When practice closes with a free-throw contest, Pritchard and a couple of the scouts and coaches spice it with a wager on the final round. The GM goes with Taurean Green, the ropy little guard (in the NBA, six foot tall is little) out of the University of Florida, where he hit 86 percent of his foul shots and won two straight NCAA titles. Bill Bayno puts his chips on Josh McRoberts, who has 10 inches and 63 pounds on Green and was a 66-percent college free-throw shooter.
The two players match each other bucket-for-bucket over several rounds, and, college stats be damned, Green is the first to miss. “Taurean, you lost!” Pritchard yells in mock outrage, giving the rookie a playful shove. McRoberts, whose fresh-faced Duke visage has given way to tousled hair and four-day stubble (welcome to Portland, dude!) steps up to the line to end it, but Pritchard interrupts him. He walks over to the stripe, takes the ball and gives it back to McRoberts like he’s the referee. Then he leans into the player’s ear. No pressure, right? Just the GM giving a little quiet trash-talk to a second-rounder who isn’t guaranteed to see a single minute of real game action come fall. The playground fun is over: McRoberts may as well be shooting in the final second of a deadlocked playoff game.
Swish! McRoberts sinks it. Pritchard has lost the bet, but won himself a teaching moment. When the Blazers bring it in, he’s right there in the huddle with them. Seconds after that, his thumbs are back on the Blackberry.
IT WAS PRETTY BAD there for a while, wasn’t it? The blown Game Seven lead against the Lakers in 2000. The end of the franchise’s NBA-record, 21-year playoff streak in 2004. The firing of popular (if ineffective) coach Maurice Cheeks in 2005. The NBA’s worst record (21-61) in 2006. And of course, the ongoing mishaps and misbehaviors that led to the nickname “Jail Blazers,” making the team a mockery around the country. Even as the hiring of McMillan and the addition of eventual NBA Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy gave hoops fans something to fall for, Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen didn’t seem too interested in sparking the affair. Having put the Rose Garden into bankruptcy in 2004, the 11th-richest man in the United States (according to Forbes) also talked of selling the franchise. On some nights it was as easy to get a ticket to an NBA game in Portland as it was to see indoor lacrosse or junior hockey (and if you were targeted by the right discount or promotion, it was also cheaper).
To Portland fans, the GM himself seemed like the good luck charm.
Kevin Pritchard changed the vibe. From the day he got the job as general manager until Greg Oden took the Red Line MAX downtown to introduce himself to Portland three months later, Pritchard was the Blazers’ public face. Before that, he was the most important face behind the scenes—particularly on the night of the 2006 draft, when he orchestrated a flurry of trades and picks that brought not just Roy to Portland, but also his fellow impact rookie LaMarcus Aldridge, high-ceiling Spanish guard Sergio Rodriguez and British big-man project Joel Freeland, all in the first round.
It was an especially satisfying haul because the Blazers went into the 2006 draft lottery with the best (25 percent) chance of selecting first, but ended up at fourth. The Blazers then scored the top pick in 2007 despite having just the sixth-best (5.3 percent) chance, serendipity Pritchard ascribed to the ladybug pendant he’d been given by his daughter for the lottery.
But to Portland fans, the GM himself seemed like the good luck charm. The season they’d just watched, with the team that Pritchard had had such a big hand in shaping, had given Portland only 11 more wins than the 2006 team, but players like Roy and Aldridge offered something just as precious: hope.
Pritchard first came to Portland in August 2004 as the Blazers’ director of player personnel (a job that more or less translates as head of scouting) under John Nash, then GM; prior to that he’d been a scout for San Antonio, which has won four championships since 1999 and produced the same number of NBA GMs in just the past two years: Pritchard, Cleveland’s Danny Ferry, Seattle’s Sam Presti and Phoenix’s Steve Kerr. The Spurs are known for emphasizing defense, hard work and role players over flashy talents à la Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan (which is not to say Spurs stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not three of the best players in the league).
During his first year with the Blazers, towards the end of the 2004-05 season, Pritchard also served as the Blazers’ interim head coach, bridging the gap between Maurice Cheeks and Nate McMillan. When then team president Steve Patterson took over the Blazers’ general manager’s responsibilities from Nash weeks before the 2006 draft, Pritchard was left as his top lieutenant. (Officially, Pritchard became assistant GM in October, when Patterson removed the “interim” from his own title.) When Patterson stepped down (on March 1, 2007), Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports and Entertainment holding company conducted a national search for his replacement. But where there might have ordinarily been pressure to hire someone who was a bigger name or had previous GM experience, Pritchard was already both the popular favorite and the media favorite; he was elevated to the job March 29. “The arrow kept coming back to Kevin Pritchard,” says Vulcan CEO Tod Leiweke. “He really was becoming the symbol of what it was to be a Blazer.”