Q&A, Part One: Old Friend Michael Heald on the City of Portland and Its Blazers


Michael Heald is an old friend, a creator of the small press Perfect Day Publishing, an author of a thoughtfully-crafted and complex collection of personal essays, Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension, a contributor to many websites and publications, and a lover of Portland, Oregon and the city’s NBA team, the Trail Blazers. In Part One of this Q&A, we discuss Mike’s personal connection to the Blazers, the city’s relationship to the team over time, and David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game.

How old were you when your family moved to Portland, Oregon?  What are your first memories of the Blazers?

We moved here in 1992, when I was eleven. Finding out we were moving was hands-down the most shocking event of my life up to that point. Obviously I was a sheltered kid. I remember consoling myself with the thought that on the other end, was Clyde Drexler. He’d been built up in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated as Michael Jordan’s biggest rival. Even though the Blazers ending up losing in the Finals (who can forget the shrug) there was a sense that we were heading towards something special, something far more exciting than the Knicks and Patrick Ewing’s giant kneepads. On the way across the country I practiced wearing my Blazers hat. I’m not kidding. My seat was on the driver’s side, the seat where you can see yourself in the rearview mirror. I remember the hat being gray, with the logo a bright red and black that quickly faded. People refer to that logo as “the pinwheel,” which I don’t understand. It’s clearly a trail blaze, one of those marks that keeps you from getting lost where you’re out hiking. For 3,000 miles I sat there looking at the trail blaze, wondering if I looked like a Portlander.

Portland is known for its general weirdness (“Keep Portland Weird”, Portlandia), its musical and literary culture, its bars and culture of weed, its overcast winter weather, and its Blazers, the only professional team in town other than the soccer club. Unlike the Bay Area, which is a collection of dense pockets of population, Portland seems a city unto itself, kind of tucked into the Oregon hills.

Portland, Oregon: a wonderfully weird place.

Portland, Oregon: a wonderfully weird place.

How would you describe the city’s devotion to the Blazers?

Well, until very, very recently, this was a one-sport town. Some would argue it still is. The Timbers have come on in a big way but I suspect that unless the MLS can figure out how to attract the best players in the world, soccer will always be pretty marginalized in America. Unless you’re getting to see players like Christian Ronaldo and Lionel Messi playing in your home stadium—playing games that count—you’ll always have some awareness that you’re not watching the real thing.

Whereas the NBA is the real thing. One of the primary reasons the Blazers have such a great fan base is that, barring a couple dark episodes, they’ve been an extremely rewarding team to follow for more than four decades now. From 1983 to 2003, they made the playoffs for 21 straight years. They’ve had moments of true brilliance. Walton’s season and a half at the top in the late ‘70s. Two trips to the Finals with Drexler-Porter-Kersey-Duckworth-Buck Williams in the early ‘90s. The Scottie Pippen team that somehow blew a 15-point 4th quarter lead against the Lakers in Game 7 of the Conference Finals in 2000. More recently, with Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden, they had what looked like a title-contending nucleus. To be where they are now, after the devastating injuries to Roy and Oden, sweetens this season even more.

I think Blazers fans, by necessity, try to live in the moment. Too many times injuries have derailed what looked like dynasties. Like in 1992, my brother and I had no idea that we were coming in at the tail-end for that crew. Drexler got hurt, all the other starters got old, Cliff Robinson became their go-to guy, and they were bounced from the first round of the playoffs every single season from when I was in sixth grade till my senior year in high school, when they made it to the conference finals, before getting swept by Tim Duncan and the Spurs.

One of my favorite Blazer moments was the rally in April, 2009, downtown in Pioneer Square, when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Roy was at his peak, Oden looked healthy, the square was jammed with people like me taking their lunch breaks, and each player got a couple minutes on the microphone to address the crowd. It was kind of goofy, but it was also heartfelt. Roy said something like, “Thanks for coming out, but no more rallies until we bring you a title!” At its best, Blazermania is an uncynical, communal celebration. For a city that prides itself on being weird, it’s actually probably the most normal thing about us. Tickets are affordable, except when the Heat or the Lakers are in town, which means that the crowds at the games are about as diverse a collection of people as you’ll see in a city as homogenous as Portland. Especially up in the 300 level seats, it’s an interesting array of people from the suburbs, hipsters, blue collar types, first-generation Americans … Julia Louise-Dreyfuss was at a game recently, and everybody got sort of embarrassingly excited and confused. We’re not used to seeing celebrities courtside.

I need to read David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, which is one of the more celebrated inside-looks at an NBA team. Halberstam chronicles the Blazers difficult season of 1979-80, three years after their championship. You mentioned you read it recently. What was your general impression of the book?  I doubt it, but I want to imagine that Bill Walton and Coach Jack Ramsey got stoned together after every game.

There’s a great section in the book about Walton’s UCLA years, where after winning two titles in a row, he talks John Wooden into letting him get high after games. Of course, that was the year they lost. The thing you have to wonder is, why couldn’t Walton just be quiet about it and keep it a secret like everyone else? As for Ramsey, I’m pretty sure he tolerated it, but didn’t participate. Although considering his wardrobe, who knows. I did find out that Ramsey often biked to practice, especially the morning after losses as a way of blowing off steam. He was ahead of his time.

My biggest criticism of Breaks of the Game is that too much of it feels like summary, like well-researched backstory. Considering the access that Halberstam had to not just the locker room, but the players’ and coaches’ homes, there’s a puzzling absence of “scenes.” Instead there’s 400 pages of character sketches. The games themselves don’t really come alive. There’s no suspense. You don’t feel like you’re there.

But the book is filled with such a great array of personalities that it’s very hard to put down. Billy Ray Bates alone deserves his own book. And he doesn’t show up till almost the end.

