IMAGE: Tom Oliver
Channing Frye has everything he—and many American men, for that matter—ever dreamed of.
At age 25, he’s making $3.1 million a year as a pro basketball player. He lives in a 4,000-square-foot high-rise condo on Portland’s South Waterfront. He drives a black ’65 Lincoln Continental convertible and goes home to a beautiful fiancée.
“I’m blessed,” Frye says, looking out over the city’s skyline from the full-length windows in his living room.
But for all his success, he’s not that different from a lot of Portlanders this Christmas—he’s uncertain about his job future.
When the Portland Trail Blazers traded for Frye last year, it was a finishing nail in the coffin of the old “Jail Blazers” image. Gone were all the bad-character guys who had soured the small-town love between the franchise and the biggest city in America with just one major-league sports team.
And now, 18 months later, the Blazers are winning with a roster packed with good-character players. Yet Frye, just three years removed from being a promising, 6-foot-11 rookie standout, has hardly played this season.
None of which is particularly unusual in a league where players come and go faster than Allen Iverson can break your ankles with a crossover. But Frye, through his offbeat sense of humor and evangelistic love for his new home city, has quickly become a part of Portland’s fabric in a way very few pro athletes ever accomplish.
He is, for fans more concerned with local art and cuisine than with Brandon Roy dropping 52 on Phoenix last week, the face of the Blazers. He’s the guy they see regularly cracking jokes in the Portland press, eating with his bulldogs Milton (also known as “Fat Boy”) and Lily at the Tin Shed on Northeast Alberta Street, or hanging out in the Pearl on First Thursday.
And the love is mutual. “This is where I want to spend the rest of my life,” Frye says. “But, at the same time, if you ask me the question, ‘Do I think this is the place for me in the next five or six years?’ I’m saying definitely not.”
On June 28, 2007, jersey-wearing and sign-wielding fans packed the Rose Garden for the biggest draft in recent Blazer history—the night the team used the NBA’s top pick to choose Greg Oden. The future, it seemed, had arrived.
But an unexpected trade rumored on ESPN the same night also underscored just how serious the franchise was about starting anew. The deal, confirmed the following day, sent troubled forward Zach Randolph (the Blazers’ leading scorer, rebounder and offensive focus) and two role players to New York for veteran guard Steve Francis—who would never actually play for Portland—and a lanky forward named Channing Frye.
Though Frye had helped the University of Arizona win two Pac-10 championships and was selected eighth by New York in the 2005 NBA draft, his two years with the Knicks had been bogged down by turmoil in the front office, as well as knee and ankle injuries. Portlanders could be forgiven for not remembering him.
A thousand miles away from the Rose Garden, at his parents’ house in Phoenix, Frye was just as puzzled about Portland. Frye and his agent, Rob Pelinka, suspected he’d be traded, so the nervous player gathered with friends and family to drink—“I was just trying to stay calm,” he says—and watch the draft on TV.
When the trade was announced, he got a call from a close college friend who was born and raised in Oregon. “She was laughing her ass off,” Frye says with a chuckle. “Because I used to be like, ‘Portland, man, what’s up there? Nothing but some grass and some rain and some hippies.’”
“We’re gonna show you a good time in Portland,” the friend replied.
“What?” Frye asked. “Are we gonna go to a granola festival?”
Turns out, the 25-year-old Frye meshes perfectly with Portland’s sensibilities: He’s a music lover, from hip-hop and R&B to Coltrane (“when he goes off on a solo it’s like a guy getting hot on the court”) and even—if a touch ironically—Foreigner and Def Leppard (“I love that stuff, man…I love karaoke at Dante’s”).
Frye has turned his home into what amounts to a gallery for local artists like Alex Steckly and Klutch, who created a full-wall mural for the hallway between the master bedroom and living room.
He posts green tips on his blog at channingfrye.com and appears, bright smile alight, on recycling handouts from the city’s Office of Sustainable Development.
