Losing can come over a good team like a change in the weather. The Portland Trail Blazers had played .728 basketball over three seasons and desperately wanted a championship to show for it. They built a huge lead over Chicago in the sixth game of last year's NBA Finals, 17 points up in the third quarter, and were going to tie the series and extend the season one more game: 48 minutes for the title.
storm clouds gathered. Jordan returned to score 10 points in the game's last eight minutes, and Chicago won the game and another championship. Portland was left to ponder the wreckage again.
"Certainly, we were the best team last year, matchup for matchup," Portland's Terry Porter says. "Certainly, we had the most talent. But that doesn't mean anything because we didn't win. And winning is what everything is judged by."
The Trail Blazers may have been the best team in the NBA for each of the past three seasons. They aren't anymore. The Phoenix Suns, Seattle SuperSonics, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets have emerged, leaving Portland in fifth place in the Western Conference. "It seems like the teams that won 55 games last year are going to win 50 this year," Houston's Kenny Smith says, "and the teams that won 45 last year are also winning 50."
Nowhere can that parity be seen more starkly than in Portland, where the Blazers were 57-25 a year ago, winning a second consecutive championship in the Pacific Division -- the NBA's finest -- and returned all five starters. They're still a .600 team, but that winning percentage won't get them home-court advantage even in their first playoff series.
There are reasons for the demise that can be easily cataloged, and then there are other reasons. Clyde Drexler, Portland's most talented player, hasn't been healthy. He recently returned after missing 13 games with a hamstring tendon strain in his left leg and earlier missed two weeks with a sore right knee. At age 30, and with the additional pounding of last year's Olympic summer on that temperamental knee, he may never be the graceful scorer he was.
Jerome Kersey missed 15 games with patellar tendinitis in his left knee, and Kevin Duckworth is out with sore knees.
"We've been almost completely free of injuries for three years now, and it's all catching up with us at once," says Porter.
But the situation may not be quite so temporary. When a team continues playing long past Memorial Day season after season, the additional games eventually exact their toll.
"There's a lot of mileage on some of those 30-year-olds," says Boston's Robert Parish.
Says Celtics teammate Xavier McDaniel, "It's just a situation where 100 games year in and year out catch up with you."
The injuries have forced point guard Porter to play shooting guard much of the season and have scrambled a starting lineup that had been immutable for several years. Drexler and Kersey together already have missed more games this season than all the starters missed in '90, '91 and '92 combined.
At the same time, an incident allegedly involving Kersey, Blazers rookies Tracy Murray, Dave Johnson and Reggie Smith and several teen-age girls at a hotel in Salt Lake City has done a certain amount of psychological damage to a team that has come to see itself as a kind of family. Portland is one of the smallest cities in professional sports, and it feels an intimate relationship with its heroes. Indiscretions are magnified, and to many, the Salt Lake City mess -- although no charges were filed -- was a civic affront.
"There is no question it has been a distraction," says Kersey, who has never played for another team in his nine-year NBA career. "Being the only professional team in town, everybody looks to us for everything."
The more lasting scars may come from inside the clubhouse. Because the original report filed by investigators implicated nearly the entire roster, including coach Rick Adelman, several veteran players were painfully public in their demands that the uninvolved be cleared. "Some of us who were named," Buck Williams says now, "had never even seen the young women in question." The incident caused a rift between the two generations of Blazers and between longtime teammates Drexler and Kersey.
All of this has combined to create a difficult season for a team that has not been accustomed to adversity. "The margin between being very successful and not successful is very small," says Adelman, who coached the team to a 179-67 record in his first three full seasons.
Opponents wonder about something more: a shared consciousness of last year's failure that still haunts the club. There is a sense around the NBA that the Blazers have lost the psychological edge that made them so successful -- especially at home, where they've lost 10 of 34 games.
"It's just something that isn't there anymore," says Denver's LTC Robert Pack, who played on Portland's Western Conference champions last season but was traded for a second-round pick after training camp. "You can see the difference just watching the players, the way they move around the court. I wonder if losing the Finals for the second time hasn't carried over, hasn't left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths."
The life cycle of an elite NBA team is usually only a few seasons.
The most successful modern-era franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, found ways to reconstruct their starting lineups on the fly despite poor draft positions. The Blazers have kept the core of their team together, gambling that stability would translate into at least one championship. They've had the same starting five (Drexler, Porter, Kersey, Kevin Duckworth and Williams) for the past three seasons and signed free-agent guard Rod Strickland after last season only because Danny Ainge left for Phoenix. They haven't had a draft pick higher than 21st since 1987. Coming off three consecutive playoff disappointments, there was some inclination to change the team's character.
"We thought we were doing that, to a certain extent," Adelman says. "When Danny Ainge left as a free agent it gave us the opportunity to pick up Rod [Strickland] and Mario [Elie], and that plus our three rookies made us think that we were putting last year behind us. But it seems like we've been foiled in different ways all year long."
Kersey can be seen as a microcosm of the Blazers' team. Never a transcendent talent, he succeeded with a huge work ethic and an aggressive attitude. This year, injuries and a lack of confidence have made him tentative. When he is at his best, such as during a 22-point performance that led the Blazers over the Rockets at Memorial Coliseum last week, it seems the entire roster is inspired to again play Blazerball.
"Being aggressive, always working harder -- that's the way I made it into this league, and those are the things that made me one of the better players in this league," Kersey says. "This whole team is like that. But we have some players who haven't really been healthy all year, and I'm one of them. The whole season has been frustrating all the way around."
Last month, Adelman put Kersey and Duckworth on the bench for the first shake-up of the Blazers' starting lineup in three years. Duckworth and Kersey has been starting since the 1988-89 season. Neither player accepted the role change well. "After five years, it certainly feels strange," says Kersey.
At the same time, lifetime Blazers Drexler and Porter were prominently mentioned in trade discussions. In the end, the Blazers declined offers for both players as the trading deadline expired. But the sense around the franchise is that a decision to shuffle the personnel has been made.
The playoffs will be less a tryout for next year's club than the final act of a multiyear drama.
"You don't know what management's thinking," says Porter. "This could be it. Maybe they think we've had our run and it's time to get some new guys."