THE SIGHT OF THE GALLOWS: Experiencing The Blazers’ Playoff Desperation First-Hand

Tragically, the Portland Trail Blazers‘ season is over. For a team that exploded out of the gates the way it did, and for most of the season looked poised to make a legitimate run at the Western Conference Finals, watching it shamble along to the finish line was nothing short of Shakespearean.

They won 51 games this season and ended up with the fourth-seed in a loaded Western Conference. But the injury curse once again struck a team that’s been all too familiar with these scenarios over the years.

And now, yet again, there is a great deal of anxiety about the future of the franchise. Several key players — most notably LaMarcus Aldridge — are set to enter free agency this summer, and Aldridge, for his part, has been understandably circumspect about his plans.

Portland got bounced out of the first round of the playoffs in five games by a Memphis Grizzlies team that’s just starting to warm up. Nobody gave the Blazers much of a chance going into the series, and that turned out to be an apt assessment.

Still, Blazers fans stuck with them to the bitter finish. And that’s because they’re fiercely loyal (often to the point of clannishness), half-delusional, forever chasing the chimera of NBA immortality, the types of fans you want on your side when you’re facing a 3-0 deficit against a team that’s beaten you seven times in a row. Fans who believe beyond all logic and reason that this time — this time — you can find a way to win, because you have to, not just for yourselves, but for the home crowd that’s there, booing and jeering the opposing team mercilessly, erupting at every made field goal, chanting “DEFENSE” in unison on every possession, screaming at the refs after every call, and just generally flooding the arena with Dionysian energy.

That’s what Blazers fans are like. This was my second year covering Portland in the postseason, more specifically my second time covering a Game 4 in which the Blazers were facing elimination (as they were last spring against the Spurs), and my second time watching the Blazers feed off the Moda Center crowd like it was the Coliseum in ancient Rome to get an improbable victory and force a Game 5 on the road.

On both occasions, the Blazers played with a sense of urgency that had been inexplicably absent in each of the previous three games. Although, I suppose, as Samuel Johnson once alluded to, nothing focuses the mind quite like the sight of the gallows.

One of the sore spots about the Moda Center is its very name. Until the 2013-2014 season, the Rose Garden (as it was formerly known) was the only arena in the NBA (aside from Detroit’s Palace at Auburn Hills and New York’s Madison Square Garden) yet to succumb to corporate sponsorship, but after signing a decade-long deal with local insurance provider, Moda Health, the “Moda Center” was born.

Throughout the first year, most fans adamantly refused to call it by its blasphemous new moniker, but eventually the “Rose Garden” wilted away, although I often like to point out that it’s technically still accurate to call the area of inner Northeast Portland where the arena is located “The Rose Quarter,” which is, admittedly, a small consolation indeed.

Getting there is all part of the fun. There are three different light-rail trains that go directly to the Moda Center’s front door: one from the East, one from the far Northern quadrant of the city, and one from downtown that passes over the city’s historic Steel Bridge, which is a vertical lift bridge that dates all the way back to the turn of last century and offers bucolic views of the Willammette River and the West Hills going in both directions.

In most NBA cities, it’s a logistical nightmare getting in and out of an arena. Not here. Most folks leave their hybrid cars at home and hop the train, or just walk, and riding the Max to the game with hundreds of other delirious fans all decked out in the team’s signature gear is a great way to get amped up.

To its credit, the league has been proactive about reducing its carbon footprint, and there are few NBA cities greener and more environmentally-conscious than Portland. A convenient and affordable public transit commute to the arena is just one part of that philosophy. The Moda Center itself was one of the first major sports facilities (in all of sports, not just the NBA, mind you) to earn a LEED Gold certified status from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Another thing Portlanders like to brag about is the culinary scene, which has garnered widespread critical acclaim in recent years. Folks here like their food locally-sourced, and it’s that precise mentality that led the Moda Center officials to expand their food options to include some of the city’s favorite dining hot spots like Bunk Sandwiches, Sizzle Pie pizza, Killer Burger, Fire on the Mountain hot wings, and a new health-conscious option called Plum Tasty.

These are just a few of the things the organization underscored when they submitted their official bid to host either the 2017 or 2018 NBA All-Star Game last fall, although there is a host of other concerns the city would face if they were to win the bid, not the least of which is whether a small market town like Portland could even accommodate the Tsunami-sized influx of media, fans, and assorted league personnel that All-Star Week would bring with it. But I digress.

