Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hoops Weekend in Portland

I decided to get a jump on what life will be like for the Seattle-based NBA fan in the future, as I headed down I-5 for what was intended to be a doubleheader of early-season hoops in the great city of Portland, vs. Memphis on Friday and Dallas on Saturday. Here's a weekend recap, in convenient photographic form.

Welcome to the Rose Garden, ladies and gentlemen. I conveniently arrived in time for the fourth quarter of the Grizzlies game after fighting Friday night traffic for four-plus hours (drive usually takes a little under three).

I got there in time to see the Blazers finish off an impressive 110-98 comeback win with a 36-22 fourth quarter, and I gleaned these observations:

1. I was amazed at how full the arena was in the upper reaches, for a November game vs. the Grizzlies.
2. I was amazed at how loud it was for a November game vs. the Grizzlies. The joint was rockin'.
3. Man, LaMarcus Aldridge (who had 30 points) sure looks polished. It seems like big guys who are successful at a young age tend to be force-of-nature athletes like an Amare or a Shawn Kemp. L.A. is not terribly athletic by those standards, but he already has an impressive array of moves, solid footwork and a nice shooting touch. He scored repeatedly down the stretch, in a variety of ways, and it was just really impressive.
4. Damn, these Blazers are an unbelievably promising young club. Even beyond the nucleus of Roy, Aldridge and Oden, young guys like Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster are starting to contribute a little bit. And don't forget they also add Rudy Fernandez and another likely lottery pick next year (though who knows if the lottery's a given with the way these Blazers have played so far!).

Rip City is back, baby.

One little thing I like about the Rose Garden is the quantity and quality of game stat information that's persistently visible in the arena. They've got a player stat board which goes nine deep with points, rebounds, assists and fouls.

Then, they've got about as much team stat info as you could reasonably ask for on a stat board.

And then, there's not a man, woman or child alive who doesn't love a good hustle board. As bankable as a blooper reel.

Portland is America's premier beer city, so what better way to celebrate a Blazers win than with an Oregon microbrew? We visited the Rogue Ales Public House on NW 14th and Flanders postgame, and I went with a Shakespeare Stout - highly recommended, unbelievably smooth.

I grew up in the far Northeast, so I'm a bit biased when it comes to the fall foliage, and I guess I underestimated how colorful Portland was this time of year. With the sunny weather on Saturday, the city was downright resplendent. Summer is certainly the best time to visit the Rose City, but don't underestimate early November - it was an absolutely gorgeous fall weekend.

"Flannnnnnnders... Flannnnnnnnders... Flannnnnnnnders...." The "Alphabet District" of town has street names which run in alphabetical order. Simpsons creator Matt Groening grew up in Portland and notable TV names such as Flanders, Lovejoy and Quimby were pulled from street names in this neighborhood. You'll have to go across the river to visit Van Houten Ave, though.

We were on Flanders because we were making an early morning run to Ken's Artisan Bakery on NW 21st & Flanders for the delectable Oregon croissants.

Look at these babies - buttery croissant goodness filled with genuine Oregon blackberries. Gotta get to Ken's early, before they sell out.

There aren't many better ways to pass the pregame time than by spending a few hours at the finest bookstore in America, Powell's City of Books. On any given Saturday afternoon, I'd estimate that roughly 35% of the Portland population is at Powell's - fortunately, the place is a full city block with multiple floors, so there's plenty of room for all.

Of course, we visited the row of basketball books in the Rose Room. Hoop purchases included a classic Powell's find, a used copy of the 1977 book Idol Time: Profile in Blazermania, a book I'd never previously heard of by Larry Colton, who wrote the acclaimed Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball And Honor On The Little Big Horn.

Other acquisitions included the new George Mikan book, Mr. Basketball, by Michael Schumacher, and one for the hoop library, Outrageous!, the 1993 Charles Barkley autobiography - hey, it was a used copy priced to move at $2.50!

OK, back to the Rose Garden we go, where Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard honored Roy and Aldridge for winning the Rookie of the Year and making the All-Rookie Team, respectively.

Then it was time for basketball, Blazers vs. Mavericks. As impressive as Aldridge was on Friday, Roy was on Saturday, lighting up the Mavs for 32 pts and 7 assists. Again, really impressive that the Blazers have a young inside-outside combo who can both deliver.

On a night when Dallas was without Devin Harris, Erick Dampier, Eddie Jones and Devean George, maybe we shouldn't read too much into the results, but the Blazers controlled this ballgame absolutely from start to finish. I was expecting the Mavs to at least make a run in the second half to make things interesting, but it never came. The outcome was never in doubt in the second half.

Highlight of gar-bage time: a Nick Fazekas sighting!

And finally, just because: Dr. Jack Ramsay's portrait on the Walk of Fame in the Rose Garden concourse. That's all, folks. Back up I-5 we go, to a land where there is unfortunately much less hope for the pro basketball future.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Phil The Facilitator

Good lord, where will Kobe soap opera go next? Each day, the trade winds seem to be blowing in a different direction.

