Just one little inside story from Trail Blazer media day ...

Just one little inside story from Trail Blazer media day ...

When I started showing up for Trail Blazer media day it was a little more than three decades ago and things were a lot different.

Players had to autograph a few hundred basketballs, as they do to this day, pose for promotional pictures, read a few scripted lines for promotional videos or the radio and then, at the end of a long day, head into the media room for interviews. I never blamed them for dreading the media part of it during what was already a taxing day -- nobody likes to be asked the same questions over and over, particularly on live television or radio where there are no do-overs.

Monday, as the Trail Blazers went about their duties of autographing everything from skateboards to basketballs, mugging for promotional pictures and all the rest, I could have excused some weary and wary looks from the players as they joined our "Talkin' Ball" set. But after a full day of all the other chores, they came to us with an almost universal attitude that I don't recall from previous teams.

Now remember, I go all the way back to the Jack Ramsay and Rick Adelman eras and the players in those days were, by and large, an affable group. Good guys. I can't say nearly as much for players of other eras, though.

But I was extremely impressed with what I saw from the Trail Blazers Monday. Almost without fail, each player reached across the desk, looked us in the eye and shook hands with each of us prior to the cameras turning on. Players were not just polite, they were cordial, outgoing, smiling and seemingly trying their best to have fun with the situation. During the interviews they were relaxed, letting a little personality show.

Now while I'd like to think that all this was simply because they'd missed us over the summer and were just excited to renew our acquaintance, but I know better. This is just a pretty nice group of people on this team. Good guys from all I can see. What you hear from the coaching staff and front office about these players and their character appears to be legit.

"They're good guys," said head coach Terry Stotts after practice Tuesday. "I've said this before, but last year was a very refreshing year from a coaching standpoint because of their work ethic, their character, the type of people they are and certainly they're talented. But all that stuff matters. It makes them want to come to work. They enjoy coming to work and they enjoy each other's company.  It makes it easier for the coaches and everyone else in the building."

Does having players like that make a long-term difference on the court for a franchise?

"Yes," said Stotts emphatically. "Certainly you have to have talent. It starts with talent. But character and culture and all those things  aren't far behind."

The team certainly brought a lot of enthusiasm to Tuesday's first practice, at least the part the media was allowed to watch. I'd expect that to continue. The leadership among the players is as solid as it is in the front office and on the bench. This organization is tight. Close.

And that can only help it navigate through the long season ahead.

Mike Johnston returns to Winterhawks with opening-night win

Mike Johnston returns to Winterhawks with opening-night win

Mike Johnston was bubbling over Saturday night after his team took a 7-3 win over Seattle in front of a Moda Center crowd of 8,705 to open the 2016-17 season and his second tenure as coach of the Hawks. And it wasn't just the win that had him pumped up.

"It was exciting," said Johnston, who opened last season as head coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. "To be honest, our fans are amazing. It really is quite an atmosphere here. No matter where you've coached, to coach in this building in front of those fans... they were into the game right from the very beginning.

"We're a young team, we're going to make mistakes. At the beginning of the second we let in a goal. At the beginning of the third we let in a goal. Hopefully we'll grow from those mistakes but I thought they showed great resiliency. We had six guys who had never played in the Western Hockey League before. And we had such a young team that I was worried when it got tied up. I wanted to see how we'd react. I didn't really shorten the bench in any way until maybe eight minutes left in the game.

"I just let the guys play through it. I wanted to see how they'd react. It's really what I'm going to have to do for the first part of this year. You may look at it some nights and say, 'What the hell is he doing? Why isn't he changing?' But I have to let some of these kids get these experiences if we're going to be a really good team. They've got to learn to play and I've got to protect them, too, so it's going to be a fine line at this level,"

With all the youth, Johnston knows it's important to get off to a good start.

"It is important to get confidence for young guys," he said. "If things aren't going well, they have a tendency to squeeze the stick and be very nervous when making plays but at the same time, we have to be very patient with them. We have to just focus on 'Are we getting better? What are we correcting?' every single game and every single practice and almost be oblivious to a lot of the other stuff that's going on around us, including the scoreboard and including the standings. If you focus on the right things, about November we'll be on the decent side of things.

