There was always a certain kind of person who despised the Jail Blazers.
Existing in a time before Twitter, Instagram and Woj bombs, there are few professional sports teams in history as notorious as the Portland Trail Blazers of the early 2000s. First dubbed the "Jail Blazers" in 1996 by this very newspaper—somewhat regrettably, in retrospect—the squad's collective misdeeds earned the ire of baby boomers and the type of fan who makes a point of telling you he prefers college basketball because those kids "play the game the right way."
It's taken a surprisingly long time for someone to revisit the era in book form. Jail Blazers (Sports Publishing, 544 pages, $26.99), by longtime Portland Tribune beat reporter Kerry Eggers, aims to be the definitive statement on a period that makes up more than a decade of Blazers lore. Unfortunately, it ends up telling only part of the story.
Because the truth is, not everyone hated that team. I was a freshman in high school in 1999—and, full disclosure, the co-president of a Bonzi Wells fan club—born into a family of die-hard Blazers fans, and we loved them dearly. For all their misdeeds and misdemeanors, they were still underdogs—a highly paid collection of castoffs, young guns, past-their-prime stars and one lumbering, lovable Lithuanian. The Lakers had Shaq and Kobe. We had Stoudamire and Sabas.
In Portland, the Jail Blazers were a cultural phenomenon, equally hated and revered. Though some of the team's actions were truly sickening—especially general manager Bob Whitsitt's signing of convicted domestic abuser Ruben Patterson—there was, in hindsight, a racist undercurrent in the way the team was characterized. Yes, Rasheed Wallace was clearly a pain for the media to cover, but his off-court troubles were mostly limited to smoking weed. There's a lot of talk about Wallace's "wasted talent" but not enough about how great he was on defense or how well he bought into the team concept.
Jail Blazers never really gets into the dichotomy that made the team so interesting. Tellingly, Eggers could not get any of the main characters—such as Wallace, Wells or Damon Stoudamire—to talk on the record. Instead, he combines media quotes from the era with his own detailed memories and those of fellow old-guard journalists like Dwight Jaynes and peripheral figures, such as Gary Trent, Steve Kerr and Kenny Anderson. He painstakingly documents every missed practice and bus ride by troubled guard J.R. Rider, mixing in extensive game notes. Eggers makes his own thoughts of those years clear mostly in editorial asides: After discussing one particularly bad game from Wallace, he makes sure to note, "That night, after the game he danced the night away."
It's all interesting stuff to revisit. But while Eggers' book is thorough in its retelling of what happened, there's disappointingly little exploration of why the team mattered, and how the Blazers ended up as Portland folk heroes.
As the narrative evolves, Eggers positions Whitsitt as the true villain, the orchestrator who brought all those questionable characters to town, always favoring talent over team chemistry and operating with cold detachment. (He lived in Seattle the whole time he ran the team.) After putting together a roster that came within minutes of making the NBA Finals in 2000, Whitsitt just kept tinkering, trading away future All-Star Jermaine O'Neal and bringing in an overweight, cocaine-addled former All-Star in Shawn Kemp.
For longtime fans, it's difficult to read about that era without thinking of what could have been. Same goes for the book itself.
SEE IT: Kerry Eggers is at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., powells.com, on Sunday, Jan. 6. 7:30 pm.