Last week, which seems like about 8 months ago in KobeTradeDrama years, Peter Vecsey offered this thought in the NY Post:
    [Phil] Jackson is the lone person who has any shot of disarming this dispute. Both sides trust him more these days than ever before, I'm informed.

    [Jerry] Buss is listening to Jackson's advice to keep Bryant if compliant. Bryant may not be a true believer but, for the moment, Jackson has his attention; the Zen Hen is trying to persuade Bryant everything is being done within reason to boost a roster that boasts noticeably more positive qualities than given credit.
Since this was written, it sure seems like things have already passed the point of no return and that Kobe's days in Los Angeles are numbered... although it's unclear who a trade partner might be at this point.

But the Vecsey piece made me think back to when Phil did deftly handle a trade demand that had a chance to devastate one of his championship teams: 10 years ago in 1997-98, when Scottie Pippen drama hovered over the "Last Dance" Bulls team for the first half of the season -- and seemed for a while like it might torpedo Chicago's hopes for a sixth title.

Pippen had reached his breaking point after years of a strained relationship with Bulls GM Jerry Krause. Part of Pip's frustration stemmed from the fact that he was the 122nd highest-paid player in the league in 1997-98, and he wanted a new contract. Another part was a matter of respect - he wanted to be able to spend his entire career as a Bull, yet Krause seemed to continually be shopping him despite all that Pip had done to contribute to Chicago's five championships to that point.

On a West Coast road trip in late November, Pippen - who was rehabbing after foot surgery that would sideline him for the first 35 games - unloaded, telling Kent McDill of the Daily Herald, "I ain't coming back [after injury rehab]. I want to be traded. I want to go to Phoenix or L.A."

Further, Roland Lazenby reported in his book Blood on the Horns that the scene got uglier when Krause boarded a team bus from the airport to a hotel in Seattle:
    Obviously intoxicated, Pippen began yelling at Krause about signing him to a new contract or trading him. The harangue went on and on and turned increasingly uglier.

    "Why don't you trade me?" Pippen screamed.
It was ultimately up to Jackson to piece things back together. More from Blood on the Horns:
    "For Scottie's situation," Jackson said later, "everything kind of broke. The venom kind of broke, and he said, 'I can't play for this team anymore.' He had crossed a bridge with the organization. It was very disappointing. And it took him a while. We had to come back here and really work with Scottie."

    "That doesn't mean you have to leave the team," Jackson said.

    "Scottie thought he had shown himself the door, because he had had too much to drink," the coach explained. "It was over the edge."

    The team returned to Chicago just before Thanksgiving, and Jackson arranged for the team therapist to spend some time with Pippen counseling him on his anger. Over the break, Pippen phoned Jackson late one night for a long discussion during which the coach realized that Pippen seemed fairly set in his position not to play for the Bulls again. The coach knew that the team couldn't be successful without Pippen, that changing his mind would take the best efforts of a variety of people, including Jordan, [Ron] Harper, Jackson himself and several teammates.

    "Unfortunately, it took him a while," Jackson said. "He wasn't ready to play for another two months. And so it was a situation where he had time to cool out, to look at it and say, 'Well, my options aren't very good. I really don't have another place to go, and this is the right thing to do.'"

    "We let Scottie be Scottie," Harper later said, "and let him grow into what he will put himself into. We are all by his side."

    Part of the strategy, though, included Jackson and Jordan openly expressing displeasure with Pippen's position. That Monday, Dec. 1st, the coach and star player both suggested that they felt betrayed by Pippen's demands. "It's all right to hold it against Scottie," Jackson told reporters. "We care about Scottie, but we're going to hold this against Scottie because he's walking out on us, there's no doubt about that. Some things are personal and some things are public. Publicly, we like Scottie, but personally there's always going to be a... residual effect of having gone to bat for Scottie."

    Jordan had already told reporters the previous Saturday that he was "disappointed, very disappointed, that (Pippen) hasn't been able to put aside his dealings with management."

    Jackson and Jordan said they wouldn't have returned to the team if they'd known Pippen was going to leave. "There is that kind of feeling: 'Hey, we came back to do this job together and Scottie ducked out the door,'" Jackson said.

    Resolving the issue could take six weeks or more, the coach pointed out, and the team could become greatly affected by the distracted.
Of course, Pippen did eventually come back into the fold, and was a huge factor in the championship run. His defense was so good in the Finals that many people thought he would be named MVP (until MJ's Game 6 heroics trumped everything), and he fought through a debilitating back injury to hobble through Game 6, in a gutty performance that should have permamently erased migraine-induced doubts about his toughness.

Of course, the Kobe situation is much different - he is the team's lone superstar, rather than the no. 2 player, and his team is far short of a championship contender as currently constructed.

Bringing Kobe back into the fold seems like it will be much tougher for Jackson than it was with Pip, but who knows, maybe if the Lakers can acquire a Jermaine O'Neal, Phil could still make it happen.