• Blazer alums might be slower, but the star power remains intact
They still enjoy the cheers of the fans, the feel of the ball in their hands and the spirit of the game.
After 25 years, the Trail Blazer alumni team is still red-hot and rollin'.
The Gray Panthers of the basketball world have lost a step or two, or three, and most of them no longer play above the rim. But in high school gyms throughout the region, they continue to put on a show Ñ the emphasis on 'show.'
'We're not out here to prove anything,' says Dale Schlueter, a 6-10 center who was an original Blazer and is an original Blazer alum. 'We want to have fun, keep things as lighthearted as possible and make some money for charity. We do this because we enjoy giving back to the community.'
Boy, have they.
Schlueter's wife, Jeni, who works as the team's game coordinator, estimates the alumni team has raised about $2 million for various charities over the years.
'We're talking about from $3,000 to $25,000 a game,' Jeni says. 'In most cases, it's a pretty significant figure.'
The alumni team began in the late '70s, just a couple of years after the Blazers' championship season of 1976-77. Quite a few former Blazers had settled in the Portland area, and they decided to form a team.
'All the players had gone their separate ways, and this was a way to get back together again,' says Schlueter, 58. 'Then we found that we could do this for charities and raise some money.'
In the early years, the Blazer alumni team played a 40-game schedule from November through April, traversing the state and southwest Washington, facing faculty or town teams or groups that needed financial help. Over the years, the schedule has been cut back from 30 games, then down to 20, and this year only 10.
'Our schedule this year is based on what the Blazer office budgeted for us,' Jeni Schlueter says. 'Over the last 15 years or so, they have been a great help to us, providing auction items that produce the majority of the revenue for charities.'
Rumors circulated this winter that the Blazer alumni team might disband after this season.
'We gave it some thought, because of the age of everybody and the fact we can't play that well anymore,' Schlueter says.
On came some 'kids' to the rescue. Antonio Harvey, 33, joined this season, and Jerome Kersey, 41, made his debut last week in a game at Longview, Wash.
'We are new blood,' says Kersey, now director of player programs for the Blazers, adding with a smile: 'Looks like these guys need it. It's fun to let people know these guys are still around, and they're all very proud of this. I hope I can help out.'
There may be another recruit waiting in the wings. Kevin Duckworth, 40 years young, was at the game in Longview, Wash., and has vowed to play the remainder of the team's schedule this season. Kersey and Duckworth drew the biggest ovations from the several hundred fans in attendance.
'Duck is so popular,' Schlueter says. 'We have a uniform for him. Even if he doesn't play, we want him out here with us.'
The spectators come to see names, and many of them on the alumni team's roster haven't changed. There is the super-senior front line of Schlueter; 6-11 Leroy Ellis, 64, an original Blazer; and 6-10 Darrall Imhoff, 65, who played with the Blazers in their second season.
There's Bobby Gross, 50, the smooth small forward of the championship team; Greg Smith, 57, best known as the starting small forward on the Milwaukee Bucks' 1971 championship team that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson; and guard Nick Jones, 59, a Portland native whose five-year pro career didn't include a stint with the Blazers but who worked for years in the organization.
'Youngsters' Michael Harper (46), Darnell Valentine (45) and Mark Radford (44) have been staples, and with Kersey, Harvey and Duckworth coming in, the future seems more secure.
Most of the games are held at high schools, which get to choose their own charities. When the alumni team ventures outside the Portland area, it becomes a major event.
'The guys just get an overwhelming reaction wherever they play,' Jeni Schlueter says. 'The people are so pleased to see them. When we go into the small communities, they respond as if the Trail Blazers are in town. A lot of these people don't have an opportunity to see a Blazer game.'
Dale Schlueter recalls a game in Newport about a decade ago, played to benefit a highly decorated high school student-athlete who had been injured in an automobile accident.
'We raised $25,000 on a Super Bowl Sunday to offset his medical expenses,' Schlueter says. 'The next year, we played a game in Lincoln City, and the young man came into our locker room to thank us. Since then, he's come to a game every once in a while and will buy some of our auction items as a way to give back for what we did for him. When that happens, it really emphasizes the spirit of this thing.'
The games are part competition, part Globetrotter-like showmanship. Scores are kept, and the Blazer alums usually win, but that's not the point. Harper is the alumni team's Meadowlark Lemon, keeping a running gag going with the crowd and the referees. Schlueter and Jones also interact with the crowd, help with the auction items and show off their wisecracking talents.
'We love doing this,' says Jones, still looking for employment after being laid off from the Blazers' community relations department last year. 'It's the only exercise any of us get in reality, but more than that, it's just good to hang out with the guys. There's all that old locker room stuff that never goes away.'
Gross, who has played with the alumni team for nearly 20 years, continues because 'I enjoy the camaraderie.'
Can he still play? 'No,' he says, laughing. 'I can shoot a free throw. Can't run. My left knee is pretty bad. And we don't have a trainer.'
Cracks Schlueter: 'We need a team doctor.'
Earlier this season, guard Shaler Halimon, an original Blazer who has been with the alumni team for many years, tore a tendon in his quadricep. In the hospital following surgery, he passed out and was found to have a blood clot in a lung as a result of the surgery. He has since been released from the hospital and is recuperating.
The alums persevere, through the aches and pains of pushing aging bodies beyond the norm. There has been talk about transitioning the basketball into golf charity events, which makes some sense. But roundball is what the players are known for, and roundball it will be, at least for the near future.
'We've evolved into a kind of family over the years,' Schlueter says. 'We have gone through divorces and weddings, kids being born, kids graduating from college and all those type of things. It has been a lot of fun, and we've been able to do some good in a lot of communities, too.'