"I like our group. I think we're going to give other teams trouble because of our speed. We're dangerous. Can we score enough? That is going to be the question. I was quite happy with the way we played tonight."

Ryan Hughes and Evan Weinger had three points apiece for the Hawks, who played without Keegan Iverson and Caleb Jones, still in their NHL camps. The Thunderbirds were missing three NHL camp invitees,

How good can the Ducks' future be as long as they're living in the past?

How good can the Ducks' future be as long as they're living in the past?

When Oregon lost head coach Chip Kelly to the National Football League, it lost a heck of a coach. Everybody knows that.

The Ducks also lost the seminal figure in their surge to becoming both a consistent national power and one of the most fun teams to watch in college football. Kelly was to Oregon what Steve Jobs was to Apple -- a unique innovator who always seemed to be one step ahead of the competition. His teams were prepared, smart and difficult to predict. Just when you thought you had him figured out, he came up with something else.

It was as if he was that late friend of mine, who used to say, “Just when you think you have all the answers, I CHANGE THE QUESTIONS!”

And in his absence, Oregon football has tried its best to maintain Kelly's aura by continuing to stick to his style. But the style without the designer is a cheap imitation. A knockoff. And that's what Duck football has become -- a product that looks on the surface just like the ones Kelly created, but without the substance and innovation that made the whole thing work in the first place. They have nobody now who can CHANGE THE QUESTIONS!

I don't know what to think of Coach Mark Helfrich. He talks a good game. He takes responsibility, as he should, when things don't go well. He obviously knows football way better than you and me, But there's something missing. And in a lot of the ways you measure the impact of coaches, he doesn't measure up very well.

I've always looked at penalties as a measure of the preparation and discipline level of football teams -- a direct result of coaching.  The Ducks are averaging 11 penalties per game, 125th in the country and ahead of only Arkansas State, San Diego State and Marshall. Seriously, that's brutal. Oregon came out Saturday afternoon not ready for Colorado, which was starting a freshman backup at quarterback. The Buffaloes jumped them early and took control of the game. And the Ducks, with the game seemingly in their grasp, couldn't execute late in the game to win it.

Yes, quarterback Dakota Prukop tossed up the football equivalent of an air-balled free throw in the end zone, leaving a fade pass woefully short. But was it the right call? Was Prukop prepared to make such a throw? We'll never know, but I believe it's a reason that going out and grabbing a Big Sky quarterback who was a graduate transfer as a one-season fix is probably not the way a big-time program should go about its business. Prukop is new enough to the program that I'm not certain the coaches could ever have known what he's capable (or not capable) of doing late in a Pac-12 game.

Recruiting is a big part of the coach's job and for me, the mere fact of a program of this nature having to go out two years in a row to the Rent-A-Quarterback store in the Big Sky Conference is a sign things aren't going well in that department.

The defense is as big a problem this season as it was last year -- perhaps even worse, as the Ducks seem stuck in a rather static 4-3 that doesn't get much pressure on the quarterback and seems to grow confused in zone coverage. There are only two ways out of that problem -- recruit better players or talk Nick Aliotti out of retirement. The former is much more likely than the latter, I would assume.

The offense, though, has been this team's identity for years and it's not hitting on all cylinders, either. And with that defense, the offense must get much, much more efficient for Oregon to end up on the winning side of the scoreboard.

And this is where Kelly is missed the most. This coaching staff is still trying to to run Chip's stuff without Chip and I don't think that's going well. The tempo is inconsistent and that doesn't matter, anyway, because everyone has caught up to the whole play-fast deal. The play calling is pedestrian and where Kelly always seemed to be outside the box and difficult to predict, the Ducks now seem at a loss at times about how they want to attack.

For all their playmakers on offense, Oregon ranks tied for 69th in the country in third-down conversion percentage. Part of that, of course, is not getting many yards on first and second down. That's when Oregon seems at its offensive worst, by the way -- first and second down, where the conservative side of the coaching staff seems to have a death grip on the offense.

Chip Kelly built Oregon into a feared national powerhouse and an offensive juggernaut. We won't ever know if he could have kept the Ducks on top -- only a select few programs can maintain that excellence over an extended time.

But I do think we know by now that Helfrich hasn't been able to do it. That's not an indictment, really. Apple still hasn't recovered from losing Steve Jobs, either.

