Canzano: Damian Lillard standoff puts Trail Blazers fans in the middle
Which side will fans take?
Years ago I wrote a column about a woman named Sara Farfan and her husband. They worked part-time as housekeepers who cleaned the Trail Blazers locker room at the building previously known as the Rose Garden Arena.
They made $11 an hour.
The Farfan family didn’t own a car. They were without health insurance. To compound matters, Sara’s husband needed eyeglasses. But they had each other.
Also they had you, it turns out.
Sara, then 48, happened to be vacuuming the carpet in the locker room late one night during the 2007-08 NBA season when she made a discovery. Beside her shoes on the carpet sat a $100 bill.
She picked it up.
Then, showed it to her husband.
It was late and there was nobody else around.
They quickly decided that one of the NBA players must have dropped the money on the way out of the locker room that evening. Sara took a blank sheet of paper, folded it, and placed the bill inside. She left it with a note.
Turns out the $100 belonged to forward Travis Outlaw. He was making $4 million a year at the time. After he was given the lost money, Outlaw peeled off $20 as a finder’s fee and sent it Farfan’s way through an intermediary.
Not good enough, readers announced.
I subsequently received more than 900 emails saying so. Also, my voicemail filled with kind words and an offer for a free eye exam and glasses. But it was what I found waiting in the actual mailbox that told me everything I needed to know about Pacific Northwest sports fans.
Readers were so taken with Sara and her husband that they decided to reward them, unsolicited. For days afterward, I opened letters that included hand-written notes accompanied by a $100 bill. And some of the envelopes only included the money.
The haul: $6,000.
Sara nearly fell over when I dropped the money at her home. She cried and invited me inside for Sunday dinner as I handed off the letters. I politely waved her off, telling her that she’d already provided so much to us all. It remains one of my favorite stories.
I bring this up today to underscore how people in this region are soulful and different. They care deeply. And they love hard. I’ve written and said many times that the Northwest is a wonderful place to get married, raise children and root for sports teams. The last few years has been tough on the brand of the region, but the people are still here.
Damian Lillard is among them.
He benefitted immensely from being drafted by the Trail Blazers with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He didn’t come from a blue-blood college basketball program. Lillard played his college ball in the Big Sky Conference. He arrived from Weber State that first NBA summer with a chip on his shoulder.
Portland fans not only related to it, they loved him for it.
Lillard worked hard, played well, and became a source of pride for a fan base that had long been mocked for its failures. Bill Walton left. Sam Bowie broke down. Greg Oden was a bust. The Blazers blew a 15-point lead in the Western Conference Finals, too. All that came before Lillard showed up to validate one of the league’s most remote and troubled franchises.
Now, he wants nothing to do with it.
Lillard asked for a trade. He’s since unfollowed the Blazers on Instagram. But I’m fairly sure most of the fan base still loves him, in part, because he made the franchise matter. Also, because he was beyond loyal by NBA standards. Also, because they’d probably love to be traded themselves.
Let’s be clear — if Phil Knight owned the Trail Blazers the franchise wouldn’t be in this position. I suspect fans would be buying season tickets and trying to decide what to wear to the playoffs. Lillard would be happy, I’ll bet. But Knight’s offer to buy the franchise two summers ago was ignored and here we are.
Portland’s current braintrust — trustee Jody Allen and trusty sidekick Bert Kolde — don’t appear eager to take pennies on the dollar in a trade of their most valuable player. I understand the logic. I also understand that Lillard’s patience has been exhausted by a franchise that wasted his best years.
Basketball fans in Philadelphia and Los Angeles won’t relate — but fans in Portland understand exactly what Lillard is going though. Their best years have been wasted, too. They’ve essentially endured the same maddening journey, but for much longer in a lot of cases.
Bad ownership and hollow promises aside, I have some questions. How patient will fans be with Lillard’s act in the coming weeks? Will they turn on him if he fails to show up at training camp? What if he refuses to suit up at all this season? Or says something publicly that makes playing in Portland untenable?
In the summer of 2022 Lillard signed a two-year contract extension worth $122 million. It was more money than he could have commanded anywhere else. The prior season, he appeared in only 29 games for Portland due to an abdominal injury. Now, the same player wants to be traded and has given the organization a list of teams that includes only one franchise: Miami.
That’s not a list.
It’s an order.
The Lillard soap opera is going to be an interesting study of fan allegiance. It’s going to test people like never before. Will they side with the franchise they root for? Or the frustrated star who wants nothing to do with it? Lillard has been reluctant to speak publicly, presumably because he doesn’t have anything kind to say about the franchise. But there’s a public collision shaping up, be sure.
Lillard wants out. The fan base sort of understands, mostly. But again, this is a very different sports market. One that I suspect would love nothing more than to see a smiling Lillard on the court alongside Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe next season.
That does not appear likely.
Fans in the Pacific Northwest appreciate authenticity. They rally behind a great cause. It’s why they were moved to send that housekeeper and her husband $6,000. But we’re about to find out if they know what to do with an NBA player who is telling the world that their undying love and $451 million in career earnings simply isn’t enough.
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