The NBA Finals have returned to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in 13 years, and the reaction in the Pacific Northwest is it's about time.
Semi-trailers rolling across Oregon on Interstate-84 from Pendleton to Portland have "Go Blazers" scribbled on their backs instead of "Wash Me."Blazers are the sportcoats of choice, as well as the four-wheel drives of discriminating tastes.
A Jeep dealer in The Dalles, Ore., displayed this sign: "Sale on Cherokees."
It was followed by: "Go Blazers."
They love their Trail Blazers as much as they hate fluorocarbons.
As the best-of-seven NBA Finals confrontation between the Blazers and the Detroit Pistons moves into its midway stage in the intimate Portland Memorial Coliseum, Blazermania has struck with roughly the same force as in 1976-77. That's when center Bill Walton was drafted out of UCLA, reported to Portland, bought several wool shirts, and led the unsung Trail Blazers to the world championship over the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the Portland franchise's first playoff experience.
That 1976-77 season made such an impact that there hasn't been an empty seat in the Memorial Coliseum since.
Six hundred and sixty home games later and not a single ticket has gone unpurchased.
"We've got to have the oldest crowd in the league," says John Lashway, Portland's director of media services. "People who had season tickets in 1976 still have them, and a lot of them were older and wealthier people back then. Nobody gives them up."
The Blazers play in the NBA's second smallest arena - only the Salt Palace is smaller - with a seating capacity of 12,884. But always to capacity crowds.
"Being the only game in town makes a big difference here," says Wayne Cooper, the Blazers' backup center who is seeing his second tour of duty in Portland, having played formerly in 1982-83 and 1983-84 before being traded to Denver. "It's like a college atmosphere. People around here feel like they're a part of the team. And they usually are."
That much was obvious a week ago, after the Blazers won the Western Conference championship in Phoenix and returned aboard Blazer I, their leased private jet, to a crowd estimated in excess of 15,000.
In their exuberance the fans trampled fields, knocked down fences and overran police barricades.
Consequently, when the Blazers returned from Detroit Friday, after splitting the first two games of the NBA Finals with the Pistons, Blazer I landed at a secret location in an obscure area of the airport at 10:20 in the morning.
Only 700 fans found them.
On Saturday, when the annual Portland Rose Festival staged its Grand Floral Parade through the streets of downtown - with more than 400,000 spectators on hand - the Trail Blazer franchise elected not to put its conquering heroes on a float "because of a concern over overzealous fans."
Today, however, that will hardly be a concern.
The usual 12,884 will be in their native habitat.
And just because there is an inordinate number of senior citizens in the crowd doesn't mean it can't be loud.
"With the possible exception of Chicago, I'd say this is the loudest arena in the league in the playoffs," says Lashway. "During the regular season, OK, maybe we're the quietest. I mean, there are coaches who are afraid to talk during timeouts in the regular season because they're afraid they might be heard. But not in the playoffs. No way."
Lashway likes to tell about the reporter from San Antonio, who, during the heated Spurs-Blazers second-round series this season, brought a device that measured decibel levels.
"He got a 112 for a high here," says Lashman. "That's the equivalent of a jet plane taking off. The best he got in San Antonio was a 108."
So far, the Blazers are 9-0 at home in the playoffs. They don't call it the Memorial Coliseum for nothing.
If they can run that record to 12-0 they can win another world title and not have to return to Detroit for games six and seven.
The fact that Detroit hasn't won in the Coliseum since October of 1974 makes such a streak seem possible, if not likely.
"We don't want to ever leave here again," Portland guard Clyde Drexler told that airport crowd of 700 Friday morning. If you're a Trail Blazer, staying in Portland makes perfect sense.