- - Monday, December 17, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

JAIL BLAZERS: HOW THE PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS BECAME THE BAD BOYS OF BASKETBALL

By Kerry Eggers

Sports Publishing, $26.99

Losers can co-author history if their story is compelling enough. While the Portland Trail Blazers of the late 1990s and early 2000s never became NBA royalty, they were hall-of-fame drama queens with a combustible mix of talent, ego and destructive behavior that lit up the court.

What’s more, they were assembled by design over several years, as longtime Portland sportswriter Kerry Eggers chronicles in “Jail Blazers.” His book’s antagonist is not one of the many troubled stars that tarnished the franchise’s reputation, but the team executive who brought them all to town — and thereby set them up to fail.

Bob Whitsitt, Portland’s general manager, assembled a roster between 1998 and 2003 that rival players and coaches often said was the league’s best. It was also its most turbulent. It would have been a target of social protest in today’s times: Teammates in the 1998-99 season and young stars Isaiah Rider, Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells had been arrested or charged for assaulting women prior to their arrival.

Mr. Rider, who once told police they should call the Ghostbusters in case of emergency, was the team’s problem child during its late-‘90s run. After he left for Atlanta, Mr. Wallace filled the role. He once said of the “Jail Blazers” moniker first published by a Portland alternative weekly, “It was funny. They say we are a team with problems. But there ain’t no problems on this squad.”

It was denialism. In one spectacular example counter to Mr. Wallace’s claim, his teammate, international legend Arvydas Sabonis, “flopped” to fool a referee into calling a foul and hit Mr. Wallace in the face. Even though it was an accident, Mr. Wallace snapped at Mr. Sabonis during a subsequent timeout. Instead of discussing game strategy, the team spent the break defusing the situation.

As the team’s strength and conditioning coach Bob Medina recounts to Mr. Eggers, veteran player Detlef Schrempf watched the situation unfold “with his hands folded in amazement.” When the horn sounded and the huddle broke, he approached every member of the coaching staff individually and called them the R-rated word for “wussies.”

That was during a game in the 2000-01 season: The year that Mr. Whitsitt’s experiment was supposed to pay off. In the previous playoffs, Portland blew a late lead in game seven of the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

They reloaded by adding former All-NBA forward Shawn Kemp in the summer. But Mr. Kemp couldn’t control his drug habit or his weight. Those were added to Mr. Wallace’s and Mr. Wells’ character defects, which all were supposed to be offset by aging former All-Stars like Mr. Sabonis, Mr. Schrempf, Steve Smith and Scottie Pippen.

The overall skill was overwhelming. But the on-court product underwhelmed: The Blazers finished with nine fewer wins than they did the season before and again lost to Los Angeles in the postseason, this time in the first round.

Mr. Schrempf and Mr. Sabonis retired afterward. Mr. Smith — who once was awarded a league honor for community service — was traded. Mr. Pippen remained, but said “[i]t was almost suicidal to be a part of that team.” The latest round of reinforcements to join him the next year included Reuben Patterson — whose previous team, the Seattle Supersonics, disowned him because of an attempted rape conviction.

Such was Mr. Whitsitt’s win-at-all-costs approach to team-building. While it marred Portland’s image, Mr. Eggers observes, the man himself also made enemies of the franchise — with people one would think ought to be friends. Mr. Smith said his experience there was the first time he “really wanted to get out of a place and let it be known.”

Blazers legend and Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who led the team to the 1992 NBA Finals, accused Mr. Whitsitt of using him for PR by floating his name for head coach in 2001 but never following up. “I don’t want to deal with anybody like that,” he said. Mr. Whitsitt was at odds even with the team’s legendary play-by-play voice, Bill Schonely — who he helped force into retirement, without explanation, in 1998. Mr. Whitsitt said that “a lot of the reasons are behind the scenes.” Mr. Schonely said he never received one.

And, as Mr. Eggers writes, “No, Schonely wasn’t involved in a domestic case or sexual assault issue.”

“Jail Blazers” is a book intended for basketball junkies, full of historical quotes and contemporary interviews with members of the team, as well as lookbacks at particular games throughout the course of several seasons. But it comes off as an account of corporate mismanagement, too.

Sports franchises were allowed to get away with personnel decisions two decades ago that they wouldn’t today: The era of the NFL’s Ray Rice and recently unemployed Kansas City Chiefs star Kareem Hunt, who were caught on camera attacking women. The Jail Blazers were a ignominious example, assembled by a controversial executive.

• Chris Deaton is a writer and editor from Atlanta, Ga., and was previously deputy online editor of The Weekly Standard.


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