Blazers turn up the charm

Roster, record have put the romance back in this city's relationship with team
by:  TIM JEWETT, Blazer zealots clamored for autographs after the team beat the L.A. Lakers in 2005. Such enthusiasm seems even more widespread now.

When the Trail Blazers defeated the Golden State Warriors in a game back in early January, the streamers that fell from the rafters at the Rose Garden might as well have been stardust.

The National Basketball Association's youngest team, which was supposed to be in a rebuilding year, had rung up its 17th win in 18 games, moving into first place in the highly competitive Northwest Division.

Something bordering on euphoria had landed in Portland, a town whose devotion to its only major professional team had been sorely tested in recent years.

And while the Blazers have come back to earth more recently, falling from playoff contention, the franchise and its followers have changed direction as stunningly as a point guard with a wicked crossover dribble.

Attendance at the team's Rose Garden home is up more than 20 percent over last year, aided by an impressive string of sellouts. Merchandise sales there have nearly doubled. TV ratings have notched impressive increases.

But it doesn't stop there. The Blazers' bright future is improving fortunes - and lifting spirits - all over the city.

'It's been good,' says Dave Matthews, buyer of Blazer merchandise for Joe's, the 30-store Northwest chain that used to be G.I. Joe's.

Matthews is almost giddy as he talks about sales figures over the past six months, compared to the same period a year ago - a 450 percent increase.

'It's nice to be able to say we're running out of jerseys,' he says.

The downtown restaurant Huber's was Blazer Central back in the '90s, when players would show up after home games and fans would come around to get a look. Now, some of the old excitement is back, owner James Louie says.

'When the team draws, that naturally translates into business because people are out and about,' he says. 'Our biggest crowd is after the games, especially if they win. People are in a celebratory mood.'

Two Fridays ago, a crowd at the Gladstone Street Pub in Southeast Portland cheered raucously as the Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, snuffing a 10-game winning streak by the team's longtime rival.

Last week, a more subdued bunch at the A and L Sports Pub, a cavernous tavern on Northeast Glisan Street, watched the Phoenix Suns hold off a late Blazer rally to win.

There, 23-year-old Arizona native and Suns fan Logan Tyler, who moved to Portland last summer, proved to be anything but a Blazer hater.

'I was ecstatic when they started doing well,' he says. 'I've been going to Suns games since I was 5 years old. However, I'm also a basketball fan.'

Deborah Wakefield, vice president of communications and public relations for Travel Portland, which markets the city, says winning games means more exposure both regionally and nationally.

'The more people watch televised games, they're getting that subliminal reminder: Portland! Portland!' Wakefield says. 'And when the team is doing better, you're going to see more people traveling into the area to watch the team play.

'If they come from any distance, they're going to stay. They're spending money on a hotel, they're eating breakfast and dinner. There are little ripples of benefit.'

Mark Brennan, general manager of the Red Lion Hotel on Northeast Grand Avenue, just blocks from the Rose Garden, has seen it.

'We get a lot of last-minute reservations when they have a game, especially on the weekends,' he says. 'We talk to the guests, and they're all fired up.'

Apart from bookings, Brennan says, game nights mean revenue for the property's restaurant and lounge as well, and the Blazers play at home 41 times a year.

'It's part of our marketing plan,' he says. 'We put that into our discussions with department heads. It's a good piece of business.'

Old team seemed to spin out

If Portlanders are embracing the new Blazers, it's in part because they'd had their fill of the old ones. After narrowly missing a trip to the NBA finals in 2000, the team slid toward mediocrity and worse. Losses mounted, and so did off-court incidents: drug use, dogfighting, handguns and at least one altercation in the parking lot of a strip club.

Moreover, multibillionaire owner Paul Allen seemed to lose command of the organization, farming out operations, laying off staff, then declaring bankruptcy at the Rose Garden. At one point, he put the team on the market.

'That really hurt sales, big time,' says Matthews, the merchandise buyer at Joe's. 'It was such a void for three or four years.'

'Here, you've got one professional sport,' Blazer President Larry Miller says. 'If people are not feeling good about the Blazers, that has an impact.'

After posting a league worst 21-61 record two years ago, top-down changes began to pay off. The team systematically jettisoned players with behavior issues and hired a former NBA star, Nate McMillan, to coach a team little older than his own teenaged son.

Kevin Pritchard, a bright, rising executive who would become general manager, helped engineer a record-setting flurry of trades in the 2006 draft, securing young stars Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Even without the services of 2007 draftee Greg Oden, the heralded big man who is sitting out his rookie season with an injury, the team was reborn.

Now, Matthews says, it's not likely that the replica jerseys he orders will bear the name of a player who will quickly wear out his welcome in Portland.

'You can order with confidence,' he says, 'knowing the jerseys aren't going to be on a markdown rack.'

Jermaine Moore, a strapping 16-year-old sophomore at Grant High School, says Blazer fans might have overlooked the character flaws of past teams if they had delivered a title, but he's happy about the organization's new focus on players who also are solid citizens.

'I feel better to know my team is going somewhere,' he says. 'It makes it easier when you don't have to worry about them getting in trouble.'

Marco Casteneda has watched the Blazers' recent evolution from behind the bar at the A and L Tavern.

'After the trouble, people were over it,' he says. 'Nobody cared. Now, people are interested in getting out and seeing them again. They are a little tentative, but they want to believe in it.'

Buzz can tie city together

Randy Blazak, an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University, says the turnaround of a sports franchise can do much more than sell tickets and T-shirts.

'It gives people something to talk about other than the weather,' he says. 'It opens up the channels of communication.

'In a culture that really isolates individuals, to feel like a part of something bigger is intoxicating. It becomes a piece of the puzzle in how to build a common group identity. People who might be from different backgrounds can come together around the success of the team.'

Blazak says Portland - the city - remains best known nationally is as a home to water-resistant individualists with a penchant for strong coffee and handmade beer.

'To have something as Americana as a great sports team lets us know we're part of the mainstream as well,' he says. 'We have an identity, and that identity is enhanced.'

Those inside the Blazer organization understand the warm group hug Portland has had on the Blazers since the lowly expansion franchise put the city on the national sports map with a surprise championship in 1977.

'I think the marriage between the region and the city and this team is unique,' says Mike Golub, the Blazers' chief operating officer. 'The city and the team came of age together.

'We know the connection people have with the Blazers,' says Miller, the team's president. 'People were waiting to fall back in love with this team. The excitement is definitely back.'

Blazer guard Steve Blake left the team after the disastrous 2005-2006 season, only to be reacquired last fall.

'It's night and day from the first time I was here,' he says. 'You could tell people supported that team, but they really wanted it to be successful.'

Blake says even new Blazers know the history: the '77 title; the fan-friendly, Clyde Drexler-led teams that reached two NBA finals in the early '90s; the disappointments of recent years.

'We understand how important the team is to the city,' he says. 'You want to make new history. The fans are like, man, if you guys do it, it's going to be crazy. When we were on the winning streak, you definitely had a taste of it.'

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