The Portland Trail Blazers have had several fun winning eras throughout franchise history. The mid-2000s period was not one of them.
As a Portland native, I’m embarrassed to say it, but I can’t lie. I don’t remember my first Portland Trail Blazers game. Sure, I have tons of memories of attending the (arena formerly known as the) Rose Garden, but without the modern digital trail that is social media, there is no way to know the exact date.
I do, however, have an old memory of being at a Bullwinkle’s and being nudged by my father as he pointed out none other than Rasheed Wallace. While I can’t say for sure whether I had attended a game before this experience, I had never been close enough to understand the stature of a professional basketball player truly. Having only seen him in uniform and on TV, it felt like I saw a superhero in his everyday alter ego—jeans, boots, jacket, normal wear.
Even though we didn’t go up to say hello or take a photo, merely seeing him exist in my reality brought me so much joy. Rasheed, Portland’s All-Star, played putt-putt and ate pizza, just like me.
My affinity for the big man made it sadder when he was traded to Atlanta on February 9, 2004. While he would only be a Hawk for a single game, he would never play for Portland again. Wallace left before the season ended, meaning he was not a part of the tenth seed squad that missed the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.
Being seven at the time, I remember my parents’ disappointment more than my own emotions. However, in my head, the Blazers were simply a good team, and that was that. It’s how it had always been. Which perhaps made it all the worse to watch Portland miss the postseason year after year, crushing my idealistic view of the franchise. However, looking back, the 2003-2009 Blazers provided fans of my generation with a loyalty that fair-weather fans will never know.
By the time Portland was halfway into a disastrous 2004-05 season, it was clear the previous year’s playoff absence was no fluke. Instead, the team was on an undeniable decline, losing a large amount of talent as the front office desperately tried to move past the “Jail Blazer” era.
Blazer fans watched as players like Jermaine O’Neal and Wallace were shipped away, only to flourish more than they ever had in the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, things only worsened for the players who remained.
Between 2004-07, the Blazers produced their worst season records since before the team’s single championship in 1977. Most fans likely weren’t old enough or perhaps even living in Portland to remember the woes involved in the franchise’s early years. After decades of success, Rip City had reverted into struggling times.
As a young fan, it was in these years that I gained a fierce passion for the team. Old enough to understand the position my team was in, I became unconcerned with overall records, win streaks, or end of season results. Instead, it was the entertainment of pure basketball. During that period, it was rare to expect blowout victories. An underdog in what felt like every three out of four games, unwavering faith was near mandatory in those years. No fan was under the impression we would be playing in June or even May, for that matter. Instead, Blazer games were simply about enjoying the moment.
The Blazers did not return to the playoffs until 2009, just months before I wrapped my elementary school career. What may have felt like a return to normalcy for older fans was brand new to me. For the first time I could remember, Portland was being discussed on national television. The Brandon Roy / LaMarcus Aldridge pairing was beginning to have results. The team was back, and so was Blazermania, with home attendance soaring to its highest average since 2001.
While Brandon Roy’s 2011 retirement created a small hiccup for the franchise, the 2010s saw Portland return to it’s winning history. Under new coach Terry Stotts and a little known 2012 draftee Damian Lillard, the Blazers have consistently ranked as one of the best teams in the league.
Now, in 2020, there’s a whole generation of young fans who have no memories of the mid-2000s woes. And while I wouldn’t wish the ongoing disappointment and frustration upon anyone, I’m thankful for my experience. For every time we saw fellow fans spilling out the arena with over six minutes left in the fourth.
For the 21-61 season, we try not to talk about it. For the Greg Oden jersey in my closet that I refuse to get rid of. In an age where superstars flock to the big cities and fans show more loyalty to players than franchises, it brings me great pride to be a lifelong member of Rip City.