Last week, I got a text. It wasn’t funny, but I laughed.
At some point, you’ve just got to laugh. Not with your gut — a quick exhale will do — and certainly not at the misfortune. You know this luck shouldn’t befall any but the worst of us, any but the ultimate villains. You offer a short shake of your head and a brief glance downward, and then you resume your life. You close the cell phone, and you close the book.
Oden’s done. So you laugh.
You laugh at the memories of yourself, 19 again, hair at your shoulders. You’re clasped in the arms of your friends, jumping through their basement, as David Stern pulls out the white placard with the Blazers’ logo. Number one. We’ve got it. It’s ours. You laugh as you leap around the basement, spinning into the new era as an entire city screams in delight.
You laugh at all of the drives down Burnside, past potholes and Powell’s, coming across the billboard on 10th. Emblazoned in red, white, and black, the instructions are easy: Honk once for Oden, honk twice for Durant. You lay it on. The passersby jolt upright, then relax with the realization that there’s yet another fan in this basketball-mad town. They wait for the second honk, but none comes. They wait, like there’s a choice. But it’s going to be Oden. It’s got to be Oden.
And why wouldn’t it be? The big man is the key. The big man is the root of the pick-and-rolls, of the hip-checks and the offensive boards, of the rings and the parades and the love of an indebted city. Plus, it’s not like you’ll overlook Jordan again. In the 50-plus year history of the NBA, there was only one Jordan; the sniper has felled the trees but once. Jordan was God. Jordan was a fluke. Russell. Chamberlain. Kareem. Shaq. Duncan. These are the ones you want. Every dynasty needed that centerpiece. The Bulls got lucky, because there’s no one like Jordan. Right?
You laugh at that summer afternoon, the July perfection Portland always offers, as you crush into Pioneer Square to welcome Oden to his new home. Nate MC’s, not quite barking, not quite beaming, a temperament that would soon become all-too necessary. Kevin Pritchard saddles next to him, all aviators and charm, the Boy Genius who will bring our team back to the promised land. The same man who will be out of a job three years later. You bob up and down as the light-rail pulls into the north side of the square, opens its doors, and unleashes the man-beast into the sunshine. Stepping onto the stage, Oden feasts on the crowd’s fervor, gleaming, dancing, and promising the championship we’ve wanted for 30 years. You shout your agreement. And you wonder, now, if those dance moves played some role in his injuries.
You laugh because of the history. The Seventies had the Championship, yes, the Miracle at Memorial — but they also wrought Walton’s knees, and the subsequent collapse of a nascent dynasty. (For an excellent capture of just how close we were, read David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game.) The Eighties brought us Bowie, a man who’s story needs no telling. The Nineties blocked Sabonis when we needed him, needed his size, his force, his grace. And now the Aughts have taken Oden’s career and cast it on layaway. Just when things were looking up — truly, after the success of the past two seasons, we were finally, finally, primed — Oden’s career burrowed itself underneath scalpels and stationary bikes, under petulance and depression, sabotaging itself before anyone knew how the narrative would begin.
So you laugh, because history has repeated itself. Again. To us. To the only team we know. To the only sons we love.
You don’t cry for the lost opportunity. You don’t cry when you remember that we’ve already lost Maurice Lucas — the strongest link to that ‘77 banner, the Greatest Blazer of All-Time — earlier this year. You don’t cry when you hear the news that Roy is missing meniscus in both knees, and has endured bone-on-bone for god-knows-how-long, and that, shit, if that’s the case, and the doctors can’t perform surgery, and there’s no sign the knees will stop their grinding till they’re dull, dust, done — if there’s nothing we can do but wait, then his career may be …. No — you won’t say it. Because that might just make you finally cry.
But that day’s not here. So you laugh. You go on, watching the development of Armon and Dante, waiting for LaMarcus to fill the leadership void, wondering if Rudy will ever realize that he’s stuck in town and finally decide to play as such. You don’t bemoan Durant, or besmirch his ever-expanding talents. You sure as hell don’t yet consider him Air Apparent … but you admit the possibility that, perhaps, Jordan’s talents have been reborn in another. And that, as a basketball fan, is what you want. You rationalize, and force a smile.
