• New Blazer Theo Ratliff helps remake the team's image on and off the court
Can it be? Could that really be him, under threatening skies with a chill in the air, laughing and jiving in a two-on-two game at Irving Park?
Yeah, it's Theo Ratliff, who is just supposed to be watching and catching a feel for the city of Portland as part of the Trail Blazers' upcoming advertising campaign with Nerve Inc.
The 'Rattler' isn't exactly defying gravity or even breaking a sweat. But with cameras rolling and a few park denizens looking on, the NBA's leading shot-blocker is in the spirit of things when he doesn't have to be, which says a lot.
'Theo was great,' says Marta Monetti, the Blazers' vice president for marketing and communications. 'He was more than you could have asked for, and we kept him for a long time. Cooperative, funny É he was a great sport.'
The Blazers' new center Ñ acquired from Atlanta in the Rasheed Wallace trade last month Ñ is special as a defender, as he showed in Saturday's victory over Utah when he blocked seven shots in 27 minutes.
Monetti and others in the Blazer organization who are getting to know Ratliff, consider him a special person, too. But he says he is just a regular guy.
'I'm laid-back, a family man all the way,' Ratliff says. 'Always love to be around my family, to play with my kids.'
His family is his wife, Kristina, whom he met in 1995, shortly after her graduation from Howard University, and their four girls, ages 11Ú2 to 8 years old.
'They are what makes me happy,' Ratliff says. 'I am very easy to please. I am satisfied just being with family and the people I love being around.'
The Ratliffs, minus Theo, recently left Portland for their home in Atlanta after a week's visit to what will be their new city once school gets out in June. Theo probably won't see them again until after the season.
'It is tough,' he says. 'I am trying to adjust. I know my family loves me, and I love them to death. They miss me every minute we are not together. It is just a part of the job. If you have to leave, you have to leave. I could be in a worse situation. I could be in Iraq somewhere.'
For now, Ratliff is living alone in an apartment not far from the Blazers' Tualatin practice facility. Once the family joins him, he will rent a house for them all to live in. The 6-10 center has one more year on his contract. After that, Ratliff, who turns 31 next month, will be a free agent, able to choose his next team.
'I have no idea where I will wind up,' Ratliff says. 'It has only been a few weeks here. I don't have a feel for it yet.'
Those who know Ratliff say he is grounded, in part because of his small-town background in Demopolous, Ala., population 7,000. His mother, Camillia, instilled Christian values in her three sons Ñ from oldest to youngest, Thaddeus, Theophilus and Timothy.
'It is a biblical name,' he says. 'We are Southern Baptist. I have a strong belief in the Christian faith. That was the backbone, the foundation of my family growing up, and how we conducted our lives.'
Raising three boys as a single parent was no simple task for Camillia, 51, who now lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
'It was tough at times,' Ratliff says. 'We struggled like any single-parent household. Mom did a great job, and we had a stable background in the community. My grandmother and my uncles were there to help raise us, but Mom was the biggest influence in just about everything having to do with my approach to life.
'We were lower-middle-class. Mom worked a variety of odds-and-ends jobs. She persevered. She didn't believe in welfare or food stamps. She didn't think that was the way to go.'
Aiming for a scholarship
Ratliff's first love was football.
'We used to play tackle football at school,' he says. 'One day, somebody got hurt, and they told us, 'no more tackle.' And I said, 'I don't want to play touch.' So I started playing basketball and fell in love with it.'
When Ratliff was in middle school, a coach told him something that stuck with him.
'He said there are a lot of guys who want to score a lot of points, be like Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan,' Ratliff says. 'He said, 'Not a lot of guys want to get down and play a lot of defense. If you can develop your defensive skills, I'm sure you could get a college scholarship somewhere. Then you can take your game to a different level from there.' '
Ratliff progressed as a player as his body grew up but not out.
'As a senior I was 6-7 and about 160 pounds,' Ratliff says. 'I could jump and had some skills, but I didn't have a lot of schools after me. My goal was to get a scholarship, though, so I wouldn't have to burden my mother with paying for school.'
Ratliff committed to Wyoming during the early signing period his senior season.
'If I had waited, I probably could have gone to a bigger school,' he says. 'But Wyoming was the school that had the most interest in having me. I didn't feel like a big-time prospect. I loved to play so much, I wanted to be able to play, and I felt I would get an opportunity to play and wouldn't get caught sitting on the bench.'
Ratliff didn't do much of that. He was a three-year starter who finished his four-year career at Wyoming second on the NCAA career list for blocked shots behind Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning. Ratliff was the Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, averaging 5.14 blocks a game.
Detroit chose Ratliff with the 18th pick in the 1995 draft. After 21Ú2 seasons in the Motor City, he was sent to Philadelphia in the midseason deal that brought Jerry Stackhouse to the Pistons. By the next season, he was third in the league in blocked shots and named to the second All-Defensive team. In 2000-01 he was selected for the All-Star Game, though he couldn't participate because of injury.
The best at his craft
Ratliff has little offensive game, but has made a career on his shot-blocking prowess. He has few peers at keeping his feet until the shooter releases. He is a master at timing and anticipation.
'It is something I have developed over my career,' Ratliff says. 'There was a point early in my career when I was getting into a lot of foul trouble. A guy would give me a head fake, I'd be up in the air trying to block the shot, and the next thing you know, a whistle. I wanted to be out on the floor, not limiting my minutes.
'I watched a lot of tape throughout the years of great defenders like Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. Watched their movements, how they defend guys. And I study the guys I play against. I know most of the moves they make and pretty much can recognize what they're going to do against people.'
The blocked shot, Ratliff says, 'gives me an adrenaline rush. When I block a shot, make people miss shots, that's the job I am designated to do. I try to play that role accordingly.'
Ratliff will be a Blazer who extends himself to the community Ñ especially to youth. He was a frequent contributor to Atlanta's Read to Achieve program. He will do some of the same things here next season, he says.
'It's just a part of me,' he says. 'I have always wanted to give back to kids and help their learning and get the opportunity to touch their lives. I remember when I was growing up, it was a thrill just to meet college players. It was something for a kid from a small town to actually meet those guys I saw on TV.'
Ratliff knows the relationship between the Blazers and their fan base has eroded badly in recent years. He knows he is part of what management hopes will reconnect the team with the public. He's not sure what role he will play toward that end, but he doesn't intend to turn on the charm to win anybody over.
'I don't go out personally to do things like that,' he says with a shrug. 'I am just going to try to be myself. Usually, that is good enough. I have always had a great rapport with the fans wherever I have played. That has never been a problem for me.
'I am who I am. I don't really change for anybody.'