February has been an interesting month for the Blazers and their fans. LaMarcus Aldridge showed that his two plus months of high level play was worth Player of the Month honors, the team seemed to jell in a way that they hadn’t previously this season, rolling into the All-Star break on a six-game winning streak and in fifth place in the incredibly tight Western Conference. It wasn’t until after the All-Star break, though, that quite likely the biggest thing in Blazer nation happened, putting an unforgettable cap on the month of February.
Portland made a trade to bring in Gerald Wallace. The deadline trade wasn’t exactly headline grabbing outside of Portland, considering some of the other deals that went down, but it was a pretty big deal in this relatively small market. One thing for sure that didn’t got unnoticed by any Blazer fan was that the trade included one Joel Przybilla. Although very few people would undo the trade, especially given what Wallace can bring to this team on offense and defense, everybody was sad to see Joel go.
This Saturday is a momentous occasion for all of us fans that grew to love what Joel brought to the Blazers; it will be the first time since 2003 that Joel will take the Rose Garden floor in a jersey that doesn’t belong to the Portland Trail Blazers.
I would like to take this time to say just a few things about Joel Przybilla, before we get to tomorrow when Joel is officially the enemy.
I’ll start with this. Here is a list of just a few of the guys that have come and gone in the Portland organization in the six plus years of work the team got out of Joel Przybilla:
- Shareef Abdur-Rahim
- Derek Anderson
- Ruben Patterson
- Theo Ratliff
- Nick Van Exel
- Steve Blake (twice)
- Juan Dixon
- Fred Jones
- Ime Udoka
- Channing Frye
- James Jones
- Jarrett Jack
- Travis Outlaw
- Martell Webster
- Josh McRoberts
- Zach Randolph
- Sergio Rodriquez
- Juwan Howard
- Jerryd Bayless
- Darius Miles
Many of the above players were varying levels of fan favorites, and there were many players that I’m sure most fans were sad to see leave. Along with them, there have been plenty of other players that came and went that we’re all hard pressed to remember. I couldn’t pick Sergei Monia out of a lineup of one, and know even less about Luke Schenscher.
But even recognizable, rotation guys like Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw, projects that showed signs of high potential before being shipped, and Juwan Howard, who built as strong a following as anyone could imagine in his one year with the Blazers, paled in comparison when compared to the kind of love that Blazer fans showed for Joel.
My personal memories of Joel go back to his second season in Portland. Think back, it was 2005-06, and the Blazers were working hard to avoid being the worst team in the league. The once always packed Rose Garden was basically empty every night, as team after team rolled into town and wiped the floor with the Blazers. Two seasons previous Portland had missed the Playoffs for the first time in my lifetime, and it was clear that things were going to have to get worse before they got any better.
That turned out to not be the case. After stumbling in his first season as head coach, Nate McMillan steadily improved and had the Blazers back in the Playoffs after only three seasons of futility. McMillan was brought in to change the culture of the Trail Blazers, and nobody grew to embody that change of culture more than Joel. In his first few seasons in Portland Joel did as much wrong as he did right, but by the time the Blazers had reached their peak, Joel was as important to that success as anybody on the roster.
In 2008-09, which may turn out to be the high watermark for this generation of Blazers, Joel’s per game statistics were up in every category. He averaged nearly nine total rebounds per game, while shooting an impressive 62% from the floor. More importantly, it was the only season of his career in which he appeared in all 82 games.
My personal favorite memories of Joel came from that season, and both involved Joel doing what he does best, enforcing. The first came in at home against New Orleans in January. Playing without Brandon Roy, and coming off one of the best wins of the season only a few days before against the Boston Celtics, the Blazers would end up losing to the Hornets, but not before Joel Przybilla and Tyson Chandler almost came to blows. Joel was playing with an injured wrist, and became upset with Chandler’s continued slapping at his injury. Near the end of the third quarter, Joel decided that he’d had enough, and the two came as close to a fight as two seven-footers will get without actually throwing a punch.
Another favorite Joel memory of mine came a few months later near the end of the stretch run when Portland was absolutely unbeatable at home. Again in the third quarter Joel got into it with another visiting big man. This time it was the Utah Jazz and the big was Carlos Boozer. Joel and Boozer ended up getting ejected after receiving back-to-back double-technical fouls for some chest-to-chest chatter that up until recently was included in the pre-game highlights almost every night. What’s made Joel’s ejection so memorable, in a game that Portland dominated from start to finish, was that he left the court to a standing ovation. Rarely, if ever does a back-up center, a guy named Greg Oden was the starter at that point, get a standing ovation. Nobody in the Rose Garden that night thought twice about showing their appreciation for Joel.
Which brings me, finally, to Saturday night. Beyond the Beat’s Wendell Maxey summed it up pretty nicly in this tweet. Joel deserves to receive a lot of love from the Portland faithful, and you’d be out of your mind to think he won’t get it. This city loved Joel, and will continue to love him. Here’s an example of the kind of love I’m talking about: A close friend of mine, a die-hard living in Corvallis, almost named his dog Billa. He decided against it because his friend had a dog named Bella, but you get the idea. As a point of comparison, I have another friend, another die-hard in Portland, with a chocolate lab named Drexler. I have yet to meet somebody with a dog named Brandon Roy.
This season’s Charlotte Bobcats are not a very good team, made worse by the fact that their best player now is a Blazer, and it’s unclear as to where Joel’s career will go following this season. Joel is in the final year of his contract, and with his knees the way they are, he might not have many seasons left.
Since coming back to the rotation for Portland, Joel has been noticeably slower than before, limiting further his already limited mobility. His minutes played have been way down, as has his effectiveness when in the game. Throughout his struggles to return from knee surgery, Joel has maintained the professionalism that has come to be a hallmark of what he brought to Portland, saying all he wanted to do was get better and help his team. With a lockout looming, and the potential of there not being a season becoming more of a possibility, it’s reasonable to assume that there’s a possibility Joel will hang it up after 11 seasons.
He’s come along way, as has the team he left behind. In 2008-09, when I had my first opportunity to talk to Joel, I was struck by his style of leadership. He wasn’t an All-Star, or the guy that was going to win the game for Portland every night. But he brought something else. With Portland being one of the youngest teams in the league, Joel was the elder statesman, one of the only guys on the team to have his kid in the locker room. It was if he was quietly teaching his teammates how to behave professionally. After the ringer fan favorites such as Bonzi Wells and Rasheed Wallace, traded to signal the beginning of make-over process, had put the franchise through, teaching professional behavior was nearly as important as putting up winning numbers on the court.
Saturday could possibly be Joel Przybilla’s final night in the Rose Garden. He will get a huge ovation, and he will have earned it.