Oh, that memory of Ken Griffey Jr. sticking his head out of that pile at home plate

Oh, that memory of Ken Griffey Jr. sticking his head out of that pile at home plate

As Ken Griffey Jr. takes his rightful place in baseball's Hall of Fame this weekend, I can't help but think back to the Seattle Mariners' 1995 season -- the year when the entire Pacific Northwest went bonkers for the Mariners.

Yes. even Portland set aside its usual distaste for all things Seattle to pull for a team that just wouldn't quit. It was a team that emerged from years of mediocrity to capture the hearts and minds of baseball fans everywhere. It was a lovable bunch on the field, playing with joy and abandon, constructing big comebacks for miracle late-season wins.

But it wasn't very lovable in their clubhouse, I can tell you. I was dispatched by The Oregonian to cover the M's brilliant late-season run that August and September, the most time I've ever spent following a big-league team around. Griffey was, at least at that time, difficult to cover. He could be temperamental and hard to approach. Randy Johnson, who would win the Cy Young Award that year after going an overpowering 18-2, was intimidating and impossible to approach. But the rest were easy to talk with and cooperative.

On Aug. 24 of that season the Mariners were 11 1/2 games behind the division-leading California Angels and a game under the .500 mark. Griffey had been out of the lineup with a broken wrist through much of the season and even the torrid hitting of Edgar Martinez couldn't keep Seattle close. But the team caught fire and the emotion began to build, the way it can do in baseball, where the season-long soap operas can grow in intensity with each game.

Eventually, the M's caught the Angels and faced them in a one-game playoff in the ancient Kingdome, where Seattle -- behind Johnson -- pummeled California 9-1.

Next up, the playoffs -- a foreign place for the Mariner franchise -- and a battle with the New York Yankees. Seattle Manager Lou Piniella vs. one of his former teams. The Yanks handled Mariner pitching with ease in the first two games in Yankee Stadium, winning 9-6 and 7-5. About all I remember from covering those games was talking to Jay Buhner afterward about New York fans throwing batteries at him in right field.

Things turned around in Seattle, though, as Mariner fans turned the Kingdome into a cauldron of noise. Let's cut to the chase, the best-of-five series went to a fifth game and it turned into an incredible battle. The Yankees, behind David Cone, held a 4-2 lead before the Mariners tied it in the eighth. Then, in the ninth, New York mounted a rally -- getting two on with none out,.

But then the emotion of the game went from 10 out of 10 to about 15 out of 10. Out of the Seattle bullpen came Johnson, the Big Unit, charging to the mound as if he owned it. He had rested just one day since winning Game 3 but was ready for this challenge. He fanned Wade Boggs and got Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill on popups.

And in my estimation, there's never been a louder sports arena anywhere than the Kingdome was on that night -- a combination of fan loyalty, panic and hope. In the pressbox, I couldn't hear the person next to me even though he was screaming at me. I was getting hand signs from a baseball-scout friend of mine sitting down the third-base line, who was wide-eyed as he signaled me that Johnson was hitting near 100 on the radar gun on one day's rest.

I will admit, for the first time, in that cement-mixer of a domed stadium with all that excitement, the hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention. This was craziness.

The Mariners couldn't score in the bottom of the ninth and then Johnson struck out the side in the 10th. Again the M's failed to score in their half of the inning. By this time, I'm pretty sure everyone in that stadium was dealing with a massive stress headache.

The Yankees finally broke through against Johnson in the 11th, getting a run to take a 5-4 lead. At that point, though, nobody in that stadium figured the home team as being finished. It just wasn't that type of season and not that type of team.

Joey Cora beat out a bunt single (barely) to lead off the bottom of the 11th and Griffey slammed a hard grounder into right-center field for a single to move Cora to third. Martinez followed -- and you probably know this part -- with a line-drive double down the left-field line. Cora scored easily, of course, to tie the game and Griffey -- not fast but a brilliant baserunner -- glided all the way from first to slide safely into home with the winning run.