Like any true resident of Little Beirut, Frye rolls his eyes when President Bush comes on television. He is goofy, a student of pop culture (“VH1 is seriously competing for best channel ever”) and a bit of a nerd (his primary World of Warcraft character is “Dookiedrawls,” a level 76 gnome frost mage—though he maintains he’s not as serious about the game as Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who has a “really nice” level 80 paladin).
On his blog, an ever-amused Frye posts YouTube clips of kids acting out medieval battles in the forest (“May you LARP forever and may the battlefields be filled with duct tape and just-pretend soldiers”) and asks Portlanders for advice on new restaurants to try, while sharing his favorites.
“Some people think it’s a façade, like I do this for attention,” Frye says. “But it’s just me being me.” The Photoshopped poster on his wall, of monster trucks, naked-lady mudflaps and Frye in a Western leather vest, would speak to that point.
“We get stereotyped so much,” Frye says of his fellow pro ballers. “Look, people are going to think what they’re going to think of me, but if I’m myself consistently then I don’t fit into your little box of what a professional athlete is. You don’t need to be a stereotypical basketball player to be successful. You can be yourself. You can kick it with artists, you can kick it with nerds.”
“I haven’t hung out with him much off the court,” says teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. “But he’s a fun guy.”
And there’s also pressure for athletes to conform. “You don’t want to go out the norm,” Frye says. “But I think [teammates] respect that I’m being me 24/7. Basketball is an up-and-down thing, but who I am is consistent.”
For an NBA player, Frye has always been somewhat of an anomaly. The oldest of two kids growing up in Phoenix—younger brother Logan just started attending the University of Michigan—Frye didn’t come from a basketball family, nor did he use the game to escape a rough upbringing. Frye’s parents were middle class, around the house full-time. His mom worked for the Greater Phoenix Multi-Cultural and Arts Foundation, his dad was a business consultant.
“They always kept me busy,” Frye says of his parents. “They didn’t want me to be uncomfortable in any situation, so they put me in art camp where I had to get used to being around artsy kids, and then they’d put me in basketball camp with the private-school kids, and then they put me in a basketball camp with the inner-city kids.”
Frye never idolized a particular player growing up. He had a Shawn Kemp-era Seattle Supersonics poster on his wall for a while—and he was so happy when his parents surprised him with NBA Jam for his Sega Genesis, he says, that he cried.
He started playing hoops obsessively in second grade and was “raw” as a youngster, he says, but enjoyed the game’s most basic aspects of running and shooting. Just before high school, Frye started obsessing over how many push-ups he could do and began lifting weights. “I’d look at my body like, ‘Last game somebody hit me in my hip and I didn’t have enough meat on me.’ So before I’d go to bed, I’d have my mom make me a big blender milkshake of, like, peanut butter, egg whites, all types of stuff.”
His beansprout body began to fill out, and a handwritten letter from University of Arizona coach Lute Olson persuaded Frye to stay close to home. By December of his freshman year, Frye had worked his way into the starting lineup. And by his senior year, he was averaging nearly 16 points and eight rebounds.
Frye was thrilled to be drafted eighth (and the first college senior picked) by the Knicks, one of the NBA’s marquee franchises by virtue of being in New York City. But the organization was in deep flux. By the time Frye’s rookie season began, coach Herb Williams had been fired and replaced by the peripatetic Larry Brown, who was constantly vying with management for control of the team. Brown lasted only a year.
“It was never about basketball. And that kinda took away from it,’’ Frye says. “People were getting traded in and out. We had the most lineups in the history of the NBA. It was bananas.”
At first, the aggressive New York media seemed delighted by the quotable Frye. Reporters praised him as the vanguard of the team’s “youth movement.” The New York Daily News put him in a stock-pick duel with Knicks legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, providing classic tabloid sports headlines like “Monroe in Sirius Trouble vs. Frye in Stock-Pick Duel.”
