Three weeks ago, when Damian Lillard drilled a 37-foot jumper at the buzzer to lift the Trail Blazers to a series-clinching Game 5 win over Oklahoma City, Alex Landers hugged the strangers next to him in Section 319 of the Moda Center.
“There were grown men crying,” said Landers, a 35-year-old account manager for a software company who has owned Blazers season tickets for a decade. “Tears were the only reaction I saw.”
This game-winner had secured a berth in the second round, not the NBA Finals. But for a fan base well-versed in heartbreak, Lillard’s buzzer-beater from near midcourt helped exorcise the memory of the franchise’s spectacular failures, making many Portlanders think that, just maybe, this team is different.
As the Blazers stare down a 2-0 series hole to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, they can take comfort knowing that the Moda Center will be packed and raucous for Games 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Monday). This home-court advantage, widely considered among the NBA’s best, is paramount for a heavy underdog.
The Warriors routed the Blazers in Game 1 before withstanding a valiant effort from Portland to steal Game 2. Even with Kevin Durant (strained right calf) and DeMarcus Cousins (torn left quad) likely to miss the rest of the series, Golden State’s blend of talent and experience is enough to make the most diehard of Blazers fans fear a sweep.
However, some in Portland still believe the state’s only major professional franchise (the Timbers of Major League Soccer excepted) can reach its first NBA Finals since 1992. This speaks more to their faith in Lillard than any X’s and O’s.
During his seven years in the Pacific Northwest, Lillard has come to embody the values — loyalty, perseverance, self-belief — Oregonians cherish most. Little more than a decade after he struggled to land Pac-12 offers as a two-star recruit at Oakland High School, he is a four-time NBA All-Star who, with a few more memorable seasons, could eclipse Clyde Drexler as the greatest Blazer of all-time.
His underdog story resonates with a city often overshadowed by its more populous neighbor to the north, Seattle. In a league defined by near-annual roster turnover and fleeting allegiances, Lillard is a bit of an outlier. On numerous occasions, he has bristled at the notion of joining a “super team,” insisting that he’d prefer to try to bring his small market to national relevance.
“I just love that he’s been so vocal about loyalty, and he’d rather be with us and not win than jump ship and go somewhere else just for the sake of winning,” said Lindsay Weber, a nurse in Eugene, Ore. “The fact that he’s so vocal about that, it makes me love him even more.”
Those lobbying to bring the Oakland A’s to Oregon are quick to point out that Portland is the country’s biggest metro area with just one major pro team. In a state stratified by an allegiance to the Oregon Ducks or the Oregon State Beavers, the Blazers are a unifying force.
Moda Center crowds feature a cross section of Portland’s eclectic populace, from the high-ranking Nike executives to the beard-growing hipsters. T-shirts with “Rip City,” the moniker given in 1971 by legendary play-by-play announcer Bill Schonely, across the front are a popular sell. Even during the doldrums of the NBA calendar, fans call in to local sports talk radio shows to discuss potential trade scenarios.
As Lillard has learned, Blazers diehards want to consider their favorite players part of the community. Summer camps and Christmas giveaways, little more than nice gestures in larger markets, are held up as signs of a shared bond.
In that sense, the Lillard-led Blazers have built a relationship with the city not felt since Drexler’s teams of the early 1990s. The last time Portland reached the conference finals, in 2000, was at the apex of the “Jail Blazers” — an era in which off-court transgressions often clouded on-court success.
“This group really reminds me of those Drexler-Terry Porter teams, where they’re just really rock-solid guys that you would invite to your kids’ school to come give a talk,” said Matt Adamosky, an audio-visual engineer in the Portland suburb of Vancouver, Wash. “That’s a big contrast from the 2000 team, which I don’t know if I’d want those guys around my kids.”
In late March, the Blazers — fresh off a 6-1 stretch — looked the part of conference contender. Center Jusuf Nurkic, who was enjoying the best season of his NBA career, finally offered the high-scoring backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum a reliable low-post complement.
Then, in double overtime of a game against Brooklyn, Nurkic landed awkwardly on a put-back attempt and crumpled to the floor. As Nurkic was wheeled off the court on a stretcher with a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula, Blazers fans began to wonder whether they were cursed.
“Whenever things are feeling like they’re going in the right direction,” Weber said, “something horrible always seems to happen.”
In 1979, two years after leading the Blazers to their only NBA title, Bill Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers largely because he was upset that Portland allegedly forced him to play through a broken ankle in the 1978 playoffs. Leg and foot injuries derailed the career of Sam Bowie, whom the Blazers took one spot ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft.
More recently, injuries prematurely ended the careers of Greg Oden — the man selected ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007 — and three-time All-Star Brandon Roy. Such blows are just a few of the twists of fate that torment Blazers fans. Many in Oregon remember well that the Blazers picked Martell Webster instead of Chris Paul in 2005 or that they squandered a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 West finals.
Now, after back-to-back first-round sweeps, Portland is back in the conference finals. To help her favorite team’s chances, Weber has become superstitious, wearing the same socks, “Rip City” themed Nikes and Blazers T-shirt on game days that she donned the night Lillard made grown men cry with a 37-footer.
“I really hope we don’t get swept,” Weber said. “That would be unfortunate.”