A year ago, he was untouchable. Inspiring and immaculate.
There was the shot. The touch. The energy and excitement. The living definition of a thrilling, wide-eyed sharpshooter. Talent, youth and potential all wrapped up in a tight Spanish frame.
There was also the look. The look can never be counted out, and no one ever doubted that Portland Trail Blazers guard Rudy Fernandez had it. There was the hair. The endless 5 o’clock shadow. The way he appeared to effortlessly glide on the court and off it.
Fernandez’s potential made him tantalizing. But it was his look that truly made the Rose Garden scream “Rudy” and quickly turned the bench player who wore No. 5 into an undisputed fan favorite.
A year later?
Fernandez’s potential is up for debate and his image has fallen apart, breaking into sharp, jagged pieces.
That’s what happens when two sides pull in opposite directions and no one gives in.
That’s why an offseason that should be about the Blazers trying to find a way to make “The Rudy Situation” work has recently dissolved into a publicly contested media battle — one in which each side is waiting for the other to throw the first blow.
“The relationship is not working,” a league source close to Fernandez said Wednesday. “It’s time for a divorce.”
Flip through the local airwaves or dive into the national blogosphere, and you’ll immediately be drenched with thoughts and ideas about Fernandez and what appears to be his expiring future in Portland.
A sampling: he’s a prima donna; a whiner; he expects and wants too much; he’s emotionally and physically fragile.
Then there’s the other side: he’s just begun to touch his ceiling; he had an off year; he’s in the wrong system; he was never given a real opportunity.
Like so many things, the truth falls somewhere in the soft, less-dramatic-but-more-accurate middle.
Which is why the same source was adamant that an ultimatum has yet to be delivered in this made-for-TV custody suit. And why the Blazers are adamant that they will not simply waive or trade Fernandez for nothing, just so they can rid themselves of a small-time, old-fashioned player dispute.
Right now, everything with Fernandez comes down to worth. Not financial worth, but self worth.
Fernandez believes that he’s worth more. He wants the starting spot, spotlight, name and fame that often accompany the look.
Portland believes he’s worth exactly what he’s received thus far: 24.5 average minutes per game during his two-year career.
But is that alone grounds for divorce? And does that fully explain Fernandez’s remarkable one-year crash in the eyes of many Blazer fans and media members?
No. Not at all.
So much of Fernandez’s case is about perception. Who Fernandez wants to be and how he sees himself; who Portland wants Fernandez to be and how the team views him.
But what’s been lost in all the awkward moments and self-conscious glances has been the truth.
A year ago, Fernandez was part of the answer. A significant piece of the championship puzzle the Blazers were attempting to construct. Portland went hard after the Electric Spaniard in 2007 and got him. And his rookie season was filled with accolades and accomplishment.
A year later, everything has changed.
But before it’s too late and the last “Rudy” chant has echoed through Paul Allen’s rafters, both sides should take a step back and reconsider the facts.
First, Fernandez. The shot and the look only go so far, and he still has glaring weaknesses in his game. Factor in that he has likely overvalued himself and then proceeded to water down his already-limited trade value with his constant international pleading, and it’s easy to understand why so many are now seeing limitations where they once saw promise.
Fernandez needs to be honest and get real. He’s not playing in Spain anymore; he’s in the NBA. There are only 30 premier starting shooting-guard positions to go around, and it’s questionable whether he will ever consistently own one of them.
But outside of that, he could continue to have a comfortable home in the league. The money will only improve, and there will always be a place for a soft-handed shooter who can drill 5 of 6 3-pointers during just 18 minutes of action in a playoff contest, as Fernandez did last season during a Game 6 defeat to Phoenix.
And if Fernandez wants to remain in the NBA, then the Blazers must ask themselves if it’s really in their best interest to willfully send him away.
When Portland coach Nate McMillan put his ideal first and second teams together last season at the start of training camp, Fernandez was viewed as the perfect backup to Brandon Roy. Where Roy thrives in a methodical, half-court offense, Fernandez excels in the fast break. This gave McMillan two top-tier, diverse but complimentary guards. And before injuries set in, the rotation became scattered and the championship picture shattered, there was no question that Fernandez was an essential piece of Portland’s future.
Now, a little more than two months before the start of training camp for the 2010-11 campaign, the Blazers’ window of opportunity appears smaller and feels tighter.
Fernandez will never be the man who brings another ring to Rip City. But the two-year teammate of Roy’s could help keep that window open.
It’s Fernandez’s call to make.
And it could easily become the Blazers’ loss if he icily glides away.
Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org.