Submit

No Place Like Home

Apr 21 2017
Photo by
Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Images
Photo by
Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Images
C.J. McCollum
Portland Trail Blazers
Apr 21 2017

In March, we had a pandemic in Portland.

People started craving Bosnian food. I think I saw someone try to pay with a marka. I could swear I heard one dude say zdravo instead of hello.

The diagnosis: Nurk Fever.

Jusuf Nurkić was perfect from the field in his first game with us (not bad) — and I could tell, right then, that our fans were all-in on him. Almost immediately, he was a force in the middle: 18 and 12 against the Thunder, 28 and 20 against the Sixers, and 21 and 13 against the Heat. It wasn’t long before Nurk Fever (his words, not mine) was sweeping the city.

And on March 28, in a game against the Denver Nuggets, Nurk Fever inside the Moda Center reached its peak.

Our season was on the line: Win, and we’d hold the tiebreaker over them for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West; lose, and we could probably kiss our postseason hopes goodbye. But there were other stakes, too. The Nuggets were Nurk’s old team.

I could tell that Nurk was locked in. We were thinking playoffs. He was thinking payback.

He got it, and then some. Thirty-three points. Fifteen rebounds. Two blocks. Some real old school Shaq-like dominance. And right on time.

The entire game, the crowd was just losing it. The playoffs weren’t for another month, but man … if you’d tuned into that game, at any random time — you would’ve thought it was Game 7 of the Finals.

Yeah, that’s right: It was a Game 7 atmosphere. Or, as we like to call it in Portland….

A home game.

Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports

Portland basketball fans are the best basketball fans in the world. Period.

Other fans arrive a quarter late for games. Blazers fans regularly show up an hour before tip.

Other fans get antsy when their team’s offense struggles to score for a few possessions. Blazers fans give us standing ovations, like they’re trying to will their energy into us.

Other fans might stop coming to games when their teams fall in the standings. Blazers fans just pack the house even more.

Like — we don’t have those bandwagon hoops fans in Portland. We don’t have those bougie, not-into-it, wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-in-the-free-t-shirt hoops fans in Portland. We’ve got those pinwheel-tattooed, bleeding-red-and-black, still-rocking-that-Walton-jersey, ride-or-die, realer-than-real hoops fans in Portland. The love is real. The support is real.

And the impact is real.

Which is why, when we fell to 24–35 late in February, and our season was on the brink, there wasn’t a sense of panic. We didn’t pay attention to the people calling last year a fluke. We didn’t listen to the trade rumors or to the experts wondering if we should tank and blow the whole thing up. And we definitely didn’t listen to the analysts saying that we had no shot at the playoffs. We knew that we still had one ace up our sleeve: We were coming home.

And by that, I mean: While some people looked at our record and saw 24–35 … we looked at it and saw something else: a lot of home games left. Fourteen out of our last 23 games were going to be at our own place.

We just knew … with so many games left at the Moda Center, and so many opportunities to play in front of the best fans in the NBA, and to feed off of their energy … that we still had a chance. Despite our bad record, and despite Denver’s lead, our talent and homecourt advantage meant that we weren’t down for the count. We just needed to play our game — and we needed Blazers fans to bring it.

Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Images

And you know what, Blazers fans: You did just that.

You did it the very next game against OKC. Russ gave us 45 points — but it didn’t matter. Dame was scorching … Nurk was Nurk-ing … the whole team was playing with an extra edge … and the Moda Center was rocking.

And it was rocking the game after that … and the game after that … and it just kept on rocking. And we just kept on grinding. Soon a three-game deficit became two, and then one, and then none — and then suddenly we beat Denver and we were a full game ahead. And there was no looking back after that.

Of course, everyone stepped up during that run. Mo, Chief, Noah, A.C., Shabazz, Meyers, Evan … every single person on the roster took their game to another level. Same goes for the coaching staff. Coach Stotts is a true players’ coach, and an offensive genius. And he put us all in a position to succeed.

But even with everyone, top to bottom, stepping up — we would have been dead in the water, I think, without our home crowd. Because when I look at all of the amazing numbers from our second-half turnaround this year … this is the one that stands out to me, and the one that characterizes Blazers basketball to me the most: We finished on an 11–3 run at home.

Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Images

Life in the NBA can be one big constant distraction, especially when you’re on the road. You’re always moving from one place to the next, always on the phone, checking texts, social media, all of that stuff. It takes you out of yourself. So I’ve tried to really focus on being, like, present in the moment: doing some yoga … doing some deep breathing … doing some meditation. I even have a meditation app.

And it’s funny — because I’ve actually kind of realized that, in a lot of ways, what I like about meditation is similar to what I like about playing at home. It’s almost that same sort of peace: With this loudness and chaos, all around you … but then you also feel totally in control. You feel like you’re harnessing the disorder, in a way, and turning it into order. You’re making it familiar — you’re making it like home.

And that’s where we’re heading now: into that familiar chaos. Down 0–2, against the Warriors. KD. Steph. Draymond. Klay … that’s a great team, obviously. Just the way they can hit you with run after run, out of nowhere. And being down 0–2 … man. It’s tough. But the thing is: A series is first to four, not first to two. And we’ve been in this situation before.

People forget — but last year, everyone was getting out the brooms for the Clippers against us in round 1. They had gone up 2–0 in the series, and for most people, that was it. Our season was over. All of a sudden, we were “overachievers,” and our “luck had run out,” and that sort of thing. But we knew better. We knew that two tough losses don’t make a season — and, just as important, we knew that it was like they say: A series doesn’t officially start until someone loses at home. We knew that when our guys brought it, and when our fans brought it … this would be a tough team to beat. We knew all of that.

And we still know it.

There was a lot of doubt this season. A lot of talk about whether this team would go anywhere — if maybe it was just time to start all over. Get some draft picks. Rebuild. Try again in a few years.

But that talk never came from our fans.

And to me, that’s what these next games are about: our fans. They’re the best in the world — and they’re one of the biggest reasons why we’re in the playoffs at all. And I can’t wait for the chance to show everyone, again, what we already know:

When it comes to Portland Trail Blazers basketball, there’s no place like home.

C.J. McCollum
Portland Trail Blazers