In my 17 years of covering the Trail Blazers, I’ve found that fans here don’t want to just root for the Blazers. They want to embrace them. Love them. Feel like they know them so they can treat them like family.
It’s why players here are often referred to by their first name more than their last. It’s why it was Clyde, Terry, Jerome, Buck and Duck back in the day, much like it’s Dame, CJ, Mo, Chief and Mase today.
One of the benefits of covering the team is the behind-the-scenes access that is afforded in the locker room and at practices, which can provide organic and candid moments that go a long way in revealing a team’s character and personality.
So with the 2016-2017 Blazers season upon us with the opener Tuesday at home against Utah, it seemed an appropriate to introduce the team, not so much as players, but rather as people.
Below is a collection of stories and snapshots of these players, as well as their views of their teammates through their own lens, which hopefully helps explain why this team is so close and has so much fun.
I think you will find this is a team in the truest sense, a group of players who will make you laugh, a group who will touch your heart, and a group who can inspire.
It is a peek Behind the Locker Room Door of the Blazers, Opening Day edition.
This is Part 1, which includes introductions to most of the players (time and access ran out, preventing every player to be included).
Part 2 involves more scenes and stories centered around the team dynamic.
PART ONE – PLAYER INTRODUCTIONS
EVAN TURNER: ‘A different dude’
Nothing causes the Blazers players to shake their head and smile more than mentioning Evan Turner, the newest addition to the team.
They can’t seem to put their finger on how to describe the man who goes by “ET.”
He’s funny. He’s odd. He’s tough to read. And he’s entirely likeable.
“A different dude, man. Different dude,’’ Ed Davis says. “He’s a dude, but he’s different. Just different.’’
Last week while the team was in the Bay Area for a preseason game against Golden State, the team finished its pregame breakfast at their San Francisco hotel. As the players were headed back to their rooms, Turner blurted out ‘God bless you all. Y’all be safe!’’
“And all we were doing was walking from the breakfast room to go back up to our rooms,’’ Damian Lillard said, still bewildered. “So we all laughed, but then we look at him and he’s straight-faced and dead serious. He’s just off-the-wall like that.’’
Turner knows exactly what Lillard is talking about. He gets that a lot from people.
“Sometimes I just have moments where I float around aimlessly and I don’t know what the hell I be saying,’’ Turner says. “I just say stuff and I don’t know where it’s coming from.’’
Naturally, every day brings a greater understanding of Turner and his quirky personality, just like Turner becomes more at ease with the Blazers’ vibe.
He came from Boston to a close-knit Blazers team that returns 10 players from last season. The Celtics had their own brand of chemistry, which was rooted in group text messages that would circulate throughout the team.
“In Boston, our group text would go on for days,’’ Turner says.
When he got to Portland, he tried initiating conversation in the Blazers’ own group text.
“Nobody would respond,’’ Turner says.
Then when it came time to hang in the locker room, he would find a silent room.
“When I first got here, I was like, ‘Does anybody talk?’’’ Turner wondered.
Turner is an antsy sort, very talkative, and the type who can’t sit still. The fact he couldn’t gauge the personality of his new team left his mind racing.
“I talk a lot, and there was a time where I was like, man, I wonder what the temperature is with this team?’’ Turner says. “I was more wary … was I switching it up and making people not feel like talking?’’
At some point, the ice was broken.
“I found they are all great guys,’’ Turner said. “You just have to start a conversation with them.’’
Now, after a month of practices and seven preseason games, there is no lack of dialogue back and forth.
“He doesn’t stop talking,’’ Noah Vonleh says.
Turner is entrenched in the card games on the team flights that include regulars Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Davis. Turner says one of the main reasons he plays is to take his mind off his fear of flying.
And Turner, the Blazers have found, will never be shy in starting conversation. Usually, he is quoting a movie or television show, his wheelhouse being any of the “Friday” movies, anything from Eddie Murphy and the TV show “Martin.’’
The players speak highly of him, almost always accompanied by a laugh. He has some wildcard to him – you’re never quite sure what is going to come out of his mouth or where he is coming from – making him the most colorful personality on a team that, for the most part, is a blend of gentlemen and laid-back cool.
Now, heading into the regular season, the getting-to-know-you process is over and everybody is comfortable.
“It has been more of a pleasant surprise than I thought,’’ Turner said of his acclimation.
If it was a bumpy transition to the Blazers, it wasn’t something that was going to derail Turner. He has an interesting backstory of overcoming odds.