You can watch that entire bottom of the 11th here.

It was an amazing finish and the lasting image is Griffey's head poking out of the big pigpile at the plate with a broad smile on his face as the entire Pacific Northwest celebrated another Mariner comeback. That moment was and IS STILL magic.

For me, Griffey's successful dash to the plate was a symbol of his career -- daring, bold, confident, skillful and smart. He was a great fielder, terrific home-run hitter and could seemingly do whatever was necessary to win games.

When I think about the Seattle Mariners, I think of Griffey -- the face of the franchise for so many years. And I always see that face, poking its way out of the bottom of the pile, flashing that magnetic smile of success.

Congrats, Junior. And thanks for the memories.

Kobe Bryant's letter to his "younger self" reveals "tears and heartache"

Kobe Bryant's letter to his "younger self" reveals "tears and heartache"

"The Players Tribune" is often a source of interesting, even revealing, stuff about modern athletes. I recommend checking it out periodically just to hear what players think of themselves and their roles in society. And Kobe Bryant's "letter to my younger self" today reveals hard feelings still exist between the former Laker star and his parents:

The next time I write to you, I may touch on the challenges of mixing blood with business. The most important advice I can give to you is to make sure your parents remain PARENTS and not managers.

Before you sign that first contract, figure out the right budget for your parents — one that will allow them to live beautifully while also growing your business and setting people up for long-term success. That way, your children’s kids and their kids will be able to invest in their own futures when the time comes.

And he ends his short piece with this:

Trust me, setting things up right from the beginning will avoid a ton of tears and heartache, some of which remains to this day.

Bryant's problems with his parents go back a few years, including a lawsuit when his mother tried to sell some of his memorabilia. This is ugly stuff and I understand his resistence to allowing family members to bleed his bank account. On the other hand, Bryant is a very wealthy man and if his parents need money so badly that they are attempting to sell some of his stuff, you'd think he could take care of the problem without damaging his net worth too much.

 

Blazer summer-league performances were sub-par

Blazer summer-league performances were sub-par

Time to put a big bag over the Trail Blazers' summer league and place it on a shelf someplace where it can be forgotten.

Summing it all up as kindly as I can, I'd say performances by Portland's regular-season roster players did not live up to expectations.

Exhibit A is forward Noah Vonleh. Yes, you're going to hear that he's still only 20 years old. True, but the fact is there are teenagers in summer league these days, players 18 and 19 years old. And Vonleh was actually playing in his third summer league, and as one NBA executive told me, "It's a bit of a red flag when you're here for the third time and still can't dominate."

Vonleh started four games, averaged 31 and a half minutes, 12 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 2.75 turnovers and 3.25 fouls per game. He shot 46.3 percent from the floor, 23.1 percent from three and 70 percent from the foul line. Interestingly, he got more attempts from three than the foul line.

Pat Connaughton had all kinds of problems with his shooting. The 6-5 guard averaged 32.2 minutes in five starts, shot only 34.8 percent from the field, 27 percent from three, 3.4 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists and two turnovers per game. He made a couple of big shots along the way and still continues to look like an NBA-level athlete. But shooting guards need to be good shooters.

Luis Montero still looks like a player who needs at least a year in the D-League -- promising, but still not savvy or experienced enough to play meaningful NBA minutes. He played five games, started only two, averaged 27.2 minutes, shot 36.4 percent from the field, 25 percent from three, had 1.8 assists and 2.4 turnovers per game.

Rookie forward Jake Layman was surprising. He seemed to get more comfortable on the floor with each game and showed enough athleticism to belong in the league. Still, as with his teammates, shooting was a problem. He hit 35 percent of his field goals, 18.2 percent of his threes and just 57.1 percent of his free throws. He averaged 8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.

All in all, not pretty numbers and not a very promising summer for those young players.

