Blazers' owner foresees 'a few turns in the road'
PORTLAND -- When this decade began, they were within minutes of reaching the NBA Finals before an epic collapse in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Lakers started what became a precipitous downfall.
By last season, they were at an all-time low, their record the worst in franchise history.
They used to be an almost impossible ticket, selling out more than 1,000 consecutive games during the height of their popularity, but now they can't even sell out a single game.
The Portland Trail Blazers have cycled from popular to pariahs, and now they are somewhere back on the upswing -- though there's still a long, long way to go, and big questions still to be answered. ESPN.com endeavored to take a broad look at what has gone wrong, and why the disconnect between the team and those around it -- both the newspaper that covers the Blazers and the fans who cheer for them -- has grown so huge.
Black seats vs. red seats
One emblem of the disconnect is the situation at the Trail Blazers' home arena, the Rose Garden.
To truly appreciate how screwed up things have gotten at the Rose Garden over the past few years, consider the factor of the black seats vs. the red seats.
The club seats, luxury suites and the first four rows of courtside seats are black. And if you purchase a ticket for a black seat, the Blazers and their owner, Paul Allen, receive nothing.
The red seats begin in the fifth row of the lower deck, and those are a different story. Buy one of them, and the money goes to the team.
So on those nights when the building is not full, which is basically every night, the Trail Blazers are actually competing against the Global Spectrum Corporation for customers.
And once those folks arrive at the Rose Garden, whether their ticket was red or black, all the money they shell out for parking, peanuts, pizza or pretzels also goes entirely into the pockets of Global Spectrum. Allen and the Blazers don't get a single red cent.
Even Allen's courtside seat along the baseline falls under Global Spectrum's jurisdiction.
The $22 billionaire
It's a crazy arrangement, one that makes even less sense when you consider how quickly Allen could fix it if he wanted to. The world's sixth-richest man, with an estimated net worth of $22 billion, Allen could simply open his checkbook and buy back the building he placed into bankruptcy two years ago. If he did so, the Microsoft co-founder with two mega-yachts -- including one with its own submarine -- would still have more than $21.8 billion left to play with.
"For that to happen, you have to have a willing seller and a price that recognizes what an asset is worth, and if you don't have that, it's not going to happen," Allen told ESPN.com on Friday during an exclusive interview in a small office nestled next to the Trail Blazers' locker room at the Rose Garden.
Despite his vast wealth (and Allen's net worth was roughly $18 billion higher in 1999, according to Forbes), Allen took some bad advice and decided to finance $155 million of the $264 million construction at a whopping 9 percent interest rate, with no ability for an early repayment.
Nearly a decade later, when all the receipts from tickets, concessions, signage and parking were not even covering the debt service on the loan, Allen asked for a renegotiation and threatened to give back the keys if a new deal couldn't be struck.
It may have been seen as a bluff by the bondholders, but it wasn't -- and Allen followed through by putting the arena into bankruptcy. The Rose Garden and all of its preferred revenue streams were taken over by those bondholders -- a conglomerate including Prudential, TIAA-CREF, Farmers Insurance, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who then hired Global Spectrum to run the facility.
Blazers for sale
Allen put the Blazers up for sale early this year but pulled the team off the market several months later. A total of 14 investor groups paid the $100,000 fee to apply for a purchase, and the top initial bids came in between $300 and $325 million.
Some believe Allen never truly intended to sell but wanted to hear from the bondholders exactly how much they wanted for the building, which turned out to be a 50-50 split of the potential sale price of the team and arena. After earlier offering 100 cents on the dollar for the remaining debt, Allen tried to get Global to take a bit less than $150 million early in the summer but was turned down.
One team official called it a game of "billionaire chicken," and the failure to reach an agreement to reunite the team and the building put Allen in the same predicament he was in before exploring the sale. The relationship between the sides is so contentious that a dispute over ownership of the actual floor that the Blazers play on was in dispute, and control of the former press seats on the scorer's table is in arbitration.
"Obviously there are multiple parties involved, and we haven't been able to reach any satisfactory arrangement up to this point, so we're exploring all our options. I'd be real interested to get any insight into their psychology," Allen said. "They've had a very steadfast, non-compromising position on these things. So given that, there are only a certain number of alternatives to explore, which we're exploring."
Asked exactly what those alternatives were, Allen would not answer.
"I'm not going to talk about that now," he said.
Could the Blazers move?
Relocating the franchise is certainly one of those options, and it has been speculated that Allen might try to move the team to his home base of Seattle if the recently sold SuperSonics eventually move to Oklahoma City, as many expect.
After a few false starts, NBA commissioner David Stern persuaded Allen and the bondholders to come to an agreement under which the team and the arena would be sold as a unit, but Allen abruptly halted all sale talks after Global attached a specific value to the arena.
