As the Blazers reach the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2016, and only the 11th time in franchise history, Portland is buzzing and asking itself, “is Rip City rising?”
I am going to take you on a journey. I’m a Portland native, rare these days as nearly a million people have moved to Portland since 1990. I was born in NE Portland at Emanuel hospital just blocks from my work. I was 5, turning 6 in 1977 – the one and probably only time the Portland Trailblazers will ever win the NBA championship. I don’t remember much about 1977 but the one thing I do remember was seeing Star Wars and buying my first action figures – a Storm Trooper and C-3PO at Mall 205, but I digress.
With regards to the Blazers, I didn’t know much as a kid. My older brother was a huge Maurice Lucas fan and got his picture taken with him at GI Joes sometime after the championship. Myself, I casually followed the Blazers as a kid, had a Bobby Gross t-shirt, but cheered more against the Lakers and for Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. In the 80s the Blazers were decent – went to the playoffs every year – but always went home in the first or second round. Back then first-round series were 5 games, now first-round series are 7 games as the league switched formats to increase their advertising revenue and reduce the chance of an upset. The Blazers were the main pro team in town as they are today but they towered over the secondary team of the Portland Timbers and the Portland Beavers. The hardest ticket to get in the city was a seat at a Blazer game – in the glass palace also known as the Memorial Coliseum. At that time, and up until November 1995, the Blazers were in the middle of their NBA record for most consecutive sellouts which still stands at 814.
In the summer of 1989, my freshman year at Portland State University, I saw the side of a Tri-Met bus with a new Blazer plastered on the side of it. It was odd for the Blazers to advertise because you could never get a ticket, but what was interesting is that I didn’t recognize the player. Turns out it was newly acquired tough guy and power forward Buck Williams – the final piece to raise the Blazers from first round mediocrity to the steps of glory.
With the arrival of Buck Williams, the Blazers went from getting bounced in the first round to three consecutive seasons playing in the Western Conference Finals. From 1990 to 1992, Portland was insane for the Blazers. As Portland advanced in the playoffs and faced the Detroit Bad Boys, local recording artist Dan Reed cut a song that was popular here in Rip City coined ‘Bust a Bucket’ in 1990. If the Blazers won now, would Dame himself make a similar single featuring his teammates? Nike, still growing as a brand, created the best poster ever made featuring hard-charging forwards Buck Williams, Mercy Kersey and point guard Terry Porter with the title ‘Uh oh.’
Everyone in town had a shirt, hat, bumper sticker, 1190 KEXX echoed the voice of the great Bill Schonely. I picked grocery orders in the United Grocers warehouse as my radio blared his famous line ‘Good evening Blazer fans, where ever you may be’. He was awesome – only to be fired unceremoniously by trader Bob Whitsitt. Every empty lot in Portland had some selling new versions of Blazer t-shirts. The games were played over the loud speaker at Fred Meyer – the level of buzz then hasn’t been seen since. Complete strangers were talking to each other, bonding over the latest Blazer win or Drexler dunk. As their 90s runs were coming to an end, Clyde Drexler found himself on a Wheaties box and finished second in the 1992 NBA MVP voting – losing to someone named Michael Jordan.
Fast forward to today. Damian Lillard hit the 37-foot shot heard around the Willamette Valley and rekindled the fire that is Rip City. As they sit currently down 0-1 to the Denver Nuggets, the city is poised for another run at the Rip City glory days. Will fate come together to create another magical journey for our beloved Portland Trailblazers? Time will tell. In the meantime, I’m wearing my red and black and rooting for our new heroes of Rip City.