Love it: Kevin Johnson goes old-school on a guy who "pied" him

Love it: Kevin Johnson goes old-school on a guy who "pied" him

Those who know me know that I'm not an advocate of violence and not somebody who favors fighting to settle a problem, other than in hockey, of course.

But when I read this story about Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson I couldn't help but smile a little. Johnson was attending a farm-to-table function when a 32-year-old man who has a history of "engaging" with Johnson at City Council meetings ambushed him by throwing a pie in his face.

Now the old pie-in-the-face thing works fine among friends -- always good for a laugh. You see it on TV a lot when a baseball player is being interviewed and his teammates sneak up on him and pie him from the blind side. Yeah, fun for all.

But really, when it's someone you don't know, somebody doing it at an inappropriate time, somebody who is doing it in a malicious way, there's a side of me that doesn't blame Johnson at all. Yeah, I know -- he is politically incorrect and so am I for praising it.

But sorry, I can't help it. This is the old school way of handling such things. Somebody assaults you -- hits you first, so to speak -- you respond in kind. These days, people are not accustomed to such a response. They expect to maybe get arrested and serve a day or two in jail, at worst, as some sort of martyr. Most times, they're just told not to do it again and smirk all the way home -- a hero to their followers.

Not this time.

And don't get me wrong -- I wouldn't have done that and don't advise anybody else to respond that way. But just for once, it was nice to see a punk get punked.

The Beatles and Hell's Angels: It's Vin Scully being Vin Scully

The Beatles and Hell's Angels: It's Vin Scully being Vin Scully

As we get close to the end of the baseball season, the clock is ticking down on Vin Scully's illustrious career as the play-by-play voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I'm sure there are still unfortunates who haven't heard Scully who are wondering what all the fuss is about. So I thought with just a few games remaining it would be a nice time to try to review exactly what makes him such an iconic play-by-play announcer.

This story reveals what other baseball announcers say about the things that set Scully apart. They went immediately to his ability to weave interesting stories -- some about baseball and some not -- into the broadcasts of the games. That ability is well documented in this piece, which offers both text and audio of a recent Scully tale about the Beatles playing a concert in Dodger Stadium and not being able to get out because of the massive throng of enthusiastic fans. You really should listen -- it's vintage Vinny and a most interesting story eventually involving the Hell's Angels.

The Dodgers are doing their best to pay tribute to Scully, with a weekend full of activities leading up to his final game.

As a kid, I can remember the old radio in my bedroom in southeast Portland being almost grooved into the Los Angeles station that carried the Dodger games so I could tune in to listen to Scully late at night, when the reception cleared. His silky voice made major-league games seem like fine art and his storytelling was fascinating. I cannot imagine how many fans he made for his Dodgers through all those years.

If you have a chance -- through satellite radio, MLB.tv,  MLB Extra Innings or probably youtube.com, you ought to catch one of his remaining games. He is still working without a broadcast partner and his voice is simulcast on TV and radio for the first three innings before settling into just TV the remainder of the game.

He is the greatest of all time and I don't think there's much of an argument about that.

Helfrich is certainly winning the blame game -- as he should

Helfrich is certainly winning the blame game -- as he should

You can say one thing about Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich -- he doesn't run for cover when blame is being passed out for his team's problems (see above video). In fact, I've heard people figuratively falling on their sword to take blame many times -- but he's leaping on his sword from 10 stories up.

He's saying that "everything bad" that happens with the Ducks is on him. That includes not only decisions about going for two after touchdowns but piling up penalties at an alarming rate.

And, in a coaching sense, he's correct. I once heard a football coach at a clinic (yes, in the old days sportswriters went to clinics to learn more about the games they cover) say almost the exact same thing.

"Whatever happens with that team comes back on me," he said. "If we don't execute a play, it's my fault because we should have worked on it more or we should have never called the play. ANYTHING that happens comes back to preparation and I'm responsible for that preparation. If a kid drops a big pass, that's my fault for not preparing him better or for putting him out there on the field in a situation he couldn't handle."

This was at a coaching clinic and not a news conference. This wasn't posturing, it was a coach telling other coaches how he honestly felt about his job. I've never forgotten it.

