PORTLAND, Ore. — One of the loudest crowd roars from a wild, series-evening Game 6 victory that prolonged Portland’s storybook NBA season happened during a fourth-quarter timeout call.
The Trail Blazers had just taken their biggest lead of Thursday night’s clash and the Moda Center scoreboard cameras panned toward injured center Jusuf Nurkic, standing courtside in a powder blue suit after his gruesome, season-ending leg fractures suffered in March. The cheers quickly grew deafening as the 7-foot, 280-pound Bosnian hoisted his arms triumphantly towards the sky, the cameras soon after catching a Blazers fan waving a sign that read: “For Nurk, for Paul, let’s win it all.’’
“Nurk’’ is Nurkic, and “Paul’’ is late Blazers and Seahawks owner Paul Allen, who died of cancer last October at age 65 just days before his beloved basketball team embarked on arguably its finest campaign in two decades. The extent to which fans have rallied behind Allen and one of his players during an emotion-charged playoff run that has the Blazers and Denver Nuggets playing Game 7 in Colorado on Sunday for a trip to the Western Conference finals shows just how far the Seattle-based owner had come in changing Portland’s perceptions about him and the team.
Just more than a decade ago, relations between Allen’s basketball franchise and its home city were in deep disrepair. Portland fans had grown disgusted by the team’s early 2000s “Jail Blazers’’ antics and later by Allen’s ensuing, years-long PR-nightmare attempts to secure a better financial deal on the team and arena.
But that’s been mostly forgotten this spring as Allen’s final Portland legacy is written by a team that overcame the Nurkic injury to finish 53-29, knocked off Oklahoma City with a Game 5 miracle shot by Damian Lillard in the opening round and — after beating Denver 119-108 on Thursday — sits one win from its first conference final since the 1999-2000 season. Beyond emerging franchise leader Lillard, the city is smitten with Blazers center Enes Kanter, dynamic shooting guard CJ McCollum and the togetherness of a group of players that wouldn’t dream of sucker-punching one another in practice like some predecessors the prior decade.
“They went from a bunch of players that weren’t respected by the community into a team that the city can rally around,’’ said Blazers fan Andrew Summers, 29, sporting a Rookie-of-the-Year T-shirt from Lillard’s debut 2012-13 season as he stood in a Moda Center beer garden prior to Thursday’s sixth game.
Summers’ friend, Duncan Ketel, 28, feels the passionate Allen still managed not to meddle much and largely let his handpicked employees run the team. Both he and Summers agreed that didn’t always work out during the 1996-2004 “Jail Blazers’’ era but they say things changed with the Allen-approved hiring of ex-Sonics coach Nate McMillan in 2005 and a renewed focus on “character’’ alongside shot-making ability.
“I feel really bad that Paul Allen’s not here to witness this,’’ Ketel said. “He loved this team and would have loved to see what’s happening now.’’
Indeed, Allen’s longtime courtside seat No. 2 in Section 118, Row AA at the arena he financed mostly on his own for $263 million in 1995 had remained empty all season to honor the late owner. Then, in an emotional, playoff-opening move that caught the attention of players, coaches and fans alike, Allen’s sister, Jody, the team’s new owner, attended Game 1 against Oklahoma City next to her brother’s open chair.
It was her first game visit since Allen’s death and she’s returned multiple times since. For fans who’ve made a cottage industry of guessing whether she’ll eventually sell the squad — figuring her prior absence proved the rumors she disliked basketball and football — the in-game sightings provide hope.
“The biggest thing that kind of irritates me is when people say she’s not really into the sports teams,’’ said Chris McGowan, now CEO of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment and the man overseeing both the Blazers and Seahawks for Allen’s business empire. “It’s the question everyone asks and, I mean, it’s just unfounded. She’s really into the sports teams. She goes to a lot of Seahawks games and I’m sure she’s going to plan to go to a lot of Blazers games and if she doesn’t go she’s watching them on TV.’’
Part of the mystery about her feelings has been caused by her own media reticence, offering only a few brief sentences to reporter Jason Quick of The Athletic following the playoff opener.
“I’m really, really proud to be here, but I have to say, I also really miss my brother,” she told Quick. “He would have loved to be in that seat next to me.”
McGowan had sat alongside Allen at several Blazers games, where he says the Seattle-based owner formulated ideas that have strengthened the bond between Portland’s community and team. And since Allen’s death, he’s sat with Allen’s sister in boardroom meetings.