Growing up in Chicago, he was hit by a car at age three. He said he popped his ear and also landed on his head. He proudly shows off a scar on the left side of his forehead, near the hairline, from the accident.
Around age eight or nine, he said he suffered from Bells Palsy, which includes partial paralysis of the face, and he also dealt with bucked teeth, which cause a speech impediment.
“I was sick a lot as a kid,’’ Turner said. “Took a lot of speech classes, and I had a learning disability.’’
He credits his mother, who raised him alone, for helping him through his learning disability. She would tutor him when he would come home from school.
“It all built me to be a dude who perseveres,’’ Turner said. “Like my mom always said: ‘Hard work and perseverance brings great rewards.’’’
Even today, he works on his learning disability.
“I make sure I do extra to keep up as I get older. I still read or dive into the news … to not get dumber,’’ Turner says.
He has found a particular connection to Harkless, perhaps because like Harkless, Turner was raised by a single mother.
“I look back on so many different ways I could turned, so many different ways I could have went, and all the sacrifices my mom did for me. It’s unbelievable,’’ Turner says. “And with Mo, you can tell whatever his mother told him growing up, it stuck.’’
Whether he is chirping movie quotes or giving off-the-wall quotes to the media, there doesn’t figure to be a dull moment this season when ET is around. Lillard says there are times when Turner is visibly upset during practice, throwing his hands around, scowl on his face, and nobody knows what he is mad about.
“Sometimes I don’t know either,’’ Turner says. “It’s a battle in my head. Sometimes it’s reads, other times just chemistry, getting to know how guys play … I’m trying to hold myself accountable. As I get older, I’m finding it’s not good to have hissy fits.’’
If the first month with Turner has shown anything, there is bound to be more fits of laughter than anything else.
“Easy to get along with,’’ CJ McCollum said. “And he’s funny. First of all, his voice: He sounds like (rapper) Lil Yachty. His voice is hilarious. But he is a smart guy, he understands the game and he understands how we are going to be successful.’’
NOAH VONLEH: The Baby Brother
The past month, the Blazers locker room has been filled with laughter, mostly at the expense of Noah Vonleh.
The youngest player on the roster, the 21-year-old Vonleh is also the most picked on, the latest hazing centered around his hairdo.
Vonleh this fall can’t seem to decide between his experimentation between braids or a full afro, even if his teammates’ have long ago cast their vote.
“It’s awful,’’ McCollum says of the braids. “One of the worst decisions he’s made and I blame Ed (Davis). Ed has taken him under his wing. It’s Ed’s fault he is growing his hair out like that. He needs to cut it off. Ed has told him, we have all told him, to get rid of it. But if he isn’t going to listen to Ed, he isn’t going to listen to anybody else.’’
Davis and Vonleh have a close relationship, with Davis serving as a mentor to Vonleh.
“We’re pretty close. I just look at him like he’s my vet, my big brother,’’ Vonleh said. “I go to him for advice for things on and off the court. Anything with life in general, I look to him for guidance.’’
Davis, who showed up to Media Day in braids, claims no responsibility, however, for Vonleh’s hair. He calls it “weird (expletive).”
Added Mason Plumlee: “Oh, it’s terrible. But that’s a thing about our team: Nobody is off limits. You do something out of line, we are going to let you know.’’
Vonleh has been a target of ridicule before. Last season he decided to try out a headband during games. Then he tried different versions of facial hair.
“It’s always something,’’ Lillard says. “He’s just doing something all the time, so we are always getting on him.’’
Vonleh is also a notorious sleeper, rivaled on the team only by CJ McCollum.
Vonleh sits in the first row on the team plane, so he has a partition in front of him, and he has a routine of taking off his shoes and posting his feet on the wall as he falls asleep.
“Every flight. Doesn’t matter what time, where we are going, how short the flight is, he sleeps every flight,’’ Davis says. “The man might have five alarms going off in an hour, but he still sleeps.’’
Truth is, behind all the good-natured teasing, Vonleh is the player who brings out the soft side in his teammates. They adore him, and speak proudly about him.
“He is like the baby brother around here,’’ Lillard says. “Noah … you just want to wrap your arms around Noah. Everybody loves Noah and you want to see him do so good because he’s such a good dude.’’
The consensus among the players: Vonleh is headed for a breakthrough.
“Everybody wants to see Noah succeed because he’s put the time in,’’ Mason Plumlee said. “He is a special talent and it’s going to happen. He’s going to explode at one point, it’s just a matter of when.’’
