Oregon’s Senior U.S. Senator Becomes a Lobbyist—for Keeping the Trail Blazers in Portland

Ron Wyden is guarding against what happened to the Seattle SuperSonics.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. He didn’t much enjoy the team’s futile basketball season, which started with the loss of Damian Lillard to a season-ending injury and ended with a lot more losses.

But he thinks he can net the Blazers a win that lasts a long time.

The success he’s looking for? Confirmation that the Blazers will remain in Portland after their lease at Moda Center expires in 2025. There’s enormous investor interest in NBA franchises these days, including from billionaires up north who are still reeling from the stunning 2008 relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City.

On July 5, Blazers chairwoman Jody Allen denied that she’s actively shopping the team. “There is no pre-ordained timeline,” Allen said in a statement.

Wyden, who earned a basketball scholarship at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has unusual pull with the NBA, thanks to his long friendship with league commissioner Adam Silver. As Wyden rebounded from a recent bout with COVID-19 (the senator took Paxlovid and says he’s fully recovered), he spoke to WW in an interview that mostly stuck to sports.

He told us he’s been thinking a lot about the team lately. That’s because of Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s bid for the team and also because he will speak later this week at the belated memorial service for Blazers co-founder Harry Glickman, who died in June 2020 at age 96.

WW: Tell me about your relationship with Harry Glickman.

Ron Wyden: Harry was responsible for dispatching me to the former Soviet Union in hopes of bringing back [Blazer great] Arvydas Sabonis. It was right out of a Rocky movie. These huge guys are sitting around the table, Soviet sports federation officials. And I show up with all these papers: “Gentlemen, I am here to present a document from the top officials with the Portland Trail Blazers, [owner] Mr. Larry Weinberg and Mr. Harry Glickman, making it clear that Sabonis will play for Portland. He will receive outstanding medical care. He will be housed in a beautiful residence.” You know, all this kind of stuff. I’d get all whipped up and give my little speech. And some guy right out of the Rocky movies would say “nyet” and then I would get all cranked up and I’d do it again. After the third nyet, I was looking for the door. [Editor’s note: Sabonis played for the Blazers from 1995 to 2003.]

That’s unusual work for an elected official.

Harry was a gift to our community, and the Blazers meant so much to the city. We’ve had a love affair for the better part of five decades. And I’m as determined as Dame is when’s going to the hoop that the love affair continues. I’ve been talking to Adam Silver about how important it is to keep the franchise in Portland. And I want us to get a WNBA team. Harry opened all these doors. At his service on Friday, I’m going to tell people it’s up to us to keep ‘em open.

How do you know Adam Silver?

Adam interned for [former U.S. Rep.] Les AuCoin (D-Ore.). So, I have known him for many, many years. When we talk, we often reminisce about Les and Oregon. What I’ve told the commissioner is that nobody has a more reliable and rabid fan base than Portland. I make the case that NBA basketball can’t just be about big cities on the East Coast and in California. Medium-sized and smaller markets like Portland, they need to know the league is committed to them. Harry Glickman knew that in the ‘70s.

What does Silver say?

Adam has been a friend for a long time. I’m not going to get into all the specifics, but I was really pleased with his statement that he understood how important it is to have the club in Portland. I’ve also made it clear I’m going watchdog the process—because if you can have the Sonics leave Seattle out of nowhere for Oklahoma City, you can’t let your guard down.

So what happens next?

Well, it’s such wonderful news that Phil Knight has expressed his interest in owning the club. And, without going into those discussions, I’ve talked to Phil often over the years about the importance of the Blazers staying.

Have you had any communication with Allen?

No.

Team owners often leverage fans’ affection for tax breaks. How do we avoid that?

Nobody has asked me for any subsidy. I see my job as setting the temperature so that clubs are going say, “Hey, this is the kind of place we want to be.”

You mentioned your hope for a WNBA franchise. Tell me more.

Portland’s a hotbed for women’s sports. You got off-the-charts attendance for the Thorns. I can just imagine what the crowds would be like if [former University of Oregon star] Sabrina Ionescu or some of these former UO or [Oregon State University] players came back to Portland. A Portland WNBA franchise would be a natural rival for the Seattle Storm. It would help the new owners of the Blazers with an additional 18 to 20 home dates. And when we’re celebrating the anniversary of Title IX, this is a great beyond-basketball opportunity.

Any sense from Commissioner Silver or others on when we’ll know the Blazers’ fate?

I can’t get into any details, but I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot of discussion going on right now.

Easier question: Rate the Blazers’ summer moves.

Jerami Grant played very well for the [Detroit] Pistons. He helps us up front. That’s a big plus. [Shaedon] Sharpe sounds like a really promising young guy. I like the Blazers resigning [Anfernee Simons] a lot. Nurk looks healthy and Dame is healthy. I think the Blazers can make some noise.

You helped former Blazer Enes Kanter Freedom when Turkey was targeting him. Is the NBA blackballing him now for his criticism of China?

I don’t know enough about all of the discussions that went on with Enes and Boston and the league. I’ve seen him a couple of times, and we were going to get together again, but that’s when I got COVID. He’s a really principled, moral, decent guy. And I think he’s going be speaking out for human rights for many years to come.

Non-basketball question: What’s your takeaway from the Jan. 6 hearings?

Cassidy Hutchinson was spellbinding. This was truth telling, and it was extraordinarily important. When she said, for example, that Trump knew that the mob was armed and he said take the magnetometers out? I said, holy moly, that is a stunning, stunning finding. I mean, how is it getting it clearer than that? And I’ll tell you another thing. I was there on Jan. 6. And when I’m on the Senate floor and they’re banging on the doors, I thought, “This doesn’t happen in the United States.” And now, after last week’s testimony, I believe the odds of making sure it doesn’t happen again are getting better.