“She’s super interested in what these teams mean to the communities that they’re in,’’ McGowan said. “And wants to run them just like Paul ran them — in a first-class manner.’’
In that regard, McGowan echoes the bittersweet sentiment that Allen never saw his years of work at rebuilding a community connection culminate this magical season.
“It’s been really good since I got here,’’ said McGowan, who arrived as Blazers team president in 2012 after years serving as an executive under Tim Leiweke with the Anschutz Entertainment Group and its Los Angeles sports holdings. “But it feels deeper and a little bit stronger now.’’
McGowan credits general manager Neil Olshey for drafting and hiring “people with character’’ from coaches to players that do great community work with minimal turnover so fans can form attachments to the team.
And just like the Seahawks have “The 12s,’’ the Blazers have a “Rip City’’ branding identity fostered by Allen that’s grown beyond merchandise sales. Coined from a phrase used during the team’s 1971 expansion season by play-by-play man Bill Schonely to describe a seemingly hopeless, long distance shot attempt, “Rip City’’ now symbolizes an underdog-type, go-for-broke NBA squad beloved by supporters.
The Blazers tied for the league’s third-best home record at 32-9; their fans forming an intimidating, at-times momentum-swinging tide of noise McGowan describes as a “super, super powerful’’ connection to players and “a passionate relationship’’ unlike any city he’s worked in or been to.
It’s in stark contrast to the middle of last decade, when that trust factor had eroded along with Allen’s plans to redevelop the “Rose Quarter” neighborhood around Moda Center into a vast entertainment, shopping and residential district. Real estate values were declining in the area, which is cut off from adjoining neighborhoods by Interstate 5 and surrounding roads and rail lines.
At one point, Allen even turned over control of the arena — then known as the Rose Garden — to lenders so he’d avoid debt payments as one of his holding companies went through bankruptcy court in 2004. By 2006, the Blazers were struggling on the court, losing millions annually and had become what Allen’s advisers termed a “broken financial model’’ in need of government assistance.
But the real estate eventually rebounded, the team got better, Allen regained control of the arena and accompanying revenues and by last year, Forbes pegged the team he’d bought for $70 million in 1988 at a value of $1.3 billion. Earlier this decade, Allen implemented his expanded entertainment vision so fans would be drawn to the Moda Center and the Vulcan-co-owned and operated Rose Quarter and stay longer.
“What he did with me was talk about our fans all the time,’’ McGowan said. “He was the type of owner that was at every (home) game and went to the vast majority of our road games as well. He wanted our fans to have a great time and have a great environment to come to.’’
The team that plays in that environment is imminently more popular with locals than its early 2000s predecessors.
By the end of the 2003-04 season alone, four Blazers — Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Qyntel Woods and Zach Randolph — had been cited for marijuana possession. There’d also been inflammatory comments directed by Blazers toward the local fans, Bonzi Wells making an obscene gesture at them, Wallace getting suspended for threatening referee Tim Donaghy postgame and Randolf sucker-punching teammate Ruben Patterson in the face during practice.
Something had to change and did.
“The organization has got its sh-t together now,’’ said Blazers fan Saren Bonacker, 35, who’d driven up from Bend, Oregon, for Thursday’s game with buddies Tyler Burg, T.J. Vibbert, and Cory Mason, all age 31. “I just think some of the stuff back then wouldn’t fly now.’’
Portland’s past distaste for the team was occasionally met with not-so-subtle accusations — including one by Blazers player Isaiah Rider — that there were racist undertones behind one of America’s whitest cities disliking a group of mostly black players. But today, that same city celebrates Turkish-descent Muslim player Kanter, fascinated by his decision to fast from sunrise until sunset during a Ramadan period that coincides with this year’s playoffs. They ferociously cheer on Bosnian-born Nurkic, another Muslim, when he makes his now-regular courtside playoff appearances.
They stood and cheered Lillard, the most recognizable of the team’s still-predominantly-black lineup when he made a game-sealing, three-point shot Thursday put the Blazers up by 13 with 7:24 to go right before the timeout and Nurkic ovation.
“It sure seems like they’re really immersed in the community now,’’ said Blazers fan Burg.
Perhaps those fans simply needed a more likeable version of players. And of owner Allen, whose posthumous likeability among Blazers supporters appears at an all-time high.
“I’m sure he’d have loved to be here because he didn’t miss many games,’’ Burg said. “I guess you can say he left the team in better shape than he got it.’’
Correction: A previous version of this story said the Blazers defeated the Thunder in Game 7.