Behind Enemy Lines
It’s easy to find comfort within the confines of familiar territory. For Portland Trail Blazers fans, that means Rip City, as well as the Moda Center arena formerly known as the Rose Garden.
It’s when you step out of your comfort zone and breach enemy grounds that you learn about the outside world, and this past week, I took that step toward diversifying my NBA experience.
Throughout the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers face off more times than I can remember. They’ve endured star performances, dramatic finishes and heated confrontations all before my eyes, and needless to say, it’s must-see entertainment when the two get together.
Witnessing such a spectacle in downtown L.A. had been a long-awaited objective of mine, and I jumped at the opportunity when it was presented. The Rose Garden will always be home to Blazermaniacs, but if I learned one thing from my time in the City of Angels, it’s that a visit to Staples must be on every fan’s NBA bucket list.
The well-renowned Staples Center is as glamorous as it is famous. Without bad-mouthing my home team, and more specifically home town, the vicinity outside Staples is miles ahead of what PDX has to offer.
When it comes down to it, Los Angeles has turned its version of the Rose Quarter into a mini Times Square. Flashing advertisements reside on the sides of the tallest buildings, restaurants and bars can be seen for 360 degrees and because it’s December, a giant Christmas tree occupies an ice skating rink that features pre-game anticipation.
It didn’t hurt, either, that it was 70 degrees and there were blue skies before tipoff—an experience you just don’t get for an evening game in the Pacific Northwest.
Inside the arena, the building glows. The purple radiance complements the sea of yellow jerseys, but while that might appeal to cameras and hometown enthusiasts, it’s cringe-worthy for someone who has spent his entire life despising such colors.
The nice part about Los Angeles being so close to Portland (relatively speaking) is that it wasn’t just that awful purple and gold roaming the halls. Red and black attire could be spotted on fans—myself included— at almost every corner, and there’s nothing like high-fiving strangers, knowing you have at least one thing in common.
To the Staples Center’s credit, the staff knows how to treat its visitors. If you want a picture taken by the court, ushers will help without question. If you want to buy a beverage (a $12 beverage, by the way), they’ll take a shot at your team before laughing and engaging in friendly banter.
Staples may be a road venue for the Trail Blazers, but everybody there knows how to treat a fan regardless of his or her affiliation.
Well, almost everybody.
Blazers Fan annoy meee sooo muchhh
— Steph (@SteffyLA_Lakers) December 2, 2013
Every fanbase has its good and its bad, and the L.A. faithful are no exception. However, there’s one thing that all Lakers fans seemingly have in common.
They just can’t help but live in the past.
As the Blazers stormed ahead to an early 19-4 lead, I heard more about Greg Oden, Brandon Roy and the team’s only championship in 1977 than I have in years. I was even reminded of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals (as if it will ever stop haunting my dreams), and it became clear that current events in L.A. were a bit of a sore subject.
One fan in particular couldn’t make up his mind about whom to verbally assault cheer for. He began the game claiming that nobody in the building knew who Damian Lillard was, and that LaMarcus Aldridge had no jumper.
Both facts were proven drastically wrong, but don’t think that slowed down his attempt at insult mastery.
The fan’s next target was Robin Lopez. He began with the hair, then focused on his twin brother, Brook. Neither disparaging remark did the trick from the 300 section, and neither stopped the center from recording 12 points and 12 rebounds on the night.
Shortly after the Blazers pulled ahead by double digits, he switched his attention to his own team, crying for Mike D’Antoni to be fired and for Pau Gasol to be banned to the bench. Portlanders may criticize their opponents, but it’s a rare day if you hear them take such a fickle approach to their own fandom.
As unbelievable as it was listening to Lakers devotees shout both cheers and laments the team’s way, the most inconceivable event of the contest came when the home crowd erupted into an MVP chant for Robert Sacre. That’s right—the same Robert Sacre who is averaging 3.7 points and 2.5 rebounds in 10.3 minutes through six games.
It was one of the more comical moments of the NBA season, and it perfectly epitomized what we’ve learned about the Lakers this year: Exceeding expectations and experiencing utter disappointment are no longer mutually exclusive.
Staples chanting MVP. For Robert Sacre. It’s come to that.
— Bryant Knox (@BryantKnox) December 2, 2013
The fan experience came to an epic climax when I found myself in one of the least inspiring trash-talking exhibitions in the history of basketball. During halftime, I decided to donate another 12 dollars to the Staples’ Concession Foundation when I was approached by a superfan dressed as Lakers legend Kurt Rambis. He was accompanied by a cameraman, and before I knew it, the parley was on.
Admittedly, I’ve never been a trash talker. I never took after the Michael Jordans and Gary Paytons of the world—I was much more of a Brian Scalabrine when it came to leaving lasting impressions both on and off the court.
Mr. Rambis chose to ignore my comments about him looking more like Will Ferrell than an NBA champion, moving straight to nicknaming the Moda Center “The Blacktop.” I returned with a jab at the team’s record, and he combated with a D-League joke that was clearly over my head.
This debate went on for an obscurely long time considering the lack of substantial material, but it came to a thrilling conclusion when I asked him if he could tell me one thing about the current Trail Blazers. He turned around, walked his short shorts the other direction and left me alone on a balcony overlooking a well-lit, holiday version of downtown L.A.
I’m sure Lakers fans are getting a good laugh at my expense somewhere, but let’s not forget whose team came out on top when it was all said and done.
Amid the glowing lights and raving fans, there was a real-life basketball game taking place inside Staples. These two teams rarely fail to amuse their followers, and this one proved to be no exception.
The Blazers got hot early, jumping out to a 17-point lead in the first half. LaMarcus Aldridge was unstoppable with his mid-range jump shot, and in familiar fashion, the team honed in on perimeter defense from the onset of the competition.
Unfortunately for Rip City, Portland showed that it doesn’t know how to play with a lead just yet. Xavier Henry and the Lakers brought it back within three at the half, but it wasn’t until late that the crowd showed excitement toward anything other than Rihanna being in attendance.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Blazers had a 20-point lead, but once again, history repeated itself. Los Angeles mounted a furious comeback to make it a game late, keeping Portland scoreless for nearly the first six minutes of the period.
The comeback was reminiscent of that dreaded Game 7 back in 2000, but luckily for all of the Blazers in the crowd, nobody had their minds on the past. This one was going to be decided in the final minutes, and in true fashion, L.A. fans began pouring out of the arena just before the height of the contest began.
In the end, the Blazers escaped with a 114-108 victory. They made up for an unfortunate loss to the Phoenix Suns two nights prior, and they took momentum into their highly anticipated matchup with the league-leading Indiana Pacers.
For me, I walked away with a new perspective. Coming together with like-minded people is comforting in home venues, but standing out among the opposition is intoxicating for those who can smile in the face of hostility.
Fortunately for me, the latter proved to be a thrill, as there’s nothing better than watching a rowdy crowd turn silent on its way out of the building.
When it comes to road trips, put Staples Center on your list. The history is in the championship banners, and it’s polarizing for fans who crave success in their own beloved cities.
Unfortunately for Laker Nation, the tides have turned in this rivalry, as Portland is blazing a trail to the playoffs while Los Angeles is mired in complete mediocrity.