I've been attending Trail Blazer games since I moved here in 1989, and I've seen some rather unusual stuff: game winning shots, Rasheed trying to kill a referee, playoff games, the 2001 collapse in LA from the Rose Garden, retirement ceremonies, and lots of great games. But nothing I had seen prepared me for what I saw last night.
The Oklahoma City Thunder came to town last night, but you might remember them as the former Seattle Supersonics. The team was unceremoniously moved to Oklahoma last year by their owner, Clay Bennett, who bought the team in 2006 from Howard Schultz. Schultz was frustrated at the lack of movement on a new arena in Seattle, despite the fact that Key Arena was refurbished back in 1995 with help from the city. Schultz wanted Bennett to keep the team in Seattle, and he promised he would make an effort to keep them there. Schultz had asked for a $200 million capital infusion to fix Key Arena, so Bennett, after buying the team, promptly asked for $500 million for a brand new area. I love businessmen when they use new math. Bennett finally applied to move the team last year after failed attempts to get money, and so the city of Seattle sued to keep the team there. Despite having a pretty good case, the city finally settled for $45 million dollars with the promise to keep the team history and colors, and also receive extra funds if the city could secure additional financing from the state of Washington by the end of 2009. The legislature will be taking up that task sometime in the next few months while they are in session, so the fate of the money should be known by the time the Thunder make their second appearance in the Rose Garden on April 13th.
But while there's plenty of blame to throw about amongst the players above, you can add the state government, who thought the whole idea of paying for an arena was stupid, the city council, who didn't seem to have an idea of what they wanted to do, and David Stern, the NBA commissioner, who let the whole thing happen. Stern might have felt some obligation to Bennett, who worked with the New Orleans Hornets when they played in OK City when their city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, so he wanted to get a team there. But really, the fact that you could just allow a team with over 40 years of history to just walk away like that was a joke, and I blame all of the parties involved here. It's not that I lose any sleep over the issue, but I'm mad that not only did the NBA allow our closest rival to walk away, but now we lost the only team in our division that plays in the same time zone, which no other team has to deal with. Every other division has at least 2 teams that play in the same time zone, except for the Northwest division. Denver and Utah are in the mountain zone, OK City and Minnesota are in the Central. Gee, you'd think there was a conspiracy here.
But add to this little mix of stuff was the fact that Portland had visited OK City last Friday, and got thumped. The Thunder ran them all over the court, and it was only a good fourth quarter that made the result respectable. So, there was a bit of revenge on the Trail Blazer's mind for Wednesday's game. And then, as I noted in my blog on Tuesday, various Seattle fans were coming down to Portland to cheer for the game, and show support for Nate McMillan and try to bring the NBA back to Seattle, even asking for the fans to cheer for the Sonics at points. I didn't support the idea one bit, because while I respect rivals, I don't cheer for them under any circumstances, but if you could pull this off, why not give it a try? Portland is by far one of the more polite NBA cities, often clapping for specific players or teams.
When girl and I got to the arena, the place was full of green and gold Sonics gear. The Oregonian did a good job of documenting the fans and displays during the game, while even Yahoo Sports did a nice article about the displaced fans, and what they plan on doing the next time the Thunder come to town. Seriously, I can imagine being very upset if my team was taken away like it was, and then they travel to the nearest city and acted like nothing happened. These players were guys they had cheered on for many years, and suddenly, they are wearing strange uniforms and answering to a different team name. It would be a bit disconcerting, but at the same point, the NBA proved one thing in letting the Sonics move - it's about the money. And as much as Trail Blazer fans may not want to admit it, we came very close to losing our team before the recent emergence when Paul Allen said our market was "broken" and he put the team up for sale after declaring bankruptcy to try and get a better deal on his arena debt. We could have been in the same boat as Sonics fans, but along came the better days, and now we are selling out like crazy.
The place was loud and crazy, much like a playoff atmosphere, and I saw a lot of pockets of green and gold that weren't Ducks. As we settled into our seats, the Thunder was booed when they came out for warmups, and got more boos during player introductions. I would have thought we were playing a fierce rival, but then I remembered that really we are, since many of these players were in Seattle just last year. Before the introductions, though, there was some comedy with the ball relay, a marketing tool that the Trail Blazers do before the game to pass the game ball from the top of the arena to the floor, and then a kid presents the ball to the referee before the tip. Well, the sections 307, 207, and 104 took it upon themselves to pass the ball in all sorts of directions but in the right one, as the ball went left, right, back up, one person down, and so on. It even paused for pictures with some fans, and it only made it to the floor about a minute before the anthem because a Trail Blazers stunt girl stole it from a fan to bring it down. The kids walked up to hand the ball over, they had their pictures taken, but then the official, realizing it was a compressed time, said a few things to the kids and then helped the Stunt Team get the kids over to the sidelines as the arena lights dimmed. Look, I like the ball relay, but seriously, it's up to the fans to keep it moving and not cause delays, plus you are depriving a kid of the moment to be on the floor with the ball. Seriously, I felt bad for the kids, but it was nice to see the official take a moment to help out.
The game itself was pretty uneventful in the first half, as the Sonics chant never really got going as expected, and the Thunder matched the Trail Blazers in hustle and rebounds. While we shot the ball better from the floor, the Thunder shot near perfect from the free throw line, so the score was close at the half. Brandon Roy had some nice plays, and Greg Oden had a few key moves, but really, we couldn't match their intensity. One of the biggest cheers was at the half for a junior basketball game, where an 8th grader put up a serious NBA length 3 point shot and drilled it. And as the third quarter went on, the game was still close until about midway, when Oden finally started controlling the boards, and we started stringing made shots together. The end sequence of the third quarter went from us having a 4 point lead to almost 10 points in about 30 seconds, and we stretched the lead to nearly 20 in the 4th quarter, and won by 14 1o6 to 92.
I know some people are concerned that we still have our best players on the court at the end of a game that we apparently had under control with 4 minutes left, but I saw OK City put four guards in the game and they were really playing with quickness and started hitting some shots that weren't falling in the second and third quarters for them. They never got closer than 12 points in the fourth, but I felt that OK City was only a small run away from getting back in the game, and with our offensive struggles, I think it's important to have our key guys out there keeping things flowing. When we don't have Roy and Aldridge on the court, the offense really becomes watching Travis try and create things, which does work sometimes but other times not so much. We're still a young team, and we're getting better, by really winning games that we should.
And as I left the arena, I watched the Sonics fans as they help up signs and tried to cheer. You heard them at points, but the game operations went out of their way to avoid showing any Sonics signs that used their team name directly. It was almost as if the NBA and the Trail Blazers wanted everyone to forget the Sonics ever existed. But there were plenty of green and gold reminders throughout the arena, reminding folks of what used to be, and what they hope might be again. It would be nice for them to have a team, especially to give us a close rival again. But I also think that bringing back a team would validate what many fans in the arena knew - Seattle is a fabulous NBA market and the fans had their team stolen from them in broad daylight. Here's hoping that karma works to get them back in the NBA and restore the Pacific Northwest rivalry to the NBA.