COOS BAY — Since the Portland Trail Blazers inaugural season in 1970, they have been an integral part of Oregon and southwest Washington. But the team can also be isolated from its largely rural fan base, which resides in all corners of the state.
To reach out to those fans, the Blazers embark on a road trip to various small towns to generate interest, excitement and engagement in the weeks leading up to the season. This year, the Blazers stopped at Coos Bay first, before heading to Florence, Newport, Dallas and McMinnville in their annual Rip City Relay.
“We know that places on the coast, places in the middle of the state, places five hours from Portland are still die-hard Blazers fans,” Trail Blazers courtside reporter Brooke Olzendam said during an event at Coos Bay City Hall on Monday afternnon. “So we pick and choose the cities that we want to go to because we know there’s definitely a fan base that’s even that far away.”
Earlier Monday at Madison Elementary School, Olzendam and the crew played to an excited crowd, staging competitions and throwing out shirts.
“It’s just been a blast,” Olzendam said. “I’m looking around and seeing kids I saw this morning at the elementary school. The fans here are awesome.
“I’ve talked to people here who know everything. They know the players, they know their stats, they know the schedule. Like I said, die-hard Blazers fans everywhere.”
Monday was the first stop for the caravan, including the trophy from the team's only NBA title in 1977, Blaze the mascot and Blazers TV analyst Lamar Hurd. Many of the kids from the stop at Madison Elementary School came with their parents to City Hall.
There, the Blazers had a basketball hoop set up complete with a red playing surface with “Rip City” emblazoned on it. Fans could win various prizes at a Plinko station, with jerseys being the top prize, as well as an opportunity to take a photo with a couple of Blazers cheerleaders, Blaze, and the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Fans also had a chance to sign a large Oregon-shaped patch that the other four stops will sign too. That’ll be attached to a flag which will hang in Moda Center this season.
For some, like Sam Spann and his sons Cameron and Cole, who don’t go to games but still love the team, it was a chance to interact up close with the Blazers.
The turnout was good, with the Plinko line backed up most of the event and smiles all around.
For a lot of the Blazers reps it was their first time in Coos Bay, and most really enjoyed it.
“The drive over from I-5, to me is the best drive from I-5 to the coast,” Hurd said. “It’s so scenic. I was pleasantly surprised and I’ve enjoyed my time here.”
Before the ceremonies started at 4 p.m., the Boys and Girls Club received a $1,000 check from Moda Health as its targeted area nonprofit.
Annabel Taylor, the Boys’ and Girls Club Teen Programmer, took a call from the Blazers last week and unexpectedly received the award. They don’t coordinate with Moda Health in any capacity and were excited that their Triple Play program piqued the attention of the large and community-minded health insurance company.
“It really makes a big difference to keep our sports going,” Taylor said.
On the court, children 14 and under competed in a skills contest with the winner taking home a pair of Blazers headphones. There also was a 3-point contest for everyone 15 and over.
Hurd, who played basketball at Oregon State before joining Kevin Calabro courtside for the Blazers’ TV broadcast last season, milled about the crowd throughout the afternoon and answered questions about the team in an open question-and-answer ceremony.
He’ll be covering a team this year that is looking to build on a good finish to last year that saw Portland run into the buzzsaw that was the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.
When asked things to watch this year, Hurd first mentioned the 23 year-old Bosnian Jusuf Nurkic, acquired by Portland in a February trade. Nurkic was a spark for the team in its run to the playoffs, saying he was having fun playing basketball for the first time in years.
“I haven’t spoken to him in a couple months, but I’ll see him in a few weeks, I’ll bet you he’ll be the first to tell you that this offseason is probably the hardest he’s worked,” Hurd said. “Because he’s in a situation where he’s happy, he knows he’s going to play, he’s valued, and so he’s committed to winning more than he’s ever been before. And that’s not to say he wasn’t committed before, but he sees the type of team he has around him. That’s the first thing, him being healthy and training for this moment.”
Second, Hurd said, Portland won’t be picked to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference this year, with some “prognosticators” picking Portland to finish outside of the playoff-qualifying top-eight.
In Hurd’s estimation, that makes a Damian Lillard-led group hungry.
“That puts the chip back on their shoulder,” he said.
It’s a tough thing, though, being in the West. The aforementioned Warriors aren’t going anywhere, plus the staying power of the Spurs, the potential emergence of Houston, Russell Westbrook and the interesting Lakers are all only a part of the historically good conference.
“It’s going to be tough every single night,” Hurd said. “It’s not a cliché anymore.”