3/28/2017 0 Comments
by Chris Foss
On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1992, the Portland Trail Blazers, en route to their second NBA Finals in three seasons, matched up against the Minnesota Timberwolves, then a lowly cellar-dweller in just their third year of existence. On that night, Blazers reserve guard Danny Ainge felt nonetheless like he needed some luck of the Irish. Because the Blazers red-and-white home garb lacked any green, Ainge got Portland radio announcer Bill Schonely to give him a dollar bill to tuck into his sock. It must have helped that night, as the Blazers beat the Wolves 111-91 and Ainge scored 15 points, six above his season average. But the episode obscured a consistent theme for the Blazers that season and throughout one of the more curious eras any team has had in professional sports: when it came to the truly big games, they couldn’t even buy luck.
Most books about college and pro teams celebrate the behind-the-scenes stories of champions. Against the World is about a team that didn’t climb the mountain: the 1991-92 Portland Trail Blazers, the apotheosis of the franchise’s three-year run at the near-top of the NBA. Eggers and Jaynes were the team’s beat writers for The (Portland) Oregonian in those years, and their narrative is a crackling yarn that combines the in-game analysis and Monday morning quarterbacking you would expect from a book from this genre with unique insights into Blazers players and the coaching staff. The book has even more poignancy now that two starters from the team have passed away (center Kevin Duckworth and forward Jerome Kersey) and key reserve Cliff Robinson was recently hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage.
The Blazers’ decade-long climb to the summit of the NBA came in the aftermath of the most infamous foot injury in league history to center Bill Walton (for his colorful take on that, see Walton’s new memoir, Back From the Dead). When Portland drafted Clyde Drexler in 1983, it was a club in transition. Coach Jack Ramsay was not high on Drexler, who earned a reputation as a prima donna as he made dogging it in practice a topic of controversy long before Allen Iverson. That year, however, the team made a less-noticed but equally fateful change, bringing in a new assistant coach from tiny Chemeketa Community College in Salem named Rick Adelman. The move was popular because Adelman was on the Blazers’ 1970-71 inaugural squad. After Ramsay and successor Mike Schuler were fired in 1986 and 1989, respectively, Adelman found himself in the head coach’s chair.
As Adelman ascended, so did Drexler, increasing his scoring average from 7 points per game in his rookie year up to 27 by 1989 and making four All-Star appearances in the 1980s. The Blazers built through the draft, adding Kersey in 1984, guard Terry Porter in 1985, and Robinson in 1989. Three small trades paid big dividends. Draft bust Walter Berry was shipped to San Antonio in 1986 for center Kevin Duckworth. Sam Bowie, the infamous “guy picked ahead of Michael Jordan”, was dealt to New Jersey in 1989 for bruising forward Buck Williams. In 1990, the Blazers added Ainge in a trade with Sacramento for Byron Irvin. In the meantime, ex-Microsoft exec Paul Allen brought his big bankroll to Portland by taking over the ownership from Larry Weinberg in 1988, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired from the Lakers in 1989. Suddenly, the Blazers, after years of being overshadowed in the Pacific Division by Showtime, were back on the map.
Eggers and Jaynes agreed to collaborate on Against the World as the squad prepared to gear up for one final run at an NBA title. The 1989-90 Blazers were expected to improve from the team’s 39-win season the year before, but had surprised the league by going to the NBA Finals, losing 4-1 to the Detroit Pistons. The 1990-91 squad went 63-19, but came up short in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. Prior to the 1991-92 season, the Blazers, with Drexler not yet 30 years old, were expected to contend again, and the eyes of the world were on Portland. Allen had committed to build the state-of-the-art Rose Garden Arena, and Portland had been selected to host the NBA Draft and the Tournament of the Americas, the Western Hemisphere’s Olympic basketball qualifier, in 1992. Drexler was, furthermore, on track to earn one of the two open roster spots on the Olympic Dream Team.
Yet the Blazers’ two-year run of “almost, but not quite there”, had already earned them national detractors. The team was among the league leaders in whining and technical fouls, earning the enmity of fans across the nation. Drexler in particular led the chirping, and the Blazers and their fans generally felt as though the officials had it out for them. The bigger problem, though, was that the Blazers withered in the big time. In the 1990 Finals, only one game had been a Piston blowout. Missed free throws and a buzzer beater that came just a hair too late in Game 4 doomed the Blazers that year. In 1991, a Game 6 rally against the Lakers was snuffed out when Robinson inexplicably dropped a pass out of bounds; and when on a subsequent chance for a tie, Drexler passed up the game-winner, leaving Porter to clang a shot into Magic Johnson’s waiting arms.
Anecdotes following up on these themes line the Eggers-Jaynes account of the 1991-92 season. The authors relate that Ainge had “Us Against the World” T-shirts made for the team, both a reflection of the club’s underdog status should they happen to face presumptive Eastern Conference champion and defending NBA champion Chicago in the playoffs, but also of their general inferiority complex. The authors extensively note Duckworth’s battles with his weight (which would turn tragic when he died of a heart attack in 2008), Kersey’s inconsistent play, Ainge’s contract dispute with Allen, and Robinson’s foul-line struggles. An early-season slump threatened to doom their charge for playoff home-court advantage, but Johnson’s retirement due to contracting HIV took the Lakers out of the game, leading to a year-long on and off-court battle with Golden State—in an era long before Steph—for Western supremacy.
Highlights and lowlights abound in Against the World’s account of the 1992 playoffs. The first-round series against the Lakers was marred by riots that followed the not guilty verdict for the officers in the Rodney King police brutality trial. A conference semifinal showdown against Phoenix featured a 153-151 Blazers triumph in what remains the highest-scoring playoff game in NBA history. The conference finals against Utah looked like a cakewalk after two blowout wins to start the series, but took a dogfight for the Blazers to eke out in six games, marred by a Drexler knee injury and NBC anchor Bryant Gumbel dubbing the squad the “Cry Blazers” after it racked up six technical fouls in a close loss. The drama of the NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s Bulls is the culminating story of the book, and Eggers and Jaynes cover it all, up through the Blazers’ heartbreaking, series-clinching loss in Game 6 in Chicago.
This is generally an excellent account, but just as it benefits from the positive aspects of first-account journalism, it suffers from some of the myopia of journalists as well. While Eggers and Jaynes certainly were not Blazers homers in the mode of modern announcers who sound more like cheerleaders than journalists, one gets the feeling while reading that they are a little too close to their subjects at times. Given that Eggers and Jaynes were insiders, furthermore, there’s a disappointingly limited look at how this team fits into the Blazers’ history, to say nothing about how they stacked up against other NBA squads (and those from other leagues) similarly chasing a title.
Readers also get very little sense of public opinion about the Blazers, other than general notions that they were reviled outside of Portland (the “us against the world” mentality) and beloved in the state of Oregon. The book could have used more discussion of ordinary people got behind the Blazers, their motivations for doing so, and what the Blazers meant to fans, both for and against them. Finally, the context of Portland as not just a capital of NBA basketball, but of global basketball, in 1992 is not as explored as it should have been. If the Blazers had won the NBA title that year, might the city be something more than the basketball backwater it is now? This is a fascinating road of inquiry, yet not taken by the authors.
Overall, however, this is a stirring reminder of an exciting time for basketball not just in Portland, but also in the NBA, a reminder that there was more going on in the league’s golden years than just the Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls. Other teams tried and came up short against the era’s most powerful players and squads, but Eggers and Jaynes make the case that none were as interesting to cover or exciting to watch as the guys from Rip City.