That’s something that the Blazers faithful know all too well. The “Jail Blazers” era began when the team was still competitive and featured players like Shawn Kemp (infamous from a 1998 Sports Illustrated cover story that identified him as the father of seven illegitimate children), Damon Stoudamire (multiple marijuana arrests), Ruben Patterson (who pled guilty to attempted rape while playing for Seattle in 2001) and Rasheed Wallace (one pot bust in the company of Stoudamire and the temperament of Family Guy’s Stewie on the court). When Patterson and Nash replaced Bob Whitsitt (who was both president and GM from 1994 until 2003) they made a “25 Point Pledge” to the city that included everything from promises to “establish a player code of conduct and to hold our players accountable for their actions both on and off the court” to providing “affordable in-arena food options for special game nights.”
But those promises were followed by Qyntel Woods’s dogfighting arrest and Darius Miles’s suspension for a heated off-court argument with Maurice Cheeks. In 2006, Sebastian Telfair was suspended for two games after he accidentally took a handgun on the team plane. Then there was Zach Randolph, who repaid the franchise for the six-year, $84 million contract extension he received in November 2004 by hanging out in strip clubs, which was duly reported by the media. In August 2006 he was accused of rape. (Criminal charges were never filed, and a civil suit brought by the alleged victim has been dismissed.)
Pritchard has forgone a pledge in favor of decisive action. McMillan, who was hired by Nash and Patterson: “He had an opportunity to coach this franchise at its roughest moment. He got a feel for what it was like to be on the sidelines, to listen to the fans’ comments, to coach the players that he had. He knows! A lot of those guys are gone now.” Indeed, there are only three players left (out of 15) from the Blazers roster that Pritchard briefly coached, and only five who played for Portland in 2005-06.
Pritchard is not just rebuilding a basketball team but building, to use his second-favorite buzzword, “a program.” It’s a collegiate word, because in college sports the coach, the system and the team are bigger than each individual player. This seems like a good approach for Portland, which has the sort of rah-rah passion for its only pro franchise that bigger cities can’t quite match. New York City and Los Angeles don’t have public rallies to introduce new coaches or players.
What’s more, the Blazers almost are a college team: The average age of the entire roster is just 23.7. When Oden came into town for his predraft workouts, Pritchard recruited Roy and Aldridge to go meet him at the airport and then show him around town. “I’m hosting Greg Oden like it’s a college visit,” says Roy. “I’m like, ‘I thought we just draft him and he comes.’ But it’s what they’re trying to build here. I like it. You look at the San Antonio Spurs and they probably have the best team in the last eight years, and it’s all about that camaraderie.”
“I think that shows what [Pritchard’s] about,” says Aldridge. “Team, family, guys being close, guys liking each other.”
ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande recently reported that when Pritchard got the job, he told Paul Allen he’d rather lose with the right players than win with the wrong players. That’s why it was hardly a surprise when the team traded Zach Randolph. (And perhaps it’s no coincidence Randolph landed with the Knicks, a team whose GM, Isiah Thomas, was recently found guilty of sexual harassment; and whose point guard, Stephon Marbury, admitted to having sex with a team intern in his truck outside a strip club.)
Pritchard has never said a negative public word about “Z-Bo” (“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s an all-star in the East,” was his comment on the night of the trade), but he will say that he prefers guys who “do things the right way before anything else.”
“If you play harder, if you play smarter, if you play more unselfish, you’re going to win a lot of games,” Pritchard adds. “It’s that simple. I don’t care what you tell me—that’s my foundation. You’re not getting me off my foundation.”