As fate would have it, Mason Plumlee was at the Trail Blazers practice facility earlier than normal on Sunday.
Players are required to be at the team’s facility by 10:15 a.m. for an 11 a.m. practice, but Plumlee on Sunday was there at 9:30 a.m. in order to expedite a pressing order.
Earlier that morning, as he approached his SUV in the parking garage of his Pearl District complex, he noticed someone had broken into his car.
His mind raced. Gone was his checkbook. His wallet.
“I went in early to the facility to start cancelling my checkbook, my credit cards,’’ Plumlee said. “And someone said, ‘Neil wants to meet with you.’’’
When Plumlee arrived at the office of Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations, coach Terry Stotts was also in the office.
“They told me I wasn’t going to practice today,’’ Plumlee said.
Plumlee, the Blazers’ starting center who was having a career season, had been traded to Denver for 22-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick.
Because the league office is not open on Sunday, the trade is expected to become official on Monday. Plumlee said he spoke with Denver representatives and he tentatively is planning to fly to Denver on Sunday night.
By the afternoon, the blur of the morning news distracted Plumlee from his task of cancelling his bank accounts. It was difficult reaching banks on a Sunday, and his phone has been ringing off the hook. One of his first conversations was with his brother, Miles, who 10 days ago was traded from Milwaukee to Charlotte.
“I was just talking to my brother. It’s very different getting traded in the season,’’ Plumlee said. “As a player, you always feel like you are in the fight. We were just talking as a team yesterday, that ‘We are in this … we have to get into the playoffs and come through …’’’
It would turn out to be his last team meeting.
“All of the sudden,'' Plumlee said, "the whole conversation changes.''
The day before he was traded, the Blazers had long ago finished practice when Plumlee walked into the gym, hoodie over his head and hands in his sweat pants.
He was headed toward the team’s video room to pick up film of the Saturday practice so he could study it at home. After picking up the video, he noticed Stotts and myself talking on a bench at the other side of the gym.
I gave him a peace sign, and after he waved back, he called out to Stotts.
“Have a good day, Coach.’’
Stotts turned to me and said, ‘What a great guy, huh?’’
I told him Plumlee was one of my favorite guys on the roster. He was personable, smiled easily, and was thoughtful in his responses. Plus, he played hard, and throughout this trying season he was never one to focus on the negative. His approach is best summed up by one of his favorite sayings: he would rather focus on a solution rather than dwell on the problem.
On Sunday, Plumlee was curious about the previous day’s scene.
“Let me ask you something,’’ Plumlee said. “Is (the trade) what you and Stotts were talking about yesterday?’’
I told him the truth – it was not part of our conversation -- and told him I didn't know whether Stotts knew something was brewing.
Recently, Plumlee said he had conversations with his agent, Mark Bartlestein about his future. Plumlee is set to become a free agent this summer after he and the Blazers didn’t come to terms on a contract extension this fall.
Plumlee said his agent had talks with the Blazers, but the Blazers never made an offer before the Oct. 31 deadline, setting him up to be one of the more prized big men on the free agent market this summer.
“As I talked to my agent (recently), he said he would be surprised if I was moved before trade deadline,’’ Plumlee said.
But there he was Sunday morning, sitting in Olshey’s office with Stotts.
“They really handled the trade in a classy manner,’’ Plumlee said. “They thanked me, and I thanked them. This organization has always been very good to me.’’
It was fitting that one of Plumlee’s final scenes in Portland was walking to the video room to get film of that day’s practice.
He was a student of the game and one of the smartest players on the team, which is one of the reasons why Stotts entrusted him to be the team’s primary inbounder, and why Stotts broadened the team’s offense to put the ball in Plumlee’s hands more often.
Plumlee’s study of the game was also why he bonded so closely with Lillard, the team’s captain. Lillard earlier this season called Plumlee a “servant” because he always put other’s needs before his own. In particular, he would often pull Lillard aside to suggest a play call to help get a teammate involved, or stop by Lillard’s locker after leaving the showers to talk review an aspect of that night’s game.
“Every flight you walk by Mason’s seat and he was watching film, guarantee you,’’ Lillard said. “You don’t find people that committed to being a better player and committed to our team.’’
When Lillard encountered Plumlee cleaning out his locker Sunday morning, he told him how he felt.
“I just told him how much I appreciated him as a teammate and let him know he was one of my favorite teammates that I’ve played with – not just in the NBA, but in my life, period,’’ Lillard said. “I will miss him.’’
As he prepared to leave Sunday for his new team and his new city, Plumlee couldn’t help but realize he was leaving more than his checkbook and wallet in Portland.
It is here where he blossomed as a player and forged lasting relationships, both personally and professionally.
“There are a lot of guys I learned from on those Portland teams,’’ Plumlee said. “And as I said last year in my exit interviews, Dame is the best player I’ve played with to date. And the staff there was really good. A good group of people. I was happy to say I could be a part of it.’’
He was traded to Portland from Brooklyn on draft night in 2015, and by the time he reported in September, Stotts envisioned great things. He saw an athletic and skilled big man who could not only bring the ball up court, but thread beautiful and heady passes.
He soon became an important cog in the Blazers’ flow offense, hitting backdoor passes to Lillard for layins and becoming an accomplished finisher around the rim, often times with his distinctive style: a back-to-the-rim reverse dunk.
“It was a great time for me as a player to establish myself as a starter in this league,’’ Plumlee said. “My whole thing coming over from Brooklyn was ‘I’m a starter in this league.’ And last year, I will always remember winning the playoff series, and this year … team wise it hasn’t gone as well, but I’ve improved. So the last year and half, I will look at it as a time of growth.’’
He said he hasn’t put much thought into his new team, the Nuggets, who are one game ahead of the Blazers for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“I just know they have a lot of talent, they are young – they are playing really well right now,’’ Plumlee said. “I’m excited to go there. I’m glad Denver is the place I ended up. It’s good to be wanted and the trade that happened show they wanted me.’’