Talent wins basketball games, but an unlovable team is bad for business.
Fans who don’t respect their favorite team’s players… who can’t see themselves having a beer with them… who wouldn’t want their kids to be around them… those are fans who aren’t going to games, who aren’t buying merchandise, and who aren’t paying extra to watch games at home. No matter how dedicated a city may be to its team over the long haul, there’s no hope for success without fans buying into it in the short term, particularly in a small market like Portland.
Blazer fans know a thing or two about poor character. Bonzi Wells made it clear that the team didn’t care about their fans (for which he apologized years later). Ruben Patterson was accused of rape, and a plea agreement forced him to register as a sex offender. From Rod Strickland’s drunk driving, to Gary Trent’s assault, to Rasheed Wallace’s throwing of a towel in the face of the beloved Arvydas Sabonis, recklessness and poor judgment summed up what we now know as the Jail Blazers era.
Some argue that those old wounds have healed. While the loss of a superstar and a sure-to-be superstar may have upended the Blazers’ plans, there’s no finger to point, no blame to place… unless, of course, injuries are entities that can take responsibility and be blamed, or if different trainers could have saved the careers of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. I’m certain the first is impossible, and while the second might sound nice, it’s just not true.
Today’s Blazers are men you’d want to spend time with, who represent the team and the city better than most, who you might even trust to babysit your kids on date night. Damian Lillard refused an autograph at a mall, only to double back and take his picture with the kid moments later. Everything Wesley Matthews does embodies a working class spirit in a sport and culture whose value of working hard and keeping one’s mouth shut diminishes daily.
Earlier today, a video of Meyers Leonard playing table tennis with a kid from Hong Kong nearly brought me to tears, not because it was something extraordinary but because it was so human. Who hasn’t found themselves at some point or another concentrating deeply, pushing themselves not to show anyone up or to come out on top, but humbling one’s self in front of another for the sake of learning and get better?
It may be a little much to say that a 30-second clip proves the culture of the Blazers has shifted, or that a player’s body language can write a new chapter in Blazer history. But for those 30 seconds, it’s tough not to get pulled into the idea that this team, once again our team, is being built the right way.
Talent? It comes and goes, sometimes all too quickly. Culture? It persists. It sticks. It can build or break a bond between team and fan that survives hardship, struggle, and yes, even losing. The right culture can help us trudge through bad times, can soften rough edges, and maybe, just maybe, open the door to greater success than could have otherwise been hoped for.