And so when a coach refuses to take responsibility for something on the field, I shake my head in bewilderment. At the same time, when a coach continually throws himself under the bus, I also shake my head.

Of course it's your fault, Coach. Who else's fault would it be?

It's not mine.

Ducks' PAT problems -- sometimes numbers lie, fellas

Ducks' PAT problems -- sometimes numbers lie, fellas

Whenever someone questions the Oregon Ducks about their decision to go for two-point conversions, the answer always comes back to mathematics. Charles Nelson, who is the player who quickly does the math at the line of scrimmage, talked to Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune about it after the Ducks' loss Saturday at Nebraska:

“We’re looking for numbers,” Nelson said. “If we don’t have numbers, we bring it in and kick the (extra point). We had numbers every single time; we just didn’t execute it right. The last two we didn’t get was just miscommunication.”

I get that. You count how many defenders are there against the number of offensive players. But my assumption is that everyone else who plays the Ducks knows it, too. I mean, seriously, do you think Mike Riley and his coaching staff at Nebraska didn't understand the personnel reads Oregon was making on those plays -- all but one of which the Cornhuskers foiled? It's not exactly calculus, for sure.

And isn't it about time to acknowledge that it's possible:

  1. Opponents are disguising what they are actually going to do against those plays prior to the snap?
  2. They are making it difficult for Nelson, or whomever is making the read, to actually see what's going on?
  3. Nelson isn't the right guy to be making these reads?
  4. The reads are getting too difficult for such a rapid and important decision to be made?

I just don't think it makes sense to continue to defend the decision to go for two based on "numbers" when it sure doesn't look that easy, does it? Certainly, it is hard to believe the Oregon coaching staff can be so convinced it is doing the right thing in the face of failures that may have cost them a game. Listen to head Coach Mark Helfrich in the same Portland Tribune account:

“We believe a lot in what we’re doing,” said Helfrich, whose Ducks are now 4 for 11 on 2-point attempts this season. “We’re in attack mode. It’s all based on the (defensive) look. The situation was exactly how we planned it. We just have to coach it better and execute it better.”

OK, but I would suggest that if you accept what he said, we will continue to see Oregon do its little swinging gate shift after every TD this season, sometimes kicking and sometimes going for two. And I would also suggest they better coach it and execute it A LOT BETTER if they are going to stay with it.

What they did Saturday was embarrassing and it portrayed a certain arrogance that the coaches think they have a football secret nobody else understands. I find it very difficult to believe other coaching staffs, with all the video being studied, don't completely understand the Ducks' number-crunching and are messing with it somehow.

And oh yes, what may work against UC-Davis or Virginia, whose personnel isn't up to par with Oregon's, may not work against the likes of Nebraska. Or Washington. Or Colorado. Or anyone else the Ducks will play this season.

At least, I wouldn't count on it.


Mistake-prone Ducks cannot overcome Huskers -- or basic math problem

Mistake-prone Ducks cannot overcome Huskers -- or basic math problem

Yes, there were problems all day with basic mathematics. One times five is always greater than two times one. Everytime you do that little exercise it comes out the same.

Oregon scored five touchdowns and chose to go for two-point conversions every time. And only once did it get the two. Had it merely kicked the PAT for one point after each touchdown, it would have scored 35 points, which would have looked better than the 35-32 loss it suffered to Nebraska Saturday afternoon. And forget about what the score would have been had the Ducks just taken the two points it got on the first TD of the day, called it good and just settled for one after that. I wasn't a math major but I think there's a possibility Oregon could have then finished with 36 points.

Discussion about that will go on for years. So let's focus on what happened at a critical juncture of the game -- near the end of the first half when the Ducks had a 20-7 lead and the ball with a little more than a minute to play. At their own 17, the Ducks called two running plays and an incomplete pass even though it appeared it might be a time to continue to put the pressure on a discombobulated Nebraska defense. Or just call three running plays, keep the ball in bounds and run the clock out.

But Oregon did neither and punted with 50 seconds to go and the roof caved in. First, Oregon's Charles Nelson rammed De'Mornay Pierson-El before he caught the ball, but didn't seem to affect Pierson-El at all, who returned the kick 45 yards to the Duck 19. If you are going to interfere with a punt reception, at least tackle the man so he can't return it down your throat. The Cornhuskers went on to score a late touchdown and had all the momentum at halftime. By the time Oregon got the ball back in the third quarter, it trailed by a point.

