Clyde Drexler is traded from the Portland Trail Blazers in a classic If You Love Something Set It Free way, and my ability to ever again be emotionally involved in professional sports is lost.
Growing up in Portland, we have but one major sports franchise, the Trail Blazers. If you’re a kid here and you love sports, that’s your team. When you start young, like most of us do, it’s easy to build a history with a team. With use of my walkman, the TV, and the sports page, I was a seasoned fan by the time 1983 rolled around, though I was only 12 years old.
In the two years before, I had taken notice of an exciting player at the University of Houston named Clyde Drexler. He experienced great success, was as athletic a player as I had ever seen, and played with a group known around the country as Phi Slamma Jamma. Trust me, there was no way any kid my age wouldn’t think that was about the coolest thing ever.
So when the spring of 1983 rolled around and my Blazers drafted Clyde, a sports love affair unlike any I’d known before or since began.
The years that followed that draft brought excitement, national recognition, steady improvement, and great pride. Those are all things a boy going through the troubles of adolescence can easily get with. Clyde was the franchise corner stone of a team that over the course of 11 years went to two NBA Finals, and he himself was named one of the 50 greatest players of all time, and was also included in the original Olympic Dream Team of 1992, which by most accounts is the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
Off the court, Clyde’s reputation matched or exceeded his athletic prowess. He was always making appearances at schools and camps. He signed autographs whenever asked, (my Mom got me one when I was 14, and I’m looking at a basketball he signed as I type this), and his charitable involvement was as impressive as any athlete ever to call Portland home. In short, he was a superstar that made his community proud in every way.
Then, in 1995, when I was 24 years old and in graduate school, Clyde was in his 12th season in the NBA. The team wasn’t what it used to be. The Blazers were of no real threat to win a championship, even with a great player like him at the helm. And to his credit, a championship was all he wanted. All he played for. And it was abundantly clear that all the individual accolades he received would be immediately swapped for one. Those two Finals appearances he took us too? We lost both. Before he even came to Portland, he lost two Final Fours while at the University of Houston. Clyde was a truly great player who had come up short on a title too many times. And his time was running out. He couldn’t play forever.
There’s an old adage that states, if you love something, set it free. I had no personal experience with that until 1995. Clyde Drexler was born in Houston, Texas. He grew up there. He played high school ball there. He went to college there. All of his extended family was there. And in that year, the Houston Rockets, lead by Clyde’s best friend and college teammate Hakeem Olajuwon, were much closer to winning a title than the Blazers. They needed just one more good player, and a championship could be had. They came calling on the Blazers to explore the possibility of trading for Clyde to be that player. Of course, as a fan I wasn’t privy to this. Until.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1995 while driving to class, I heard on the radio that Clyde had been traded. He was being sent home, to Houston, for one last chance to finally earn his championship ring. He was not on my team anymore, and he wasn’t coming back. I pulled over and listened intently, and I distinctly remember fighting back tears. Of course, there are far worse things that can happen in a day, but as I sat there contemplating the news I felt perhaps the last part of my childhood ending, and that wasn’t coming back, either.
I watched with great interest the second half of that season. Clyde and his new Rockets earned the 6th seed in the playoffs and the chemistry he showed with his old teammate Hakeem would make one think they had never been apart. As things progressed, and they kept winning series, before game 4 of their championship matchup with the Orlando Magic, I told my most influential professor that I was going to be unable to attend class the next night. Houston needed just one more win, which I knew in my bones they would get that night, and there was no way on earth that I was going to miss Clyde Drexler finally, after all I childishly felt we had been through together, get his championship. Dr. Feldman warned me of consequences, but I simply told him I had no choice in the matter.
The Rockets did indeed win that night. Clyde’s incredible joy was unmistakable. He had finally won, and for the only town he’d ever really called home. Or at least that’s what I thought.
In 2004, Clyde Drexler was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame. By his own choosing, he elected to go in as a Portland Trail Blazer, rather than a Houston Rocket. He stated that he simply owed it to the fans of Portland, to people like me, who stuck by him for those glorious 11 ½ years. And that gesture made everything all right with me. Clyde Drexler is by far and away my favorite professional athlete of all time. Especially now that I’m all grown up, he will never relinquish that status.
But his leaving Portland was a brutal reality check that pro sports are a business. Assets can be moved. And that wake up permanently severed my emotional involvement in professional athletics. I still watch them with great interest, but strictly for entertainment. I’m over a win, or a loss, in minutes. If I wanted sports to touch my soul, the way Clyde did when I was young, I’d have to look elsewhere. Hello collegiate athletics.
But thank you, Clyde. You were a great way to finish that part of my childhood.