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Blazer Dancer retires after 12 years with team

Marlene Kanehailua has served longer than most players
by: L.E. BASKOW, Friends and teammates say Marlene Kanehailua (left), a health teacher and dance coach at Aloha High, knows every face in the Rose Garden.

When the final buzzer sounds at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, ending the Trail Blazers’ last home game of the season, the career of one of the organization’s most respected performers will come to a close. After 10 seasons of working for minimum wage and in minimal attire before millions of fans, Blazer Dancer Marlene Kanehailua, one of the most senior dancers in the National Basketball Association, is hanging up her really short shorts. “I’m leaving a family,” says Kanehailua, 33. “It’s hard, but it’s the right time for me to be done.” Kanehailua, a Hilo, Hawaii, native, has danced in some 400 games in a career that began in 1995, just before Blazer shooting guard Martell Webster turned 9. Only two players in the 37-year history of the franchise — Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey — spent more seasons on the court. And few were as well-liked. “She’s one of those people people want to be around,” says Heather Dickau, a former Blazer Dancer and the wife of backup point guard Dan Dickau. “She does everything for everybody all the time. “She knows the ballboys by name, she knows the security guards. She’s one of the best I’ve ever seen as far as relating to the crowd.” Craig Miller, the Blazers’ director of events presentation, says the absence of Kanehailua’s energy and professionalism will be felt. “She is a pro through and through,” he says. “She is first class as far as her ability to reach fans and represent the organization. She’s done so many things for the Trail Blazers, everybody kind of looks up to her.” It’s the ‘island mentality’ Kanehailua has always commanded attention. Exotic-looking even by Hawaiian standards, she counts Greek, Syrian and Italian threads in her lineage. And she has not lost a step. When the squad sharpens routines to the loud growl of a boombox in the dressing room, no dancer snaps off moves more crisply. Out in the arena, there doesn’t seem to be anyone she doesn’t know. Before a recent game against the Houston Rockets, Kanehailua stopped to chat with Wayne Barker, who has been with guest services since 1999, telling him about a recent trip she and other dancers made to China. “Marlene has been tremendous to us,” Barker says. Blazer Dancer coach Dee Dee Anderson, one of the original Blazer Dancers in 1988 and another Hilo product, says Kanehailua’s kindness and sense of duty are part of her “island mentality.” “She will approach rookies and make them feel like they’re part of the team. If there’s a problem on the team, she’ll come to me so I can fix it. I will miss that. I’m fortunate to have had her.” Twenty-one-year-old Michelle Marx, in her first season as a Blazer Dancer, concurs. “She was one of the first people that came up to me,” she says. “She’s always there.” Stereotypes slide away Heather Dickau says Kanehailua, who came to Oregon to attend Linfield College in McMinnville, is a natural role model. “Year after year she’s had that same standard. You have to go out there in something that maybe you’re not all that comfortable wearing, there are 20,000 people watching, I’ve never seen her let anything affect her. She’s always on.” Dickau remembers a game in which events on the court earned the ire of the home crowd, which began pelting the court with bobble-head dolls they’d received in a promotion. Then someone threw a tray, but Kanehailua stayed cool. “You turned to Marlene,” Dickau says. “She would be the one to handle any situation. They eventually got us off the floor.” If that sturdiness of character comes as a surprise to some, the mistaken assumption behind it is familiar to Kanehailua, who was a cheerleader in both high school and college. “I’ve been a stereotype all my life,” she says. Now in her 10th year as a health and physical education teacher at Aloha High School in Washington County, Kanehailua has a master’s degree and is pursuing a Ph.D. She has no problem dismissing the notion that she and her teammates are one-dimensional. “It comes with the territory,” she says. “Young dancers have a harder time with it. I say don’t judge people. We had a nurse who was a dancer. We’ve had teachers. You never know who is going to save your life or who is going to teach your children. We all have lives outside of what we do here. This is just fun for most of us.” Miller, the Blazers’ entertainment boss, is quick to agree. “It’s the art of performance,” he says. “Is it sexy? Absolutely. Rock and roll can be sexy. Basketball can be sexy. It’s no different than seeing a show on Broadway. These are strong women.” Some fans have seen just how forceful Kanehailua can be as a Blazer partisan. “I know most of the officials, I’ve been here so long,” she says, “but I’ll get on them if I think a call was not right. I’m very vocal.” Earlier this season, she saw a San Antonio Spurs player deliberately trip Blazer Ime Udoka and responded with some choice words. “The fans behind me were, like, “Yeah, you tell ’em, Marlene!” she says. Off the court, but still around Kanehailua, who lives in Beaverton, does not plan to be a stranger to the Rose Garden. She’ll continue to teach at Aloha, where her efforts as the school’s dance team coach have already produced one member of the Blazers’ hip-hop team. She loves the prospects for the Blazers’ young basketball team, which she says has reconnected with its followers, in part by adding homegrown players like Dickau, Udoka and Freddie Jones. “These are some quality men,” she says. “Even if they lose, they play their hearts out.” Kanehailua promises her own heart will remain with an organization she’s served for most of her adult life, whether her involvement is official or not. “I love the game of basketball,” she says. “There is not one game I haven’t come out here with butterflies. There’s nothing like the lights going down and hearing the announcer say, ‘Your Portland Trail Blazers.’ ” “It’s sad for me that she’s done,” her friend Heather Dickau says, fighting tears. “She will be greatly missed.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.