After dominating most of the first half.

All in all this game was a dumpster fire for Oregon, which was penalized 13 times for 126 yards. Many of those penalties kept drives alive for Nebraska or killed Oregon drives. This was a mess, including an early leg injury to Royce Freeman and a possible serious knee injury to Devon Allen, who for some reason was covering a punt on special teams. An Olympic hurdler on the punt team? Why? I don't know.

And please, at some point for my own sanity, could we please not run play-action passes on fourth-and-whatever with the game on the line? Drives me crazy to see everything slow down for a run fake that nobody is buying. But don't worry about it, I'm sure it doesn't bother anyone but me.

Oregon, at some point, is going to have to realize it can't rely on its defense to win against good teams. It is going to have to focus on staying aggressive on offense and not squandering scoring chances or even possessions. This very likely could be the most difficult environment the Ducks will face all season, but I'm not sure it's the toughest team they will face. The offense is going to have to carry this team, like it or not.

And at some point, some homework will have to be done on basic math: 1x5=5, but 1x2=2 and 5>2.

Expect a lot of points in Nebraska with Ducks coming out on top

Expect a lot of points in Nebraska with Ducks coming out on top

After watching much of Nebraska's game last week against Wyoming, I'm pretty convinced the Cornhuskers are going to run and pass the ball up and down the field with relative ease against Oregon in their big matchup Saturday afternoon.

Nebraska can run and it can pass and the offensive approach is familiar. Former Oregon State Coach Mike Riley is going to want to throw downfield and from what we've seen of the Ducks so far, that approach will probably meet with success. I expect Nebraska to move the ball in chunks however it wants to do it.

But I also expect Nebraska to make just enough mistakes on offense to allow Oregon to win the game. It's going to be a track meet and you don't want to get into a track meet with the Ducks -- they win those. It's going to be the kind of game where fumbles and interceptions are critical not because of field position but because your team is going to need to score on most of its possessions.

I don't expect a lot of defensive stops in this one -- or in many of the Ducks' games this season.

Oregon should score a bundle against Nebraska, too. Mark Banker, still Riley's defensive coordinator, has not had a lot of success stopping the Ducks over the years -- even when he had some pretty good talent. The Duck quickness is going to give the Cornhuskers some trouble -- I just don't see Nebraska being able to run the field with Oregon, whose balance will hurt the Huskers.

The Ducks usually win games like this and the listed over/under of 74 seems a bit low for these teams. I would expect Nebraska to score in the 40s and still lose the game. Oregon is going to put up enough to win the game, even though it is a three-point underdog. The Ducks are 7-1 straight up and 8-0 against the spread in their last eight road games and have won the last three road games as the underdog. I never tell anybody to bet on sports because it's a good way to lose the rent money -- this info is used only to provide some prospective for my pick.

I expect Oregon to win by about 52-44.

Podfather Godcast with Chris Haynes


Podfather Godcast with Chris Haynes

This week's podcast is breaking away from its normal format, but for good reason. Chris Haynes, who was CSN's first Trail Blazers Insider, joins the podcast with his wife Charlotte to share a heartbreaking story. On September 11th, Robert Reynolds, Chris' brother-in-law, was gunned down in Fresno, CA. It's another senseless killing that we've all grown immune to. But, Chris and his wife have a call to action. 

Have a listen. 

And if you'd like to help donate to the Robert Reynolds GoFundMe page, click here

From the GoFundMe page:

Robert was a the youngest of 6 on our mother side and several on his father side. He was all about music, making people smile and encouraging others to pursue their dreams. He had dreams as well as a bright future ahead. He has always been loved and had a heart so big that no matter what he loved and cared about you. Even if he was upset, like most in our family, if we could put a smile on someone else face, that alone will brighten our day. He had been taken far too soon. This has really torn a hole in our family. Life as we knew it will never be the same. One thing for sure is that healing can only come from one person and that is God. Though our wounds are deep, and our hearts are heavy we still have yet to face one of the most difficult things this life will ever bring, burying our brother/son/friend! Please help our family raise this money so that we can give him what he deserves and we can all come together and say our goodbyes. Thank you in advance and God bless!