You hope that the Blazers fans, and the Portland community at large, rally to Oden’s massive side and pull this 22-year-old to his feet. He doesn’t need our pity any more than he needs our condemnation. But he needs us, more than ever, to Rise With Him. You hope that one day he can laugh with us, knowing full well that day will never come.
Oden’s season, and probably his career, is done. So you read the text, and even though there’s no wind left in your gut, you laugh. Just a small one. And then you lean your head, close your eyes, and want it all back.
It’s hyperbole to say that I grew up with Dave Niehaus. It’s cliche to say that I fell asleep to his voice, Walkmen wrung around my head as the Kingdome’s buzz rocked my eight-year-old self to sleep. It’s silly to say that the man was the soul of an oft-gutless organization, the beating heart, and bleating voice, of a team that was more laughable than laudable — of one of the two organizations that has never, ever made a World Series.
It’s all over the top. But it’s all true. I was raised on Dave Niehaus, just as I was raised with the rain-soaked fall and Stanich’s grease and the hardcourts of CYO basketball. The man filled in all the odd, in-between spaces of life in the Northwest — the times between the Blazers and the Rose Festival, the drives to the coast and to the Sound and to Mt. Hood. He came out my car stereo on those innumerable drives to and from Seattle, translating the sound of the game into a language we could understand. He was always, always there.
And now, he’s not. Dave passed away yesterday, at the age of 75, felled by a heart attack. You could tell his best days were far behind him. Any time the camera found him — which seemed rarer by the season — he looked bloated and red, struggling to stand, struggling to breathe. His physicality was notedly frail: a few years back, he began suffering heart troubles, missing large stretches at a time. But he was back. He was always back, always with a story, telling us of Amaral’s speed and Sexson’s hacks and Ichiro’s magnificence. Always with the same mellifluous voice, the one that wouldn’t falter no matter how many losing seasons he had to endure.
His voice wasn’t what one would expect from a Hall of Fame announcer. It was tinny and excitable, rather than booming or hearty or loquacious. As the guys at Lookout Landing said, you could always tell when the Mariners were doing well — Dave’s voice had the range of the most talented choir singers, even if his pitch wasn’t always something to write home on. In 1977, when the Mariners were first born, when Diego Segui first fired the fastball across the meat of the plate and returned professional baseball to the Pacific Northwest, Dave was there. When the Eighties saw the team claim the dregs of the decade, he was there. When Edgar struck that Double, sending Cora flitting home, sending Junior spinning behind him — “THE THROW TO THE PLATE WILL BE … LATE! THE MARINERS ARE GOING TO PLAY IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP! I DON’T BELIEVE IT! IT JUST CONTINUES! MY OH MY!” — Dave was there. When Ichiro rose, when 116 flopped, when Lou and Buhner and Junior all faded from the game, Dave was there. And Dave continued, on to the next one, always with us tailing ever eager behind.
I don’t know where or how Dave ranks against the greats, against the Harry Caray’s, against the Ernie Harwell’s, against the Harry Kalas’s. His voice, in a sense, exists in a vacuum, and I have to take others’ words — and those of the voices who elected him to the HOF in 2008 — as evidence of his position in the framework of baseball. I only had a few chance encounters with him, between spring training and work in the world of sports journalism. But I feel like I knew the man intimately, unequivocally, unremittingly. I knew him, and all that he asked was that I listen. And that was all I wanted to do.
He was our grandfather, the one with the painfully white shoes and the seamlessly sewn narratives, connecting past to present, simultaneously wry and professional. He was the team’s lone constant. He was also the team’s greatest export, and the greatest part of baseball in the Northwest.
A friend of mine once said that life is but a movie — the only thing that’s missing is the soundtrack. Dave was that soundtrack. Now, the track is over. Rest in peace, Dave. You’ve finally made it to your World Series.