 

Blazers complete summer league with win over Boston

Blazers complete summer league with win over Boston

LAS VEGAS -- The summer version of the Portland Trail Blazers completed its season Friday with a 80-75 win Boston Celtics in Cox Pavilion.

Pat Connaughton scored 23 and Pierre Jackson 20 to lead Portland, which finished the Las Vegas Summer League with a 2-3 record. The only other game the team won was a sudden-death, double-overtime contest vs. Utah, won by a Connaugton three-point field goal.

The Trail Blazers led by as many as 13 in the second quarter and held a 44-35 halftime lead. They then watched Boston storm back to lead by 2 in the third quarter. But Portland took a 60-58 edge into the fourth quarter and fought off several Boston rallies down the stretch of the game.

Friday was a real bounce-back game for Connaughton, who has not shot the ball well consistently during the summer. He hit 8 of 18 against the Celtics and made some big plays down the stretch.

Second-round draft pick Jake Layman had one of the biggest plays of the game, blocking a potential dunk by Boston's Jaylen Brown with inside a minute to play. Layman finished with eight points and seven rebounds. Jackson hit seven of his 10 shots, had five rebounds and eight assists. There is little doubt he will end up in somebody's training camp this fall, be it Portland's or another team.

Noah Vonleh, who is suffering from a hip contusion, did not play.

 

Summer league: Welcome to the tournament nobody wants to win

Summer league: Welcome to the tournament nobody wants to win

LAS VEGAS -- A few years ago somebody came up with the bright idea of ending the Las Vegas Summer League with a tournament. The idea, I suppose, was to make the summer games more competitive for the teams and to provide more spectator interest by building to a "championship" game.

But after watching the tournament's first round Wednesday and the first round last summer, I've come to the conclusion that pretty much none of these teams has any interest in winning this thing. In fact, most of them in yesterday's first round seemed dedicated to losing and getting out of town as soon as possible.

The idea here is about developing players and not about winning. You can see that by the way lineups are used -- who plays and who doesn't. If you have a first- or second-round pick here, he's going to play as many minutes as possible -- no matter how poorly. If you have an older guy who can help you win a summer-league game but probably doesn't figure in your plans for fall training camp, guess what? He's probably not going to play.

A good many of the high draft picks have been sitting out games in the past few days and it's their appearances, rather than trophies, that generate the big crowds.

I think organizers of this summer basketball festival would have been pressured into dropping the idea of a tournament if not for extenuating circumstances. No. 1, the league is run by Warren LeGarie, who happens to be the agent for a good many of the league's general managers, coaches and assistant coaches. Those guys aren't going to put heat on their agent. And, too, nobody in the league is likely to do anything that would cause the demise of these games being played in Las Vegas.

The NBA, like a good many other companies, loves to gather in Sin City for its conventions. And this, as much as anything, is a convention that brings together most of the league.

So if you're planning on visiting this summer league in the future, I'd encourage it. There is wall-to-wall basketball that's mostly a lot of fun. Just show up before the tournament starts. It's not pretty.

Trail Blazers fall to Jazz -- just one summer game left

Trail Blazers fall to Jazz -- just one summer game left

The Trail Blazers trailed throughout most of the final three quarters Wednesday evening and fell 86-71 to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the tournament portion of the Las Vegas Summer League.

The Trail Blazers (1-3) are thus eliminated from the tournament's championship round and will play just once more -- a consolation game at 3 p.m. Friday in Cox Pavilion.

Non-roster point guard Pierre Jackson led Portland with 18 points. Shabazz Napier, who had been starting at the point since being acquired in a deal with Orlando, is suffering from a sprained shoulder. He did not play and is out for the Friday game, too. Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh added 10 points apiece for Portland.

The Trail Blazers looked fatigued in this game and in the second half couldn't muster much of an effort. At this point in summer league, many of the teams run out of gas.  Just as many of them run out of motivation. Very few of these teams really care about winning a summer-league tournament. This is an opportunity for personal development and to allow players to showcase their skills.

