The Blazers Turn 50 This Year. They Are Portland’s Common Ground.

Our NBA team transcends class, race, and the urban/rural divide. (Now they just need to win something.)

By Casey Jarman September 23, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

“Blazermania”: as our NBA team tips off season-long 50th anniversary celebrations this month, it can be hard to remember what makes it special. These days, most pro sports teams have a fan “Nation,” rallied around a sales-oriented catchphrase: “It Takes Everything!” or “See Us Rise!” Portland’s town/team bond has always been different, a phenomenon built decade on decade by the fans, not for them.

It didn’t happen instantly. During the inaugural 1970 season, Memorial Coliseum was less than half full most nights. But as the squad ascended out of expansion-team purgatory, “mania” ascended with it, fueled by underdog possibility and a Deadhead superstar. By 1977 fans began meeting their championship-bound team at the airport en masse, and quoting announcer Bill Schonely’s one-liners like scripture. A DNA-level cultural phenomenon took hold, complete with collectible mugs and really strange proto-rap-rock anthems. (Thanks, Z100!) 

What if Portland had another major-league team in the early ’70s? What if Bill Walton, icon of that one and only ’77 title, succumbed to his injury-prone body in, say, 1976? Would the Blazers have gone the way of the San Diego Clippers (now in Los Angeles), or Cincinnati Royals (now in Sacramento)?

We only know what happened. The ’77 championship fused city and team, and the Moda Center still reports 99 percent attendance. More important, the Blazers are a language Portlanders (and Oregonians statewide) speak across lines of class, race, the urban/rural divide—even interest in any other sports. Today, even with the Timbers and Thorns and Ducks and Beavers vying for attention, Blazermania remains our state’s sports touchstone.

Yes, there have been rough stretches. Bad draft picks (OK, the worst draft picks) and career-ending injuries made fans wonder whether our team was cursed. But things are looking up, and Portland enters its 50th NBA season with high expectations.

After one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in league history—with stars aligning on new super-teams and no unanimous favorite—fans hope for a perfect storm that brings Rip City a trophy again. A long shot? Vegas seems to think so. But last year saw the team’s finest playoff showing in two decades, led by a legit superstar—Damian Lillard—with dramatic flair, and his unflappable wingman, CJ McCollum. With key new players coming aboard, the 2019–2020 season could inject high ambition into the Blazers’ traditional underdog role. (Meanwhile, the squad’s internal catchphrase has become “We Got Shooters,” a slogan almost as absurd and guileless as Portland itself.)

If you’re a new fan, or a new Portlander, this is a great time to get red hot and rollin’. That’s something we say around here. Soon you’ll understand.

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