Seemingly everything that can possibly happen in a sporting event was happening at Moda Center on Thursday.
It was the first Blazers game after the death of longtime team owner Paul Allen on Monday. It was also the first game LeBron James would play as a Los Angeles Laker.
Everyone who was anyone in the NBA was in the building: Lakers GM and former super-agent Rob Pelinka; league commissioner Adam Silver; national writers out the wazoo.
Allen's seat was left empty, with a single rose and his iconic snap-back-hat-that-doesn't-quite-fit-his-head sitting on his seat.
Lakers fans, who always travel, were out in force, crawling through the concourse in LeBron and Kobe jerseys. I spoke to two Lakers fans from Northern Washington, who have rooted for the Lakers all their life and are feeling a little disassociated with rooting for LeBron instead of Kobe.
TJ Schrivner and his younger half-brother, Tanner Olson, are a house divided—Tanner in Lakers gold and TJ sporting one of the Blazers' default red jersey. They're both from Tigard, but the Blazers never caught with Tigard. Tanner was converted by Kobe, and he also likes Kobe more than LeBron and isn't that pumped. Tanner is also miffed Shabazz Napier got traded.
Samson Martinez, from Pascal, Wash., is wearing a handsome Seattle SuperSonics finals-era Gary Payton jersey. Now that the Sonics are gone for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, he pulls for the Blazers, but he wants the rivalry back.
He wasn't sure if people would give him hard time for the jersey, but as it turned out, Blazer fans in the concourse were slapping him five. Blazer fans are as annoyed as any fan base about the nonsense OKC move: Seattle and Portland hate each other, of course, but like brothers, and some rich asshole taking away a conduit for that hatred is annoying to us, too.
Portland DSA was posted up outside, blasting a giant BLAZERS YES, LEUPOLD NO message on the side of the Moda Center with a light cannon, passing out fliers about the team's partnership with the sniper scope manufacturer to passersby. The Blazers flashed up a Paul Allen tribute projection, a rose and his initials, and the DSA operators wiggled the light around, a cat-and-mouse game playing out on the side of a building.
There was a cover band outside, a giant Friends of Trees mascot, camera crews everywhere. It was a wild scene all together, people's personal and the communal experience of the game intersecting everywhere, all of sports descended on Portland, Ore., of all places, for one night, and a world of remoras circling it and latching on and experiencing it together. It felt huge and dumb and involved and, for a moment, weirdly important.
But the thing about sports, is that they almost never process the importance we feed them in the ways we expect. Because when the ball got tipped, all that heaviness fell away.
The game that ensued was…mostly just really wacky. The biggest story of the night was, of all fucking people, Nik Stauskas, the Blazers' new shooting guard, who made his first handful of shots and drug the Blazers into an early lead single-handedly. Nurk got dunked on, Aminu dunked on Javale McGee—all kinds of nonsense laced through this thing back to front.
The Blazers, for their part, looked all right. They gave up a big ol' heap of points to the Lakers, but Stauskas flashing some competence could pay dividends around the road, especially if he can take some of Evan Turner's half-effective minutes. Lillard was excellent as usual. They looked competitive and together, operating off a decent gameplan.
But the Blazers were, clearly, the second most important team in the building.
When LeBron goes somewhere new, you are primarily interested in what they're looking like, and these Lakers look, uh, undignified. When LeBron was on the court and engaged, they looked all right. But the second he went to the bench, LA's hodgepodge collection of youths and washouts looks borderline incompetent.
By the second half, Bron was clearly stepping out of the way, letting his team stab itself in the leg to prove that they're not nearly as good as they think they are. Tonight, the Blazers were, in their way, Bron's object lesson for his teammates, a force he let devour them slowly so as to prove, once and for all, that they need to get better. It was some true superstar shit, in the way that, like, Michael Jordan embarrassing guys in practice was.
I left the arena early—my seats were way up above the 300, so far away that watching on TV was better for my purposes—and went to Maui's, where there were some other sportswriters hanging out and watching the game. There was also a guy in a wild Lakers shirt, screaming at the top of his lungs anytime something happened: "LAKE SHOW! LAKERS! LEBRON! LET'S GO LAKERS!" You get it.
Seth Johnston, who was sitting next to me, speculated about when this guy was gonna get his ass kicked. It did feel a little tense there for a second, especially because I was posted up between our screaming pal and a guy who was straight-up glaring at him.
But, time went along and his friends, who must have been a little worried, took him outside and clearly smoked him out. He came back, still enthusiastic about his team which was, at this point, getting its ass kicked by the Blazers, but significantly more sedate and relaxed and less inclined to scream in a crowded bar for his team that no one else in the bar was rooting for.
His experience was weird as shit to me, of course, but it was valid in the ways everyone's experience was—a dude reacting to an arbitrary thing, loaded with meaning. Sports, man.