Free agent signings tend to all happen the same way, more or less. With a finite number of free agents available—all of them known entities—rumors begin to fly as soon as the free agency moratorium ends. Names are matched with teams based on wish and speculation, connected national reporters make claims backed by well-placed sources, players take meetings with the teams they’re interested in, teams interview players that fit their needs.
When all the due diligence has been completed, when the agents have met with the general managers and figured out all the various details that make up a complicated NBA contract, teams make official announcements and host press conferences where their newest players get to introduce themselves to the local media and get photographed holding up their new jersey.
Every one of the Blazers’ free agent signings in the summer of 2013 went down in just that fashion. The official press release announcing the signing of the Blazers’ final free agent of this offseason, however, contained a unique twist.
“The Portland Trail Blazers have signed free agent guard Mo Williams,” was the first line of the official press release. “He will wear No. 7 for the Blazers,” was the last.
Jamming in five paragraphs of stats and quotes providing a quick primer on Williams and his professional career before getting to the information that the newest Blazer will wear the number that once belonged to Brandon Roy isn’t exactly burying the lede. The story is, of course, that for a relatively reasonable price, the Blazers have added an NBA All-Star with 10 years of experience who has played on teams that have included LeBron James and Chris Paul.
That being said, hearing that there would be a new No. 7 in Rip City turned the fan-base on its ear.
The corner of the Twitter-verse occupied by Blazer fans lit up once the story broke that Mo Williams would wear the No. 7. That Brandon Roy’s jersey number isn’t retired or that the amount of Blazer jersey numbers that have been retired vastly outstrips the number of titles won by the team—Dave Twardzik’s career averages of 9.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game didn’t keep his number 13 from getting rafter treatment—seemed irrelevant to the web denizens who didn’t care to see any Blazer other than Roy ever adorned in the number seven.
For his trouble, Mo Williams handled what could have been a delicate situation with the kind of aplomb one would expect from a seasoned professional.
“Me picking my number had nothing to do with Brandon,” Williams told the Portland media at his introductory press conference. “I've been 25 all my life. When they called me and said what number do you want, I said 25. They said 25 is taken. Alright, I was 5 last year, let me take 5. But 5 was taken. I was 2 in Cleveland. I'll take 2. But 2 is taken. All right, put '2' and '5' together.”
Williams capped his answer to the groaner of question about his choice of jersey number with an anecdote about his son helping him finalize the choice to go with seven. It wasn’t the question anybody wanted to deal with, but it elicited the kind of answer that can only help in building a bridge to a rabid, not always rational, fan-base, one still cursing various higher powers for taking away one of the best basketball talents the Pacific Northwest has ever known.
But the Blazers’ last free agent introduction of the offseason was about a lot more than just what number Mo Williams would be wearing; General Manager Neil Olshey made that very clear.
"[Williams] brings a skill set that I think takes us to the next level, pushes us into another threshold,” Olshey said of his latest acquisition. “His ability to score, his ability to facilitate and his ability to lead are key elements in what we're trying to build here. He's going to be an integral part of that going forward.”
Mo Williams knows it’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters, not the number on the back. With a career that includes more than a few big nights against the Blazers at the Rose Garden (back in 08-09 Williams dropped a healthy 33 points in Portland, a game he remembers well, and in which the old No. 7 paced the Blazers with 23 points), Williams is excited to have the vocal Portland crowd behind him for a change.
“I always liked coming to Portland, I always loved playing [here]. The fans have always been great. No matter what team I came in here on, the fan support was always there. That’s something I was always intrigued about,” Williams said. “Fortunately and unfortunately I’ve had some good nights in [the Rose Garden]. The fortunate part is that I can play forty whatever odd games in [the Rose Garden].”
And when asked if he thought the local fans would welcome him with open arms, even while wearing the number of their favorite fallen icon: “Well, that’s the goal,” Williams said. “We’re on the same team now.”
As for the No. 7, Brandon Roy is never far from the hearts and minds of Blazer fans. Whether Roy deserves it or not, there is a steady call for his name and number to be hanging in the Rose Garden—excuse me, Moda Center—next to the likes of Walton, Lucas, and Drexler.
Should the day come that number seven is lifted to the rafters, and should Mo Williams still be a Blazer on that day, it stands to reason that Williams, regardless of how his children feel, will give it up.
It also stands to reason that by the time seven is retired, there’s a good chance at least the numbers five (Will Barton) or 25 (Earl Watson) will be available. The No. 2, however, belongs to Wesley Matthews. He might be around for a while.