Blazers rally draws thousands

PORTLAND — Just a few years ago they were the Jail Blazers. Now they're hometown heroes.

Thousands turned out on Thursday at a downtown rally for the Trail Blazers, who have returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-03 season.

The Blazers, who set a goal at the start of the season to simply make the playoffs, surpassed expectations and earned the fourth seed in the Western Conference and home-court advantage in the first round.

Portland will face the Houston Rockets, the West's fifth seed, in a best-of-seven series starting Saturday night.

"This is fantastic. There's like this buzz in the air," said fan Marc Reading, 32. "I haven't seen Portland this excited about something in a long time."

The Blazers, the youngest team in the playoffs, went 54-28 this season and claimed a share of the Northwest Division title with the Denver Nuggets.

The Rockets finished 53-29, second to the San Antonio Spurs in the Southwest Division.

The two teams met three times in the regular season, with the Rockets winning two in Houston and Portland taking one at the Rose Garden.

Home-court advantage is key for the Blazers, who were among the league's best at home with a 34-7 record.

"We're not just happy with making the playoffs," coach Nate McMillan said. "Now it's a new season. It's an opportunity for us to play for a championship. That's what we are playing for."

The return to the playoffs is the culmination of a six-year transformation for the Blazers.

It was back in the midst of the 2002-03 season that the Blazers began to lose favor in their once supportive home town. Several players ran afoul of the law, and there were embarrassing on-court incidents — like when then-Blazer Bonzi Wells spit on an opposing player.

One fan put up a billboard on a busy downtown street urging a boycott of the team. A prominent local businessman wrote an editorial in The Oregonian about how he would not renew his season tickets.

It was quite a tumble for a team whose fans caught "Blazermania" during the 1977 NBA championship season and remained zealous for a quarter-century.

Not one of the players on the current roster was on the 2002-03 team. General Manager Kevin Pritchard put a priority on character as well as talent, bringing in such players as Brandon Roy, now a two-time All-Star.

"This is spectacular for the city. It's a real tribute to the front office, turning the team around," former Blazer Jerome Kersey said. "Instead of billboards to boycott the team you've got banners on buildings congratulating them."

Thursday's rally was carried live on local television. A helicopter recorded the players' bus making its way downtown from the practice facility with a police escort.

One fan raised a sign reading, "Houston, you have a problem."

"Wow. Wow. Amazing. Unbelievable," McMillan said when he surveyed the crowd at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

On stage, Spanish rookie Rudy Fernandez tapped a tambourine. Greg Oden played around with a drum set. Roy, greeted with shouts of "MVP! MVP!" held his son, who dozed on and off, oblivious to the chant.

"The next time we come down here it's not to be celebrating the playoffs," McMillan told fans. "The next time we come down here, we want a parade."

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