For a player such as Jackson, who has bounced around the D-League, played in Turkey and been the property of New Orleans and Philadelphia in the NBA, this is a pressure cooker -- with every minute of every game a chance to prove he belongs in the NBA, or not.

At 5-10, he's a point guard, but one who can score. He set the D-League single-game scoring record with 58 points in 2014 and has terrific quickness to the basket.

He admitted after Wednesday's game that he feels a lot of pressure in these games because his future is on the line, but that it is mitigated to a degree by the fact that Las Vegas is his home and he has the support of his family.

He was just about the only Trail Blazer with any energy against the Jazz. The Blazers were pounded 47-32 on the boards and Vonleh, who had been a consistent rebounder during the summer, managed just 2 boards in 27 minutes.

All in all, the best news appears to be that this group has just one more game left. And I'd anticipate that playing time will be spread among the entire roster in that contest.

Trail Blazers keep their group together -- how much better will they be?

Trail Blazers keep their group together -- how much better will they be?

I think today there is much euphoria among Trail Blazer fans that their team has been able to add some quality free-agent players this summer without losing the heart of what was the team's core last season.

That's the good news. But there's another side to that story. It's not as if last season's team was battling for a conference championship. We're talking about a 44-win team here, a win total that would normally not be enough to make the playoffs. Suddenly, we find a team willing to go over the salary cap to retain its own players and seemingly saying it is all in for a championship run. Which is great news, of course.

There is depth now -- and people seem to take a lot of optimism from that. To me, though, it's always going to be about the starting lineup. And this one is going into a new season with much the same situation as last year -- a huge scoring load being carried by the backcourt and not a lot of offensive consistency up front. It's still going to be up to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to carry the offense.

There is much more lineup flexibility this season, with the versatility of Evan Turner and more situational defense, at the very least, with the signing of Festus Ezeli. Turner is a solid all-around player but he doesn't appear to be a big-time scorer. Ezeli isn't going to do much on offense beside tip-ins and put-backs. There is always a hope that Mason Plumlee will bring more offensive skills into camp this fall and that Al-Farouq Aminu will find more consistency to his offense.

And while improvement of returning players is always the expectation, it's frequently not the reality. Some will come back better and some will not.

I agree this team is deeper and it should, depending on the lineup, be better defensively -- where an upgrade was sorely needed.

But I'd be careful about projecting a lot of improvement on this roster simply because it's the same people coming back. And a new contract doesn't necessarily make a player better. Guess what -- sometimes it makes them worse because they overplay while trying to justify their new money.

Overall, this is meant as a note of caution. This team will be better than last year -- but given the amount of money poured into it, it should be. And it has a long way to go from being a 44-win team to being an elite team.

How good will it be? Too early to tell, but I'd caution that expectations may be too high and those expectations bring pressure. This is still going to be a team very reliant on scoring from two guards and if either one of them is injured for an extended period of time, points will be hard to come by.

Coach Terry Stotts is going to have another unique challenge on his hands as training camp opens. He's going to have to find a way keep his players satisfied with playing time and some of them may not get enough minutes to justify their contract. And just because this team had great chemistry last season, there is no guarantee that will happen this year. Every new player brings another element into the overall atmosphere and experience of a team.

This team's going to be better -- again, we're talking about a group that had just 44 wins last season. But how much better?

Be careful with your expectations.

 

So should Blazers match the Crabbe deal or not?

So should Blazers match the Crabbe deal or not?

This may not be as simple as it seems. The Brooklyn Nets have offered Allen Crabbe a $75 million, four-year contract that could, with bonuses, creep up to $83 million. The Nets have also apparently promised Crabbe a starting job, which would seem to almost always come attached with that sort of salary.