Added Turner: “There’s a beast in him that is going to continue coming out. Once he taps into it and understands who he is and how good he can be, he will be a force to be reckoned with.’’
McCollum sees the same future for Vonleh.
“He’s strong as an ox, and once he figures out how strong he is and how good he can be, he is going to be a terror in this league, just because of his skillset,’’ McCollum said.
Not to be overlooked in that development is Vonleh’s ability to be himself. He says as a rookie in Charlotte, he was coerced by veteran teammates to cut his hair. When he arrived in Portland in the Nicolas Batum trade, he saw the impressive manes on Davis and Allen Crabbe and instantly regretted having cut his hair.
“So I ignore them,’’ Vonleh says of the hair critics. “I’m going to do whatever makes me happy.’’
That attitude has only strengthened some of the strong feelings teammates have for Vonleh.
“I like that he’s expressing himself,’’ Aminu says. “Usually when you get on somebody for a couple of days they switch it up. But I appreciate him not changing it up.’’
AL-FAROUQ AMINU: The Chief
When it comes to the Blazers’ chemistry, nobody is more vital behind-the-scenes than Al-Farouq Aminu, or “Chief” as he is called by everyone from coaches to teammates.
Aminu comes from Nigerian roots, and Chief derives from his middle name, Olyedey, which means “The Chief has arrived.” His first name, Al-Farouq translates to “The Pharaoh.” Teammates alternate between calling him Chief and Rouq, but never Al.
“Al means ‘The’ in Arabic. That’s why I don’t like being called Al,’’ Aminu says.
To those outside of the team, Aminu might seem quiet and to himself. But inside the team, Aminu is a strong personality and one of the most popular figures. Teammates love being around him in part because of his trash talking, and because he has varied interests ranging from producing music to meditation to being a voracious reader.
“You’re off balance with Chief a little bit,’’ Lillard says, referring to Aminu’s unassuming, yet powerful presence. “He’s quiet, yet outspoken at the same time. He’s never going to go out of his way to be like ‘This is me; look at me.’’’
But that doesn’t mean he goes unnoticed.
“He has these one liners in practice,’’ Plumlee explains. “He doesn’t ever say a lot, so when he does, everybody turns their head and it’s usually pretty funny. Like, he’ll be quiet all practice, then he will hit a shot and somebody will look at him and he will yell ‘Don’t look a killer in his eyes!’’
Aminu says quotes like that are designed to alleviate some of the pressure of the game.
“A lot of real stuff happens with us – you know, we just had some cuts,’’ Aminu said, referring to the release of Grant Jerrett and Greg Stiemsma. “We have people fighting for positions, fighting for their livelihood. Sometimes we can get caught up in that pressure … and it’s good to let everyone remember you are still just dribbling a basketball for a living.’’
If he wasn’t playing basketball, Aminu figures he would pursue music as a career.
“I want to be a producer,’’ Aminu said.
For the past five years he has dabbled with a keyboard, microphone and Logic Pro recording studio on his Mac computer. But lately, he has gone from dabbling to taking it more seriously. On Sunday, he wrote a song about Nigeria.
“Dame inspired me,’’ he said of Lillard, who has a burgeoning rap career. “I always thought it would be something I would do after my career … but after he did it, I was like, why not?’’
Not all of his teammates are aware of Aminu’s musical talents. McCollum and Lillard have heard samplings, as well as Davis.
“Not a fan,’’ Davis says. “Just not a fan.’’
If Aminu isn’t playing with music, chances are he is meditating or reading. He and his wife have created a Book Club between themselves, which helps give them a commonality during the long road trips throughout the season.
The last book he read was “The Whole-Brain Child” which is about the brain development of kids.
“I’m not big on make believe books,’’ he says.
There was a motive behind the book topic. Last October, Aminu and his wife Helina had their first child, daughter Emanah.
“It’s made me more sensitive,’’ Aminu said.
ED DAVIS: ‘The Everything Guy’
If there is a group discussion in the locker room, chances are it was instigated by Ed Davis.
Last week before the final preseason game at Golden State, there was debate among some players whether Islam was a language. As Shabazz Napier fished for confirmation that it was a language, Davis settled into his seat and ended all discussion.
“Islam is a religion; Arabic is the language of Islam,’’ Davis said.
When it comes to the personality of the team, Davis is the glue. He is widely considered the funniest guy on the team and also shares the title of biggest trash talker with Aminu. He is the coolest of cool, but also one of the most engaging and thoughtful guys on the team.
