When the bid to own Blazers emerges, there’s reason to pause: be careful what you wish for
I had mixed feelings Thursday when I read the news that Nike founder Phil Knight and Dodgers co-owner and investor Alan Smolinisky had made an unsolicited offer to buy the Trail Blazers.
My concern comes from 25 years of listening to every former president and general manager in Portland punctuate criticism of Allen family ownership with one crucial fact: The Allens always — always — have their wallets on the Search for a winner open.
Ever since Paul Allen bought the Trail Blazers in 1988, money has never been an issue in assembling the team. Allen has always paid, and often overpaid, to ensure the Blazers had a chance to assert themselves… and believe me, not every NBA team can boast that track record.
So before you cartwheel and do jumping jacks about the possibility of new ownership, be careful what you wish for. The stream of high-paying players who’ve had fans buying season tickets over the decades — Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard — has been bolstered by support players like Brian Grant, Derek Anderson, Allen Crabbe, and Evan Turner adds, they were probably overpaid to get them to stay in Portland. That was the price of doing business in Portland, and it’s why the Blazers were able to outperform other small markets like Sacramento, Indiana, and Charlotte—because the Allen family was willing to spend.
Will the next owner have the same willingness to spend? Hard to say.
Still, like most people in Portland and those who follow the Blazers, Thursday’s news of a takeover bid was a bit dreamy. The blazers owned by our favorite son and a witty rags to riches story penned by 42-year-old Smolinisky? Yeah, sounds a lot better than what’s become a distant, voiceless bunch from Seattle.
There are three important qualities in an owner: financial backing, the acumen to hire the right people, and connection to the community.
The Allens excelled in the first category, were torn in human resources, and failed in their connection to the community. And it is this third category that I believe is at the root of Thursday’s news leak. As much as the Allens have invested in Portland and the Blazers, there’s little to no attachment to the everyday fan. Paul Allen rarely spoke, and his sister Jody hasn’t made a single comment since taking over the team in 2018.
So I think this was a power play by Knight and his group to sway the court of public opinion in their favor in hopes of putting pressure on a faster sale. The Blazers countered by confirming they had received Knight’s offer, adding that the team was not for sale.
Ever since Bob Whitsitt left the franchise in 2003 after serving as both president and general manager, the elephant in the room has been the menacing presence of vice chairman Bert Kolde, whose most redeeming quality seems to be that he was Paul Allen’s college roommate. Kolde has been vice chairman since Paul Allen bought the Blazers in 1988, and in my 25 years of overseeing this organization I have never heard a person say anything positive about him.
Knight would be a welcome touch of innovation and innovative ideas, and he’s decidedly more suited to the Oregonians and Portlanders than the suits of Vulcan Inc. who cruise into town on game nights surrounded by bodyguards.
On Thursday I listened to two podcasts that Smolinisky was a guest on. He’s sharp, personable, and has a story that can resonate. His parents were immigrants from Argentina, his father flew to Los Angeles at the age of 17 and first became a janitor and later worked in the clothing industry. Alan was the first in his family to attend college at the University of Southern California, where he learned of the student housing crisis. As a freshman, he slept on the street to stand in line to submit his application for a sophomore complex. It told him there was a problem and a demand, and eventually he founded Conquest Student Housing, which built and renovated buildings around USC. In 2008, at the age of 29, he sold the company for $205 million.
In Oregon, we know that Knight isn’t afraid to invest in projects that he’s passionate about. And Smolinisky says he’s not afraid to seek advice and seek out those who know more about issues than he does. Those are encouraging traits that can serve this franchise well.
But we don’t know how they would feel about giving a soon-to-be 32-year-old Lillard a $100 million extension. We don’t know if they would be willing to sign someone like Rodney Hood on the midlevel exemption while exceeding the salary cap, which essentially means you’re paying double his salary because of taxes. And we don’t know if they’d be willing to overpay for a free agent to make that player overlook Oregon’s taxes and climate.
All we know for sure is that there is now a willing buyer for the Blazers. And that makes fans dream and wish for better times. But before you drift off into reverie, be careful what you wish for.
(Photo by Phil Knight: Jim Rogash / Getty Images)
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