ESPN.com asked Allen to explain why he decided not to sell.
He replied: "Well, obviously we undertook a rebuilding process a couple years ago, and I thought we had a really great draft with LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, and that was one of the reasons I decided not to go through with the sale. Draft day, all the trades we made, it was just a real positive development for the franchise, and the fact that Seattle sold for quite a bit of money, too, and given the structure of what we were looking at, and the sales process -- and it was never a commitment to definitively sell the team, it was a process -- and for those two reasons, and for other reasons, I decided I was not going to sell."
Allen's next move is unclear, and he may feel he's best served by waiting. A vacancy 175 miles to the north might give Allen the leverage he needs to strike a more favorable deal with his bondholders and regain control of the Rose Garden, since Global Spectrum would conceivably be unable to operate the arena at a profit without its main tenant.
So Allen is sitting and waiting, and the Trail Blazers' long-term prospects remain just as uncertain as they were on trade-deadline day last February when Allen's representatives from Vulcan Inc., the company that manages Allen's investments, made the surprise announcement that Allen was planning to sell.
Some in the team's front office had asked the Vulcan representatives to hold off a day on the announcement so as to not steal the spotlight on any trades that might be announced -- a request that mystified the corporate-minded folks from up north and was rejected.
It was not the first time the folks from Vulcan had come down on the Blazers in a heavy-handed way. After Allen lost $105 million in the 2002-03 season, one-third of the staff was fired, with some employees saying they were asked to sign nondisclosure forms in order to receive their severance checks; then they were escorted from the building by security guards.
"Some of the best people were let go, and some of the worst people stayed. It was awful. It was done in such a way that people were humiliated," recalled former television producer George Wasch, who was not among those fired but rather left the team through retirement. "It had been an incredibly wonderful place to work, so unbelievably fantastic, but it turned 180 degrees."
Trail Blazers president Steve Patterson, who took over from the deposed Bob Whitsitt shortly before the firings, recalled his first meeting with Mayor Vera Katz.
"She said: 'Well, Mr. Patterson, aside from laying off 88 fine Portlanders, what else have you done since you arrived?' I didn't even get hello out of my mouth," Patterson said.
|Portland's Attendance, 1996 to 2006|
|Season||Games||Avg. Att.||Total Att.|
|* Current capacity is 19,980|
That summer is generally acknowledged as the low point for the Blazers, a reversal that began with the stunning Game 7 collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference finals and culminated last season when Portland posted a 21-61 record.
In contrast, "Blazermania" had reigned from the 1970s through the 1990s, before the "Jail Blazers" era, epitomized by the poor public behavior of the likes of J.R. Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Ruben Patterson, Qyntel Woods and Bonzi Wells. But in the 21st century, the distaste of the local populace has reached the point that there was not a single sellout during the 2005-06 season.
"When I was growing up, it was impossible to get tickets," said Blazers guard Dan Dickau, who was born in Portland and raised in nearby Vancouver, Wash. "For Christmas I always got two tickets to a game, and that was always the biggest thing. But the last five or six years, you could get a ticket for nothing."
Blazers vs. The Oregonian
During the franchise's fall from grace, coverage in the city's only daily newspaper, The Oregonian, was, as expected, negative. Poor relationships still exist between certain key team executives and the newspaper's beat writer, Jason Quick, and top columnist, John Canzano.
Oregonian executive editor Peter Bhatia told ESPN.com that the relationship between the newspaper and the team is more fractured than it's ever been, though he defended his paper's coverage as fair. Canzano particularly riled the Blazers two seasons ago when he reported on a document disclosing that the team had agreed to repay Darius Miles the money he would have lost from a suspension over a heated argument with then-coach Maurice Cheeks. Steve Patterson denied that such a document existed, only to have the Oregonian post the document on its Web site to refute his claim.
Looking back on the sequence of events, Patterson explained that the document was leaked to Canzano before he knew it existed. But bad feelings over the scandal have left Canzano and Patterson deeply distrustful of each other, a dynamic that didn't get any better last month after Canzano reported that Miles had stopped at a downtown restaurant and consumed two mixed drinks when the Blazers were on the road playing their final exhibition game and Miles was supposed to be rehabbing his knee.
The Blazers have taken the highly unusual step of issuing press releases after a pair of spats with Quick. One was over the substance of a quote from coach Nate McMillan. On the second occasion, Quick had reported details of a predraft workout by Adam Morrison, Brandon Roy and Rudy Gay against the Blazers' wishes; he had watched the workout through a gap in the blinds at the team's practice facility.
From afar, the Blazers' actions have appeared petty, thin-skinned and paranoid, though they defended them as their only recourse after Patterson spoke with several high-ranking Oregonian editors and claims he was laughed at (an allegation Bhatia, who defended Quick's actions, denied).
