I've been to a lot of open scrimmages in my life. The format is usually the same. An NBA team takes practice on the road with two primary goals: giving back to the community and giving fans that can't get to games a chance to see the new squad in action. Those same principles applied to the Portland Trail Blazers' practice Thursday at Seattle's Garfield High School, but with one crucial distinction. The community to which the Blazers were reaching out was one that has been abandoned by the NBA.
Thursday's scrimmage was the first NBA event in Seattle since the Sonics' departure in July 2008 and represented a meaningful step in the Blazers' efforts to reach out to their neighbor to the North. Already, all of Portland's games are televised throughout Western Washington, and Blazers broadcasting specifically targeted Seattleites with a commercial that featured head coach Nate McMillan, who was known as "Mr. Sonic" during his days as a player and coach in Seattle.
The ties between the Blazers and Seattle run deep. Besides McMillan, there is star guard Brandon Roy, a Seattle native who starred at Garfield before attending the University of Washington. New general manager Rich Cho grew up just south of Seattle before beginning his career in the Sonics' front office. The original connection is owner Paul Allen, a Seattleite whose other pro sports teams (the NFL Seahawks and MLS Sounders) call Seattle home.
Still, when it came to actually setting foot on soil in the 206, the Blazers treaded somewhat lightly. Last summer, news reports surfaced that Portland was planning a preseason game at KeyArena, an idea that was met with a decidedly mixed reaction (and that's being polite) by former Sonics fans. Before the game ever became official, it was rescheduled for Memorial Coliseum.
Fortunately, the lingering anger about the way the Sonics left town did not overshadow the scrimmage. It showed at times--fans booed when McMillan referenced the team's move while addressing the crowd--but the tone was mostly positive about having NBA basketball in the city, if only for one night. The capacity crowd of 2,000 that paid $5 (which went to the Garfield School Foundation and was matched by a $10,000 donation from Roy and the team) to pack the gym should answer any lingering questions about whether Seattle still cares about professional basketball.
The crowd featured a fascinating who's who of the Seattle basketball community: players (D-Leaguer Will Conroy, who played with Roy at Garfield; current Huskies Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Abdul Gaddy), coaches (Lorenzo Romar), executives (former Sonics GM Wally Walker) and others (agent Eric Goodwin; Jeff Hawes, a former UW player better known as the father of 76ers center Spencer Hawes; and fully 2/3 of the SSSBDA). They came at least as much to support basketball played at its highest level as they did because of the Blazers in particular. (Although, as friend of BBP Seth Kolloen pointed out at The Sunbreak, seeing the team in person may go a long way toward strengthening Seattleites' connection with the Blazers.)
Every once in a while, I'm asked whether I think the NBA will return to Seattle any time soon. Thursday night was, to me, a sign that this city is closer to ready. The release and success of Sonicsgate was cathartic, and time serves to relieve though not entirely heal the wounds. I'm sure there remains a hard-line contingent that will never again support the NBA, but this seems to be the minority.
Still, the issue dividing the city and the return of professional basketball remains the same one that drove the Sonics to Oklahoma City: a viable NBA arena. Everyone involved agrees that KeyArena is not a long-term solution, but making the argument for public funds to renovate the Key has gone from difficult to impossible because of the economy and because there is no guarantee that Seattle would be able to lure another team. Unless a local basketball-crazed billionaire decides to dish out the necessary money, there seems to be no progress that would actually bring the NBA back to Seattle on a more regular basis.
As for the scrimmage itself, it was played at a relatively low level even by open practice standards. The most interesting and amusing feature was that the Blazers used the high school three-point line painted on the gym rather than taping down the NBA line, turning threes into gimmes for the team's better shooters and giving big men like LaMarcus Aldridge and Dante Cunningham three-point range. More than anyone, Rudy Fernandez took full advantage of the shorter line before halftime, allowing Portland's second unit to stay right with the team's starters through the first two quarters.
In the wake of Roy's comments yesterday that he would like to have the ball in his hands "a lot more," it was interesting to note that he and Andre Miller spent relatively little time together during the scrimmage. While the way the roster was split prevented the Black squad from using a big lineup with Roy as the de facto point guard, rookie Armon Johnson got extended minutes in place of Miller and was seamlessly integrated into the starting lineup. Roy had the ball in his hands much of the second quarter, when he got hot and helped the starters reclaim the lead. They dominated after halftime.
I wouldn't read too much into it, but rookie Luke Babbitt struggled. In fact, he was so bad that one of my co-workers opined at one point that he was a definite cut, not knowing that Babbitt was the team's first-round pick. (Nobody seems to have seen Babbitt play at Nevada; even I never caught a Wolfpack game last season.) When he's not making shots, Babbitt can have a tough time contributing, though he stayed with it and never showed the kind of visible frustration we saw on Monday from Utah's Gordon Hayward (something Jerry Sloan later brought up with the media). The third Portland rookie, Elliot Williams, stole the show with his dunks, including one highlight-reel effort in the closing seconds.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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