It was also fascinating to read about the league when it was still a second-tier sport, in terms of television coverage and public interest. 1979-80 was the year Magic and Bird broke into the league, and by the time I started paying attention, a decade later, the NBA looked totally different. I’d never really understood just how far it came during the ’80’s.

The Blazers had a particularly dark period of time (2001-2005) when off-the-court issues plagued the team and seemed to create a lack of unity in the locker room. From most accounts, the relationship between the players and the fan base became fractured. In one especially awful moment (for which he was fined $50k) in 2001, Bonzi Wells told Sports Illustrated,

“We’re not really going to worry about what the hell (the fans) think about us. They really don’t matter to us. They can boo us everyday, but they’re still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street. That’s why they’re fans, and we’re NBA players. 

Bonzi Wells had numerous off-the-court issues throughout his NBA career, and this comment says a lot about him, but it also highlights just how broken the player-fan relationship became in those days. It also strikes me that Portland is smaller and whiter (76% white and only 6% black, according to the 2010 Census) than many NBA cities, which impacts the dynamic. I’m not claiming that the good people of Portland don’t love their Blazers, but as a mostly white place with one major sports team, I could see those problem-plagued years as taking on a racial tone. Any thoughts on the connection between the fans and players in Portland?  

The potential for a disconnect is always there between professional athletes and fans. And it’s even more likely in a one-sport, predominantly white town. Fans are obsessive, they spend money on tickets and merchandise and $9 beers and feel a sense of ownership over the predominantly black millionaires down there on the court. I’m guilty of it, too. My ticket was free last night, but still I found myself thinking come on guys, it’s my first game of the season, I deserve better than THIS.  The knowledge that you’ve let down 20,000 people is a heavy thing to take home with you, whether you’re Damian Lillard or Bonzi Wells. Whether you admit it to yourself or not. As a fan, you’re hoping that your team is full of guys with resilience, guys who can’t wait to get back out on the court and prove that they’re winners. I honestly have no idea what role a professional coach plays in shaping an athlete’s private life. I suspect college coaches are far more involved. I imagine in the NBA it’s the veteran players who kind of show rookies “this is what we do after a game, this is how seriously we take our jobs.” And that’s where these current Blazers are so fortunate to play alongside someone like Wesley Matthews, who seems to my inexpert eyes pretty much the ideal teammate. Fun, hard-working, responsible, unselfish.
Of course fans are allowed to boo. Like you said, they often feel entitled to a certain experience because of the amount of money they’ve paid. I think the lethal combination, in which we see the worst of sports fans in various cities (especially in places where alcohol becomes a necessary ingredient for many to endure the winter), is the situation in which you see the frustrated fan who expects perfection and pays for his ticket with a very real sense of expectations in mind on that given night. The fan who is not coming in casually is probably the most liable to lash out. When they witness an uninspiring performance (of which there are always a few over the course of 41 home games), instead of sinking into disappointment, I imagine those fans scream the loudest. When the players they are screaming at happen to be young millionaires who are leading dysfunctional personal lives and getting into trouble with the law…and they happen to be black men, maybe this is where the shit kept hitting the fan (pardon the pun).  
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It’s interesting to consider the fact that the Blazers drafted Jermaine O’Neal as an 18 year-0ld in 1996, and Zach Randolph as a 20 year-old in 2001. As a member of the Warriors this year, Jermaine O’Neal has talked about how he’ll give anything for one last run at a title, and how important it is that he feels like team unity is essential to the Warriors success. Having seen Zach Randolph establish himself in Memphis over the last several years, it’s interesting to consider the arc of both of their careers and think of them both as rookies in Portland way back when. 

Funny you should bring up Jermaine O’Neal. He played sparingly in his four seasons here, but was always good for a dunk or two off the bench. The crowd loved him. When he was traded to the Pacers I remember feeling happy for him that he was finally going to get a chance to play. And then of course he became an All-Star. But the problem was that those Blazers teams under Mike Dunleavy were built to “win now at all costs,” and there really were costs — both to team leadership and to the development of young talent. As for Z-Bo, I’m not sure if he gets booed any more when Memphis is in town. Ultimately there’s a kind of bittersweet pride in watching him come into his own. It’s not like there would be any satisfaction if he were out of the league, you know? I’m sure you have complicated feelings for former Celtics.

I like your phrase, “a kind of bittersweet pride,” in considering Randolph today. The recent Celtics-Nets trade that sent Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn was certainly painful from an emotional standpoint. After a stretch of mediocrity that lasted from the mid-1990’s through 2001, and then again from 2003-2007, the KG era was certainly hard to let go of. Imagining Pierce in any other uniform was hard to do. Imagining them both playing for the Celtics nemesis of 2000-2003, Jason Kidd, was even more excruciating. Still, I understood that the Celtics had to move forward as a franchise and deal with the future and how to rebuild successfully. I know some Celtics fans are taking a bit of guilty pleasure out of this disastrous Nets season (so far…), but I will always let the appreciation for those years surpass the “Now he’s an enemy” kind of feeling. Comes down to tribalism, I guess. I try to keep on the positive end of that fandom spectrum. I feel like we’re overrun with all the negativity that we see in the sports media landscape.

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Read Part Two of the Q&A here: https://darkoindex.com/2014/01/08/qa-part-two-old-friend-michael-heald-on-this-years-portland-trail-blazers/

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And now for a wee bit of friend promotion and self-promotion:

Check out Michael’s press, Perfect Day Publishing at http://perfectdaypublishing.com/

Read my favorite of Michael’s essays, “It Should Be Mathematical,” about running, family and Olympic dreams, here:

http://www.propellermag.com/Summer2012/Heald1Summer12.html

Follow The Darko Index on Twitter @darkoindex or here at www.darkoindex.com

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