Tonight, for the first time in 243 days, the Portland Trail Blazers will play a meaningful basketball game.
Oh, it won’t be meaningful to everybody. Some people never care about sports, or about the National Basketball Association in particular; others may have been put off by the league’s extended lockout, which boiled down to a sandbox spat between millionaires and billionaires and delayed the start of the season.
But there is no disputing that the Blazers mean a great deal to a great many people in the Vancouver-Portland area. There is a reason the franchise has sold out 159 consecutive regular-season and playoff games, and there is a status that comes with being the area’s only major league sports franchise.
Yes, the Portland Timbers were an enormous success in their first season, but Major League Soccer still can’t compare with the NBA in terms of national marketing or attention-grabbing prowess.
So when the Blazers take the court at the Rose Garden to face the Philadelphia 76ers, their first counting game since being eliminated from the playoffs last April 28 by the Dallas Mavericks, it once again will alter Portland’s profile on the national stage.
In many ways, sports grab an overabundance of attention in our society. From Vancouver’s standpoint, the return of the Blazers to the court can’t compare in importance with the ongoing debate over a new Interstate 5 bridge; or the prospect of a mega-casino in La Center; or worries about budgets on the state, county, and city levels. Mere games can’t be placed next to continued concern over a struggling economy on the importance scale.
Sports, after all, are simply entertainment, and many observers are rightly aghast over the fact that entertainers are paid millions of dollars to bounce a ball and toss it into a hoop. (We wonder, however, whether the same naysayers are aghast over singers and actors who make even more money).
But one thing that sports can do as well as just about anything is unite a community. Athletes might be viewed as mercenaries, arriving from varied and distant locales to don the uniform of the home team, but while they are here, they represent us. Well, in this case, they represent Portland, but when it comes to the Blazers, many fans in Clark County are willing to overlook that distinction.
The power of a successful professional sports team can be found at the end of each season, when otherwise reasonable adults are willing to act like out-of-control adolescents in celebration of a championship. Sports, as much as any facet in an increasingly diverse and fractured society, can provide a communal experience.
The Blazers have reached that pinnacle of a championship once in their history, which is entering its 42nd season, and that was an entire generation ago. Thousands of the team’s fans have grown up hearing tales of 1977 while personally experiencing nothing more than close-but-not-good-enough seasons.
This year holds little promise of being any different. Portland appears headed to another playoff berth and another disappointment, which has been de rigueur for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2000. And the premature retirement of All-Star Brandon Roy, done in by bad knees at the age of 27, will add to the feeling of emptiness among fans.
That will be temporary. New players will move into the spotlight and win hearts. Veteran players will demonstrate skills that they have improved, and rookies will have fans dreaming of future greatness.
And as a new season begins, it carries with it an optimism that is unique to sports. At this moment, at least, the Blazers are undefeated.