The cold relations between the team and the newspaper prompted the Oregonian to hire an outside writer and editor to produce an article examining the poor dynamics, and the resulting piece, which ran Nov. 6, didn't leave any of the protagonists feeling any better.
So fed up and frustrated were the Blazers that they didn't even take their usual step of complaining to the paper when Canzano reported Thursday that there were no lines at the ticket windows for a home game the previous night against the Lakers. One team official said the lines were actually so long, frantic e-mails were exchanged in-house warning that the lines might be a subject of negative coverage in the next day's newspaper.
Officials around the NBA say it's the most dysfunctional media-team relationship they could ever recall, a byproduct of the so-called fishbowl factor endemic to being the only pro sports franchise in what is essentially a one newspaper town.
"It's kind of tough. It can be good sometimes, it can be bad sometimes. There ain't nothing here. We're the focus of attention," Zach Randolph said. "I've been here a long time, so I'm used to it."
The Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs have a similar dynamic, but the fishbowl factor hasn't been in play -- mostly because those teams have been winning and staying out of trouble -- anywhere near as much as it has been in Portland.
|Portland's record, 1996 to 2006|
|'96-97||49||33||Lost, 1st round|
|'97-98||46||36||Lost, 1st round|
|'98-99||35||15||Lost, West Finals|
|'99-00||59||23||Lost, West Finals|
|'00-01||50||32||Lost, 1st round|
|'01-02||49||33||Lost, 1st round|
|'02-03||50||32||Lost, 1st round|
|'03-04||41||41||10th in West|
|'04-05||27||55||13th in West|
|'05-06||21||61||15th in West|
"I also think it comes back to when the Blazers were rolling, people lived and died with the Blazers. And if you get that connection and negative things happen, you're not going to be too happy with it."
Plenty of resentment still exists toward Allen, whose bankruptcy filing was scorned as a ridiculous ploy by a multibillionaire who had failed as poorly in his stewardship of the franchise as he had in several of his other businesses. Allen had invested heavily during the early 1990s in nearly 150 companies, including various high-technology sectors (TiVo-capable cable television boxes, for instance) that are only now coming into widespread use.
One former Blazervision employee, now working elsewhere in the sports industry, told the story of how Allen poured $11 million into a state-of-the-art, high-definition television truck that he turned around and sold for $4 million during the carnage of the 2003 cutbacks.
"That truck was doing the Masters at the time, and that truck did the Super Bowl. It was a moneymaking truck, but like everything else with Paul Allen, when he gets rid of it, he makes bad deals," the person said.
Another former employee recalled another money-burning story from the "SPAM (Spending Paul Allen's Money) era," when technicians hastily bought up $30,000 worth of satellite time so a broadcast of Allen's Seattle Seahawks could be beamed to him in Russia. But after the crew scrambled to beam the signal, they later were told that no one in Allen's entourage had been courageous enough to awaken the sleeping billionaire in the middle of the night so he could watch the game.
One technician recalled once receiving a phone call in the broadcasting control room complaining that the signal on Allen's yacht was not coming in clearly:
"I asked them how high the seas were, and they said, '10 feet.' So I had to tell them it's pretty hard to keep a steady satellite signal when your boat is in 10-foot seas."
I asked Allen what he believed to be his standing in the local court of public opinion, and the plainly dressed, soft-spoken Microsoft co-founder once dubbed "The Accidental Zillionaire" swallowed hard and nodded his head in what seemed like a tacit acknowledgement of his low approval ratings. Yes, he's one of the world's biggest philanthropists, but he's reviled by many in the city where he first purchased the Blazers in 1988.
"Mmm, I think there's probably differing opinions out here," Allen said, noting that he attends more home games than perhaps any other owner in the league outside of Dallas' Mark Cuban. "I've been trying to bring a championship to Portland, and I think people do appreciate that aspect. And whenever you go deep in the rebuilding process and have a year like we had last year, people are going to say, 'What is ownership thinking? What does this rebuilding process really mean?'
"Last year was a tough year and you had all those factors in play, and I think this year people are starting to see finally the results of what I say we're going to do and what we're trying to do."
And with that, Allen was out the door, exiting with a smile and a firm handshake as he went off to watch his Blazers complete a comeback from a 27-point deficit to defeat New Orleans/Oklahoma City before a raucous crowd that cheered with an earsplitting chorus that briefly, just briefly, gave a taste of what it was like back in the days of Blazermania.
Allen soaked it all up before leaving for the evening, his spirits lifted -- but his prospects for the future just as uncertain as they were at the start of the night when he planted himself in the front row and settled into his black seat, the one owned by someone else.
Will this thing have a happy ending?
"That's certainly my hope, and that's what we're trying to achieve," Allen said. "But there's probably going to be a few turns in the road before we get to that point."
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.