But the team spiraled downward on and off the court. The stress of nagging uncertainty over Frye’s role was compounded by the organization coaching its players’ interactions with the media. The rumor-obsessed New York media itself didn’t help, he says. “Everything was exaggerated. Half their questions were, ‘What about this rumor or what about that rumor?’ and at some point you just snap…. It changed a lot of people that year on our team. People started going at each other for things they read in the paper.”
Fate, Frye insists, brought him to Portland, a city far from the media spotlight.
“I came for a reason: I met my future wife, I got this house, I love Portland…I mean, how could you not?”
From the night he arrived, Frye started exploring the city. He was introduced to Lauren Lisoski, who would become his fiancée on his first night in Portland (“I don’t want to say love at first sight, but best friends at first week,” Frye says). Together they sampled the city’s outdoors, its nightlife and, most importantly, its food.
“People put their heart into food here,” Frye says. “And their beer.”
On an off-day at Southwest Macadam Avenue’s Buffalo Gap, his regular hangout, no one tries to talk basketball or have their picture taken with Frye. He orders his marquee menu item, “Channing’s Fries,” and watches the Celtics play the Hawks on a big screen, cringing when Boston’s Kevin Garnett gloats. “There’s no need for that,” Frye says, taking a sip from a pint of Guinness. “We know you’re good, we know your team is good. That’s just unnecessary.”
While Portland is a perfect fit, Frye’s job description has never been quite as clear-cut.
He calls himself a “skilled big man,” and he growls at the standard knock on his game—that he’s soft. “How am I soft?” Frye asks. “Because I’m slender? I weigh like 245 pounds, but I’m not going to be [in the post] wrestling with guys that are 280 or 290.” Throughout his life, Frye says, coaches haven’t known quite what to make of him. But he prefers to play to his strengths: long-range shooting and speed.
“When you’re as tall as he is, most coaches want you to be a big, burly, scrappy, throw-you-around-in-the-paint kind of guy,” says ESPN blogger and lifelong Blazers fan Henry Abbott. “So then if you’re not going to be that guy you really have to be able to shoot or play D or both. We have a lot of shooters on that team. Would you rather have Channing Frye shooting an 18-footer or—well, at this point he’d probably be one of your last choices.”
Abbott is speaking to both Frye’s recent shooting—he is averaging just 25 percent shooting in December—and the incredibly deep Blazer bench. That bench includes four small forwards—veteran Travis Outlaw, French rookie Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster (who’s missed all but one game with a foot injury) and Spanish rookie Rudy Fernandez. All four have proven themselves capable, long-range shooters, and all four have contracts carrying them at least through next season. Frye’s contract runs out at the end of this season.
Frye says he hasn’t been able to find a rhythm in limited time but that he can produce when given minutes. There is evidence to back that up. When an injury knocked veteran center Joel Przybilla out for the final five games last season, Frye took over as a starter and averaged an impressive 16 points and 10 rebounds.
But this year, with Przybilla and rookie Greg Oden healthy and power forward Aldridge improving in his second year, Frye’s playing time has been scarce. He is averaging only 12.9 minutes per game, compared with 17.2 minutes last year. He has been benched twice, and on Monday in Denver he played five minutes without scoring or rebounding.
“I think he’s one of the best big-men shooters in the game,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan says. He doesn’t worry, he says, about Frye’s shot, despite the recent slump. But he does say he would like Frye—who earned the team’s award for being the hardest-working player over last summer—to relax.
“I think sometimes he wants to do well and he presses. But if you can defend and rebound, that will give you some time, because I know you can shoot it…there’s always something else you can do.” Yet the bottom line is less encouraging. “For us to be playing 10 guys—it’s a lot of guys,” McMillan says. “We have 14 that can play, and you can’t please everybody.”
Though he doesn’t spend an exceeding amount of off-court time with other Blazers, his teammates speak highly of him. “He’s a great guy, and he plays his role to a T,” says Aldridge. “Some nights he plays 20 minutes, some nights he plays five or nine. But he’s always in good spirits, he’s always cheering guys on. He’s always being positive, on the bench or in the game.”
