Trail Blazers can honor Kobe Bryant by rekindling Portland Fire
For two decades, Kobe Bryant bedeviled the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 25 points per game and once racking up 60 in a single night. Yet there was no doubt that the team, like others throughout the NBA would honor him Sunday as news of his death rocked the sports world.
The 24 seconds of silence for the Lakers' No. 24 was fitting. As was the decision by both the Blazers and Indiana Pacers to each intentionally run out the opening shot clocks to further pay tribute to Bryant, who earlier that day was killed in a helicopter crash that also took the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
Particularly in his early years, Bryant was not one of the most-liked NBA stars. But when he retired in 2016, he was one of the most respected.
That reputation only grew, despite facing sexual assault charges 16 years ago. Bryant admitted he'd had sex with his accuser, but said it was consensual. The case was dismissed after an out-of-court settlement, which included an apology but, he said, no payment to the woman.
The public rehabilitation of Bryant's image was aided, in part, because he seemed to mature after the highly publicized allegations and focus on his growing family. And in recent years, he found a particular cause. As a father, he wanted his four daughters to have the same opportunities that he had. And so he became a powerful supporter of women's sports, and women's basketball in particular.
As Portland Tribune sportswriters Steve Brandon and Kerry Eggers have both noted, Bryant encouraged female basketball players of all ages, and had befriended Oregon Ducks star Sabrina Ionescu, among others.
"His death leaves an especially deep hole and ache for fans of women's basketball, in Corvallis and Eugene and everywhere," Brandon wrote.
A void left by someone with the star power of Kobe Bryant is hard to fill, but the Portland Trail Blazers — as a business organization and collection of players — are in a position to help.
There are only two major women's professional sports leagues in this country, and Portland is home to the most successful franchise in the National Women's Soccer League.
The Portland Thorns have had winning records in six of their seven seasons, were crowned champions twice and, most important, annually crush the league's attendance records, drawing an average of more than 20,000 fans to home matches last season. (The Utah Royals were second in attendance, averaging just under 11,000 fans.)
So, why aren't women in Portland lacing up their Nikes in the Women's National Basketball Association?
Well, for an all-too-brief period, they were.
The Portland Fire joined the WNBA in 2000 but lasted just three seasons, failing to post a winning record or average more than 8,700 fans.
NBA teams basically choose whether to "field" a women's team and Blazer owner Paul Allen never showed the same passion for the WNBA that he had for the men's side. He doused the Fire after the 2002 season.
Many have been baffled why Allen, who died in 2018, never reconsidered that decision, given that the Fire, in their short life, were drawing more than most WNBA teams.
It may be as simple as math.
The WNBA hasn't had tremendous success. Exposure, coverage, attendance, TV rights, franchise values have all been relatively flat. And the league's players, like their counterparts on the soccer pitch, are being more vocal about the pay gap between male and female athletes.
But Bryant, who proved to be a savvy businessman after leaving the NBA, was a believer. As recently as last week he was making headlines by claiming that WNBA All-Stars Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne are good enough to be on an NBA roster.
And, while struggling, the WNBA has managed to survive the past decade with 12 teams.
Maybe it just needs a lucky 13 to take it to the next level. The timing could be right, as Oregon currently boasts two of the best women's college basketball teams in the country.
Any move for Portland to rejoin the WNBA now ultimately must start with Jody Allen, Paul Allen's sister, or maybe Larry Ellison, if and when the team is sold to him.
We'd encourage them to talk with Timbers' owner Merritt Paulson, who also now owns the Thorns, and see what he's learned.
After all, it took professional women's soccer a couple of tries to stick in Portland. The Portland Rain competed at roughly the same time, from 2001-03, as the Portland Fire, with the same dismal results.
The Thorns now are the envy of the NWSL. Paulson can take some of the credit, but so can some of the Timbers players and coaches, who have been outspoken in their support for the women who share their home pitch.
Current and former stars such as Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Jack Jewsbury have regularly attended Thorns home matches. It is likely not a coincidence that often, like Bryant, they attended these professional women's competitions with their young daughters.
So, if the Trail Blazers' ownership and current roster want to continue honoring Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, Gianna, there's a clear lane to the goal: Lend your support, your money and celebrity status, to not just the WNBA, but all professional women's sports.
Yes, that will take longer than 24 seconds. But the impact on talented athletes such as Sabrina Ionescu will last a lifetime.
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