said it, the whole place just erupted.
I hadn’t even taken the floor in a Blazers uniform yet, and I was getting a standing ovation.
I’m getting chills just thinking about it. I mean, I’m from a small town, and I went to a small school. Lehigh’s gym only holds like 5,000 people. So for me to have my name called, and for 20,000 people to show me that kind of love? It was overwhelming. It was like the whole city had just wrapped its arms around me and embraced me.
Like they were welcoming me to the family.
I got fired up, too. It was like I had gotten this huge rush of energy from the crowd. It’s something I know now that you can only get from the Moda Center, like it’s burned into the walls from the Rose Garden days. And man, I was ready to tear my walking boot off and jump out into the layup line. No lie.
At that moment, I knew I would always ride for people in the (503), because they had shown me that they’d always ride for me.
I mean, this is a fan base that sells out the Coliseum downtown, where the old Blazers used to play, for Fan Fest. I’m talking 13,000 people filling that place to capacity … for an intrasquad scrimmage.
A fan base that, honestly, I think influences the way our front office runs our team. The kind of players we bring in. The way we play on the court. We have a work hard, play hard mentality — just like people in the (503).
And the work always comes first.
That’s Portland. It’s hard work and earning everything you get. It’s coffee and doughnuts. It’s tattoos. The outdoors. In March, it’s flannel shirts and hats. It’s being yourself, being weird, and being proud of it.
And right there with all those things that make Portland, Portland … there’s the Trail Blazers.
That will always be in this city’s DNA.
The walk off the court after we lost Game 4 to the Warriors was probably the toughest I’ve ever made. Disappearing into the tunnel and making my way to the locker room, knowing that we had come up four wins short of the NBA Finals, and now, it was over.
And knowing that as I sat in silence in the locker room with my teammates, just above us, our fans were emptying out of the Moda Center, like air from a deflating balloon.
I’ll never forget that feeling.
It was Coach Stotts who came in and broke the silence. He addressed the team, and I just remember his message was one of positivity. One of gratitude. Admiration. Appreciation for everything we had accomplished. I remember Jodi Allen coming in and echoing how proud the late Mr. Allen would be of all we were able to accomplish that season — the resilience, toughness, togetherness and consistency we’d displayed all year made our fans, front office and families proud.
It’s the same response I’ve gotten from every Blazers fan I’ve interacted with since. Sure, they were disappointed. We all were. It was a roller coaster of a season, with highs like Dame’s game-winner and lows like that final walk off the floor.
But there were a lot of positives to take from that run we went on. And now we’re ready to build on those this year and take the next step.
All the talk this off-season has been about the Lakers and the Clippers. LeBron and A.D. Kawhi and Paul George. And that’s O.K. Those are two teams that are going to be great this year, and if we want to get over the hump and get to the Finals, we’ll have to go through them. The Rockets may have gotten better by adding Russ. The Warriors are still as dangerous as ever. And the Nuggets and Jazz aren’t going anywhere.
Yeah, the West is deep.
But the way we see it … it’s also wide open. It’s ours for the taking. I mean, if we start this season off the way we know we can, and then we get Nurk Fever back? There’s no telling where this team can go.
I think that in past years, we might have been a little hesitant to say that we’re trying to win a championship. We’ve always had that mindset, but we’ve never been very vocal about it. I guess it’s because outside of Portland and in the media, people haven’t put us in that conversation. So it’s like … nobody had given us permission.
Well, I can tell you right now that we don’t need permission.
Our goal is to win a championship. Not to build toward it, but to make it to the NBA Finals, and win the whole thing. We’ve put the work in. We know what it takes, and we know what we have.
We have the right team, the right coach, the right mindset … and the right fans. We’ve got it all.
Now all we need to do is finish the job.