“A great person in the locker room,’’ Plumlee said. “He likes to pick the topic of choice, and he is going to be very direct with his questions. When he talks to you he’s going to ask you what you believe, how you treat your girlfriend … he wants to really get to know people.’’
He can appear like he has a scowl, and he walks like he’s about to kick some butt, but he is one of the easiest to smile and one of the reasons this team laughs so much.
“Just super cool. I love Ed,’’ Lillard said. “If I could pick a person – a glue guy, great teammate -- who I could play with for the rest of my career, like LeBron and James Jones, I would take Ed. I would take Ed with me everywhere. I would take Ed to a fight with me, I would take Ed if I had to go gamble, if I had to do anything, I’m taking Ed with me. He’s just an everything guy.’’
He’s also considered to have some of the best clothing style on the team, and pays special attention to his shoes.
“At a young age, I remember my dad when I came out of the house one day and I had a spot on my shirt,’’ Davis says. “He told me to go in the house and change. I didn’t really understand. I’m 10-years old. Walking around with something on your shirt? Who gives a damn? But he said ‘You always want to look nice, present yourself nice.’ Ever since that day on, I just made sure I left the house looking presentable. It just stuck with me.’’
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Lillard’s twin?
Last week after the Blazers beat the Jazz in an exhibition in Salt Lake City, Shabazz Napier sat in front of his locker with a stack of paper towels on his thigh. Between each towel was cash, and Napier was carefully dabbing the money to dry it out.
Earlier that day, after the team’s shootaround, he had turned in his laundry bag with his wallet still in his sweatpants pocket.
“I took a nap that afternoon and woke up and was like ‘Oh (crap)! … I just knew I left it in there,’’ Napier said.
He immediately called equipment manager Eric Hallman, who happened to be doing the laundry at the time. Sure enough, he found Napier’s wallet amid the water and suds.
“Thankfully, it wasn’t in the wash for more than 15 minutes,’’ Napier said.
Naturally, as Napier hand-patted his money in front of his locker, he drew snickers and head shakes from his teammates. Turns out, he was more concerned with his family pictures of his siblings and nephews and nieces, but nevertheless, the money drying drew attention.
“Washing money … that’s so middle school, man,’’ Davis said, disgusted. “I’m one of the older guys, and I try to help these guys out, but I don’t know what you can do about that. He’s still young.’’
Napier joined the team over the summer after spending his rookie year in Miami and last season in Orlando. Although he has only been with the Blazers for a month, it seems to everyone like he has been here for years.
“He’s fit in right away,’’ Plumlee said.
There might be an explanation for how easily Napier has blended with the Blazers: Napier said he and Lillard are eerily alike, perhaps stemming from their birthdays.
“It’s quite funny: Dame was born a day after me – (July) 15th and I’m (July) 14th – although he is a year older,’’ Napier said. “But he and I are basically the same. It’s weird, when I hear him discussing certain things about what he did outside the court – I’m like, I’ve done that, too.’’
Napier has replaced the now-departed Gerald Henderson in the post-practice shooting group with Aminu, Harkless and Crabbe and has become one of the more animated of what is daily a spirited contest.
“He fits with us, for sure,’’ Aminu said. “That’s the capability of point guards, they know how to talk, know how to initiate conversations.’’
MAURICE HARKLESS: The good heart
When teammates talk about Maurice Harkless, they often bring up his mother, Rosa, who raised him by herself in Queens, N.Y.
“You can tell his mom did a really nice job,’’ CJ McCollum said.
He is a sensitive, self-described mama’s boy, one who calls his mom in June to wish her a Happy Father’s Day because she filled both the role of mother and father.
Teammates call him “bubbly” and “real” and always mention his New York heritage.
“He’s a New Yorker, but he’s not a New Yorker,’’ Davis says. “A lot of guys from New York are cocky, they talk a lot, they know it all and they think they are tough and all that. But Mo reminds me of somebody who is from the South. Just laid back.’’
Liillard often spends time off the court with Harkless because their mothers are close and the families have get togethers at Lillard’s Lake Oswego home, with Lillard’s nephew playing with Harkless’ nephew.
This past week, Lillard said Harkless showed him how genuinely interested he was in him outside of basketball.
“I was telling the team, ‘Everybody better go buy my album as soon as it is out,’’’ Lillard said referring to his release of The Letter O. “And everybody on the team posted about it, and went out and got it, but over the course of the last couple days, I’ve heard Mo singing my songs, like at least five songs … singing the words, which means he really took the time to listen to my music.’’