The thrilling victories on the court have been tempered by the loss of Dr. Jack Ramsay off of it, and the emotional swings have served as a reminder of what the Portland Trail Blazers can mean to the psyche of this region.
The Blazers have won three of the first four games in their National Basketball Association playoff series against the Houston Rockets, and three of the contests have gone into overtime — an ironclad definition of high drama. For many franchises, having a 3-1 lead in a first-round series would be a rather ho-hum affair. But it has been 14 years since the Blazers last won a playoff series — any playoff series — and that is the longest current drought of any team in the NBA.
So, yeah, if Portland can secure one more victory over Houston and move on to the second round, it will be a big deal, even if a championship remains a likely unattainable dream. But the important part of the story is how this Blazers team has rekindled a love affair between the franchise and its fans. The thrilling nature of the games against the Rockets has helped generate passion among the faithful, but so has the team’s demeanor.
The last time Portland was a contender on the court, it had a roster filled with rogues and misfits. Blazer fans rooted for them, because that’s what fans do, but even the most diehard among the faithful would have admitted during an unguarded moment that those Blazers weren’t the most likeable cast of characters. This team, on the other hand, has endeared itself to the fans throughout a season in which it consistently overachieved by adding a pound of grit and a metric ton of moxie to its considerable basketball talent.
Consider the most crucial play from Sunday’s victory: Mo Williams poked the ball loose from a Houston player, then saved it from going out of bounds; Wesley Matthews crashed to the floor during a scramble; Damian Lillard scooped up the ball and deftly passed out of a defensive trap; and Williams made a 3-point shot. All of that happened on one play, and it alone likely caused plenty of Blazer Believers to lose their voices from screaming so much.
The result has been a resurgence of the Blazermania that long has been a hallmark of the fans’ relationship with their basketball team. And that brings us to the loss that all basketball fans, particularly Blazer fans, felt Monday.
Ramsay, the man most responsible for the original incarnation of Blazermania, died at the age of 89. Dr. Jack coached the Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship, still the only championship in franchise history and one of the signature moments in all of Northwest sports. As a basketball coach, he was an innovator, using his Ph.D. in education to teach the game, and stressing conditioning and exercise — he competed in triathlons — long before it became fashionable.
Ramsay was lauded for his inquisitive and insightful mind, and for his passion for basketball and for life outside of the game. Basketball purists still marvel at the remarkable teamwork his 1977 club employed on its way to the championship, and the style with which those Blazers played was as endearing as their success.
Thus far, this year’s Blazer team has played with the same flair, demonstrating the kind of team-first attitude that fans love. Portland doesn’t have the most talented group of players in the league but, just like the days of yore, they might be the most likeable. Blazermania has been rekindled, which is perhaps the most fitting possible tribute to Dr. Jack.