The promise of being a starter complicates this a bit. But there are several considerations here for the Trail Blazers as they make a decision whether to match that offer:

  • What's it going to take, dollar-wise, to keep Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless on the roster? Portland's other two restricted free agents may also get sizeable offers and decisions may have to be made about perhaps allowing one of the three players to leave. I do know one thing -- of the three, Crabbe seems to be the one the team most wants to retain.
  • The idea of Crabbe wanting to become a starting player could complicate this thing. Can he be convinced that the minutes he'll get in Portland will be close to starters' minutes? Does he really know what he's getting himself into with a franchise like Brooklyn -- which figures to be a very poor team? If the money is the same, isn't it better to be a reserve on a good team than a starter on the worst team in basketball? Can Crabbe be convinced of that?
  • Do you take a chance on bringing back a player who would rather be somewhere else?
  • What does Paul Allen think? Don't think for a moment this isn't a factor. He's writing the checks and he needs to sign off on the big deals -- particularly one that would guarantee a bench player nearly $20 million a year for four seasons.
  • It's also important to remember that if Crabbe is retained, he becomes just another big asset for a deal sometime down the road. Yes, he probably has a trade kicker in that contract, but it would still be possible to get a player for him at some point. Acquiring and retaining assets is very important in attempting to rebuild a franchise.
  • I just have to say this: Man, Brooklyn is a little crazy. Crabbe has value at both ends of the court, but this is a player who has never been a starting player over an extended period of time. I cannot imagine offering him this kind of coin without a little more evidence that he can handle the responsibility.

I will wrap this up with my own hunch here: I think they will match. Crabbe has become an integral part of the roster and I don't think they will let him walk.

Turner may not make many 3s, but he once beat the Blazers with one

Turner may not make many 3s, but he once beat the Blazers with one

The Portland Trail Blazers signed Evan Turner Wednesday night but the free agent from the Boston Celtics has already had a big moment in Moda Center. I'm surprised this hasn't come up earier, but Turner (above) knocked down a corner three-pointer with :01 showing on the clock to beat Portland in late January of 2015.

Turner doesn't make a lot of threes (he was just 20-83 last seasons) but he handled that situation with cool confidence.

That shot, I would assume, left a pretty good impression on some Trail Blazer people. And even though the accompanying photo looks as if Portland GM Neil Olshey is giving two thumbs up to Turner, he's actually trying to tell referees that there should have been a jump ball prior to the game-winner. And he was probably correct.

 

Evan Turner just might be a perfect fit for the Trail Blazers

Evan Turner just might be a perfect fit for the Trail Blazers

Look, I watch as many NBA games as most people but because I watch ALL of Portland's games, I don't get a chance to check out the rest of the league as often as I'd like. So when Portland signed Evan Turner away from the Boston Celtics I wasn't quite sure about it.  I just haven't watched him enough to get a real feel for how he's evolved as a pro.

I knew he wasn't much of a three-point shooter, that he was a solid defender and better-than-average passer. I also knew he was a noted quote machine (you must check these out). Here's just a sample:

On coming off the bench for the C’s, 2015

  • "[Brad Stevens] spoke to me. I had to smell his breath for alcohol. I checked his office for drugs. I said, ‘You’ve gotta be high.’ You know what I’m saying? But I kept it classy, of course, and I trust the process. And that was it. But it’s unbelievable, right?"

But I didn't really know much about his intangibles. But there are things there that make him sound like a perfect fit in Portland:

"Evan's great. Evan has been nothing but a pro since he's been here. He works," (Brad) Stevens remarked in May. "I don't think we had two conversations about him starting or not starting. He accepted whatever his minutes were, and when they came he knew what his role was and what he had to do to be successful, and he just tried to help the team. I appreciated Evan for that."

Turner's ball-handling and passing skills will be a big addition to the Trail Blazers' front court. His quirky quotes will make him a hit with media and fans. But how hard he plays, his hustle, will win over his teammates and coaches.