Blazers plan 50th season celebration
Bill Walton was famously separated from his bicycle by an enormous crowd on the way to the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1977 NBA Finals victory parade in the city’s downtown. The 6-foot-11 hall of famer had better success keeping his bike with him in August when he rode from the Blazers’ former home, Veterans Coliseum, to Terry Schrunk Plaza, where he and his teammates celebrated their championship series win over the 76ers 42 years ago.
This time, the celebration kicked off the Blazers’ 50th season by unveiling the team’s latest throwback uniform before a Grateful Dead cover band played. Walton, known for riding his bicycle around the city as a player, as well as his NBA Finals MVP performance, was the perfect talisman to commence the club’s celebratory look at its past.
The highs and lows in the five decades since the team began playing at Veterans have given Blazers Chief Marketing Officer Dewayne Hankins plenty of material to work with as he and other team executives plot their seasonlong look back at the organization’s past. He caught up with Sports Business Journal to discuss the milestone season, the team’s place as a Portland institution and the loss of owner Paul Allen.
What specific plans do you have to recognize the 50th season?
HANKINS: We’re starting off the preseason with a game in our Veterans Coliseum, which is the building that the Blazers started in in 1970, so that will be really neat, that game [on Oct. 8]. And then, from there, we’re doing decade-specific nights, so we’ll have a ’70s Night, ’80s Night, ’90s Night throughout the season. We’ll have players from those decades at those games, we’ll have a theme of the night that sort of marries it with the decade. Our two uniforms, one we’ve already unveiled, which is our Classic edition, the jersey we wore when we won the 1977 championship. And then we’ll unveil our City edition, which will be a hat-tip to our history.
Beyond a half century of staying in business, what are the Trail Blazers celebrating with this milestone season?
HANKINS: This 50th anniversary is meaningful for a lot of reasons. We’re challenged with the fact that almost half the team is new faces and we’re coming off our first Western Conference Finals appearance in 19 years, so you’re balancing making sure you’re honoring the past with the excitement that’s actually in Portland about the current team. But if you look back on the 50 years and think about Portland, this was a city that had no business having an NBA team 50 years ago, and was supported amazingly from day one through the work of Harry Glickman and others. We’re using this to honor the past and the players, but we’re also using it to have a hat tip to the city because without all the fans and amazing support these 50 years, we wouldn’t be here.
Portland is a growing and hip city — it has a national reputation now. How much do you think the Trail Blazers contributed to that?
HANKINS: Before shows like “Portlandia” and before things got a little more known, the best lens into that city was through the Trail Blazers. The fans had not only a ton of pride for this team and the success that it had but they expected a lot of it because it was the way you knew about Portland. That was your first impression of Portland and Oregon, was the Blazers.
Did the 50th season focus help the Blazers land any new partnership or sponsorship business this past offseason?
HANKINS: We had two current partners really step up and really want to be involved in the 50th, in Spirit Mountain Casino and [local] Toyota [dealers]. They specifically wanted to be called out as presenting partners of the 50th season. We’ve done a 50th anniversary wine with Adelsheim, a great winery out here, and obviously that makes sense. This is Oregon wine country.
You’re in charge of innovations, especially around social media. Are there plans around that?
HANKINS: We’ll definitely have some fun with it. One of the posts that we sent today is promoting the decade nights, so we’re using a ticket design from each of the decades. Those will be a lot of fun in terms of being able to do things a little differently in terms of art direction. For the game that’s in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, we’re really going to try to have fun with the throwback mentality of it, maybe do some things that you wouldn’t do at a game in 2019 that you would do at a game in the 1970s. On social, specifically, there will be a lot of storytelling around what this team means to the city, and conversely and what this city means to the team, showcasing all the great players coming through Portland through the years.
The Blazers’ longtime owner, the late Paul Allen, was integral in keeping pro basketball in Portland. How much will honoring him be part of this 50th season?
HANKINS: We don’t have the details yet but he’s going to come up often in our season. We can’t forget Mr. Allen’s contributions to this area have allowed the Blazers to be here for 50 years and we’d be remiss if we didn’t have him as part of the conversation ongoing all year.
What did his life and even death mean to people like you, who work for the Trail Blazers?
HANKINS: Paul bought the Trail Blazers and didn’t come up with the name, but there is no owner I’ve ever worked with that’s more of a trailblazer. Obviously, he started Microsoft, but he brought so many innovative ideas almost all the time. He was constantly involved in aspects of the business that you wouldn’t expect an owner to be involved in, whether T-shirt design or our mobile app or how people experience our game, and he was so passionate and focused and excited to be involved in those areas. That’s certainly something that we miss now for sure. Innovation is a huge company culture thing that we’ve had and his spirit still lives on because we’re still doing a lot of that work now.