“[Frye] wants a bigger role,” Portland GM Kevin Pritchard says with empathy. “And we want that out of our players. We don’t want guys sitting there on the bench happy and not wanting to get in. We want them to be competitive; we want them to show initiative. Channing does that, and here’s the key thing: He always does that with integrity and respect.”
Frye hasn’t whined, knocked management or the coaching staff, or gone to the press to demand a trade. He credits the Blazers with making him a better player, and praises the team and staff without end. He even understands why he’s not out on the floor more often. “It’s just stacked,” he says in a booth at the Buffalo Gap, his eyes still focused on the Celtics-Hawks game. “They have their guys who have shown that they can produce and that they can win. I’m waiting for my chance.”
Though the phrase “anything can happen” peppers talk of his future, it’s clear Frye looks at a move—either via a midseason trade or when his contract is through at the end of the season—as a foregone conclusion. In vague terms, he hints that a midseason trade might give him a chance to prove his merit with extended minutes this season, putting him in a better position to decide his own fate come summer. The prospect of an instant move is one his fiancée, who has a good job with a local advertising agency and has never lived outside of Portland, is also ready to face.
Pritchard and McMillan are quick to point out that the NBA’s grueling 82-game season provides opportunities for guys like Frye to prove themselves. But for now, he just doesn’t see his contribution. “People say, ‘You’re a role player,’” Frye says. “But really, in the minutes that I’m playing, I’m not a role player. A role player has a role in the team winning…. Whether I play or not, the team is going to win regardless. So what role do I have with this team?” But Frye’s not asking anybody to feel sorry for him when unemployment is at 8.1 percent in Oregon, and he’s not letting an uncertain future slow him down. “I love these guys,” he says. “And I’m going to bust my ass for this team until something happens.”
But like anybody whose employers are about to make some tough personnel decisions, Frye has had to become realistic. “If you look at a picture of this team in two or three years, I’m not in it.”
A flock of reporters surrounds Brandon Roy in the locker room after his historic 52-point game last week against Phoenix. Just behind their backs, Frye sits down to slowly pull his socks on and watch the feeding frenzy unfold.
For the second time this season, he didn’t leave the bench all game. In incomplete sentences padded with, “Know what I’m saying?” he forces a hopeless half-smile. “I kinda figured it was coming,” Frye says of not playing. “They’re not gonna wait on me, so, hey.”
He trails off a bit, mumbling that it’s not a big deal, and that he’d rather not talk about himself on such a big night for his teammate. Suddenly a Fox 12 cameraman shines the hot TV lights on Frye to get his reaction to Roy’s scoring tear, and Frye smiles again for the camera.
It’s all part of the game, Henry Abbott says. “I think it’s shocking, distressing and bizarre, right? That if you’re the fifth-best player in the world that you’ll play till you drop, but if you’re the 200th best player in the world you might not play basketball at all.”
This Christmas, all Channing Frye wants is a chance to play.
Frye’s contract stipulates that the Blazers can match another team’s offer to keep him a Blazer. But it’s unclear how much of a financial commitment the team would want to make.
Frye’s career averages are 8.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. This year, his averages are 4.7 points and 2.3 rebounds.
Southeast Portland’s Horse Brass Pub is among Frye’s favorite Portland hangouts: “They’re so nice in there. People look a little weird, but I like that. Suddenly, I’m not the center of attention—the guy with the purple mohawk is the center of attention.”
Investor Peter Stott bought Frye’s Southwest Waterfront unit for $3.3 million on Oct. 13, 2006, according to property records. Stott sold the unit to Frye for $1.875 million on Dec. 18, 2007, records show.
The Portland Trail Blazers had a 17-11 record as of press time. They play the Dallas Mavericks on Christmas Day at the Rose Garden.