Rip City vs. No Pity: Blazers

Basketball is the real beautiful game.

You have to start with the pinwheel.

When I first started attending Trail Blazers games in 2003, the team’s brand was suffering. This was not because the Blazers were bad: The squad had finished the previous regular season with a very respectable 50-32 record.

But in the first round of that year’s playoffs, one could (and I did) saunter up to the ticket office 20 minutes before a playoff game and buy a nosebleed-seat ticket for $15. That’s because most Blazers fans just weren’t crazy about the guys in uniform.

It’s not just that a handful of the players had been through drug charges, sexual assault allegations and ugly interactions with fans—troubles extreme enough that management would break up the squad that summer and sign a 25-point pledge with fans centered largely on player character. It was that the 2003 Blazers were cocky without playing particularly stylish basketball.

Portland basketball fans don’t expect their team to be a reflection of the city (that would require nine members of the 12-man roster to be white, after all), but they do expect beauty and grit on the court every night. That’s because Blazers fans don’t watch the game like anyone else. They watch for beauty.

And it really begins with the pinwheel.

IMAGE: Tony Wecker, Portland Trail Blazers
In 1970, when the Blazers entered the NBA, there were 17 teams. Most of them had pretty straightforward logos. The Milwaukee Bucks’ insignia featured a chilled-out deer in a sweater, spinning a basketball on its finger. The Boston Celtics had a mischievous, pipe-smoking leprechaun, also spinning a basketball on his finger.

Portland went in a radically different direction that dared to elevate the sports team logo to high art. The pinwheel, which has befuddled generations of non-Portlanders, is meant to symbolize players’ movements up and down the court and the beautiful symmetry of basketball.

Those five red stripes set yin-yang style against five white ones may not have been intended as avant-garde—it was designed by Blazers co-founder Harry Glickman’s cousin, and could a guy named Frank Glickman really have been too highbrow?—but the image seemed to predict Portland’s future creative class and, more importantly, seeded the intensely personal fashion in which this city’s fans would watch basketball.

The Blazers’ logo doesn’t say, “We’re going to crush you.” It says, “My God, isn’t this a beautiful game?” That is profoundly subversive. It is very Portland. It is also not an ax.

The pinwheel persists in part because of the team’s extraordinary early history and lore, which is also why the Blazers will never be displaced as this city’s most beloved sports franchise.

Imagine, if you will, Portland in 1969: a one-horse town considerably whiter and sleepier than the sleepy white town you call home today. Thanks to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, live music still could not be played in bars (not that many notable bands would want to come through town anyway), and if you wanted competitive sports, you watched minor-league baseball or maybe drove south for a college football game. Fun in Portland in 1969 was getting drunk and driving around, or smoking weed and sitting at a park.

Then blam, it’s 1970, and the National Basketball Association opens a franchise in the middle of town.

Now, we’ve all seen how excited Portland can get over an IKEA, a Krispy Kreme or an H&M. So it’s easy to understand how the arrival of a pro basketball team changed the very psyche of the city in 1970, and how that team’s NBA championship run in 1977 would become the city’s proudest collective moment.

The Blazers’ only major-league championship has everything to do with the startling popularity of its second major professional club.

Few among us can delude ourselves into thinking that the level of competition in Major League Soccer approaches that of the greatest basketball league on the planet, and none of us should expect that the Timbers will bring a national focus to this city the way the Blazers do in a good season.

I’m not a soccer-hating American. I actually think the game, at its highest level, is totally thrilling. But the Timbers are a midlevel team in a low-quality league. On a recent visit from England, my soccer-obsessed cousin and her boyfriend attended a Timbers game. “The crowd was great,” she told me, “but the game—so boring, mate.”

Fans swarm to the Timbers because they want to get in on the ground floor of something.

Timbers fandom to many also seems like an opportunity to piss on the embers of a bygone Blazers legacy. Should the team bring home a golden cup or silver ball or whatever the hell MLS awards its champions, the ensuing riotous street party will be theirs alone. There will be no Bill Walton-looking creepers lurking in the shadows and saying “Yeah, but ’77 was better.”

I understand this. I’m even a little jealous about it. But there’s no room in my life for a second marriage.

I choose to watch the Blazers—despite my many misgivings about corporate sports franchises in general and the team’s current bottom-line-oriented president in particular—because even when they suck, the competition is the best in the world. I watch them because basketball appeals to my ADD side more than soccer ever could. And I watch the Blazers because the team’s history gives me a better understanding of the city I love best.

That last bit has come into sharp focus recently. Early this summer, I took a job in San Francisco. I miss Portland desperately, even as it changes into something less familiar and more weirdly cosmopolitan every time I visit. Even the Blazers are changing, but at least I can keep up. I’ve got NBA League Pass. I’ve got something to talk about with the folks back home.

I watch for connections. I watch for beauty. I have never been so eager for basketball season in my life, and I have never been a bigger Blazers fan.  

[All Rip City Vs. No Pity articles are collected here.]

Casey Jarman is a former WW music editor and sports writer who now serves as managing editor for the believer magazine in San Francisco.

WWeek 2015

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