Moda Center 3


Nevertheless, when it comes to mass marketing and consumerism, the Moda Center is just like any other NBA arena, and during the playoffs, fans are subjected to an even more bloated version of what goes down under the big top at every home game during the regular season.

They do this silly thing where they deliver the game ball from the top row of the 300 section by letting fans hand it off to one another until it makes its way down to center court, which is awkward and takes an excruciatingly long time, and the whole ordeal is nothing more than one big Wells Fargo advertisement blasted across the Jumbotron. You’d be loathe to find almost any aspect of the arena experience that hasn’t been descended upon by corporate vultures.

During TV timeouts, they’ll bring some poor schlub down from the stands to shoot free throws, and depending on how many he makes before the shot clock ticks down to double zeroes, there might be free Jamba Juice in it for everybody. Although part of the fun is watching his misses careen wildly off the rim or miss everything entirely and smugly (and most likely incorrectly) thinking to yourself how many more you would’ve made given the same opportunity. That timeout during which the comical free throw shooting went down was most likely brought to you by Buffalo Wild Wings, by the way.

Then at halftime, they’ll typically let some other poor schlub heave a half-court shot in hopes of winning a sensible model Toyota ponied up by a local dealership, who’s no doubt comfortably secure in the knowledge of how infrequently someone actually sinks that shot, to the point that they probably even have metrics on this.

There’s also a humiliating little game in which a middle-aged mom gets blindfolded and has to bumble around on court until she literally runs face-first into a cardboard cutout of a new refrigerator, washer-dryer, or big-screen TV, which she’ll get to take home for free compliments of Standard TV and Appliance.

And each of these in-game segments is hosted by a well-groomed young man with a bubbly personality who majored in public relations in college, dreams of local TV stardom and who you can tell loses a little bit of his soul every time he has to feign excitement for the fans.

Then there’s other obligatory spots for regional chains like Great Clips, Bi-Mart, and Fred Meyer. A halftime show brought to you by McDonald’s during which the two local anchors are periodically forced to endure an exciting visit from a grown man dressed in a Ronald McDonald costume creeping everybody the f*ck out. And, of course, the Miller Paint “points in the paint” segment.

Some of it is actually kind of interesting, like the “Get to Know” spots that sometimes flash across the Jumbotron with fascinating and peculiar little tidbits of information about your favorite players. Such as the fact that Nicholas Batum’s favorite food is Oreo cheesecake and that he’s apparently under the impression that his nickname is Batman (?), or that Damian Lillard’s favorite television show is Monk, all of which would indicate that the segment should be renamed “Things You Can’t Unknow About Your Favorite Player.”

Getting media access obviously has its perks. You get to hobnob around behind the scenes before and after the game and act like you belong there, but you also have to play it cool and try not to seem starstruck when P.J. Carlesimo, or Marc Gasol, or Hersey Hawkins casually walk by.

They also offer a pretty nice dining spread, which if I’m being honest, I thought was complimentary the first time I went and so helped myself to a heaping plate of whatever was on the menu that night before sheepishly discovering you’re supposed to purchase a meal ticket when you pick up your media credentials. But that’s neither here nor there.

You also get to sit on media row, which is expanded to four or five rows during the playoffs and is located on the 200 level, which is closer than any tickets I could afford to purchase myself. This year I was seated next to the guy who does social media for As a Memphis-area native, I’ve been to games at the FedEx Forum, but never a playoff game, so I was curious to hear how he’d compare the two after witnessing Games 2 and 3 at the two arenas within a few days of each other.

“[The FedEx Forum] gets just as loud,” he said, “But there isn’t the synergy that there is here.”

Part of that synergy derives from the fact that fans have such a long cultural memory here. The specter of that ’77 championship team that featured Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins, and their immortal leader Jack Ramsey still looms large over the city to this day. The biggest Blazers bar in town is called “The Spirit of 77” for Pete’s sake.

Not only that, a quick scan around the arena reveals fans sporting jerseys from just about every era, featuring beloved names like Drexler, Porter, and Wallace, as well as morose reminders of Brandon Roy (although no Greg Oden jerseys), and even obscure players like Travis Outlaw.

Personally, my favorite part of the experience both times around — aside from the Blazers winning do-or-die Game 4s both years — was the unlikely heroes who emerged. Last year, it was Will Barton, “The People’s Champ,” who had the game of his life against the Spurs. This year, it was Meyers Leonard and C.J. McCollum who helped stave off elimination for just one more game. Given all the uncertainty surrounding Aldridge, Matthews, and just about everybody else, that might have also been a brief glimpse into the franchise’s future.