Drexler dishes on career, Lillard and more
It has been almost a quarter-century since Clyde "The Glide" Drexler last wore the uniform of the Trail Blazers — 22 years since he retired at age 35 after a brilliant 15-year NBA career.
The congenial superstar has had a lot of fun since his retirement as a player, traveling the world, helping raise his children, pursuing golf and tennis interests and staying close to the game he loves.
Since 2004, Drexler has served as television analyst for home games of the Houston Rockets. For the first time this season, though, he is stepping back.
"I've cut it down to about 10 games this season," Drexler, 57, said from his home in Houston. "I've enjoyed it. I love being part of the NBA, staying involved with the game, talking about the players, about the coaching strategies, about what teams need to do to get better. That has always appealed to me. I just want more freedom."
This summer, Drexler will serve his third season as commissioner of the BIG3 3-on-3 basketball league. That will require visits to many of the NBA cities where the BIG3 stages its games, including Portland for a playoff series in August that will feature a visit from the commissioner.
"I'm excited to get up to the Northwest with the best professional 3-on-3 basketball in the world," Drexler said. "I think the people up there will be impressed with not only the quality of play, but also how hard these guys compete. I can't wait to get up there and see my old friends and all the Blazer fans."
Other than that, though, Drexler intends to stick closer to home in his native Houston with his wife of nearly six years, Tonya, than he has in recent years.
Does he intend to do a lot of traveling?
"Not if I can help it, unless they're golf trips," Drexler said with a laugh.
Drexler keeps in shape by working out three to four days a week, but golf is his first love these days.
"I try to play on most days of the week that end in 'Y,'" he said, chuckling again.
Drexler sports a 1-handicap and is a member of Royal Oaks Country Club in southwest Houston.
Tennis is on his schedule a couple of days a week, "but I don't really play (matches) anymore," he said. "I just enjoy hitting balls."
Drexler — who played 11 1/2 seasons with Portland from 1984-95 — didn't make it for the "'90s Night" at Moda Center on Jan. 26 as part of the "50 Years of Rip City" celebration going on this season.
"I had commitments I couldn't break," he said. "I would have loved to be there."
Instead, he shared memories in a recent half-hour phone conversation. On-the-record talk about Tonya and his four children — Austin, Adam, Elise and Erica — was off-limits. "I really prefer to keep family private," he said.
A variety of other topics were covered, though. Drexler weighed in on coaches Jack Ramsay and Rick Adelman, his experience with the Dream Team and relationship with Michael Jordan, his thoughts on Damian Lillard and James Harden and his comparison of the great Portland teams of the early 1990s and Houston's championship team of 1994-95.
• • •
A number of young fans — say 35 and under — consider Damian Lillard the greatest Trail Blazer of them all. Drexler understands that.
"A lot of people, especially millennials, they've never seen me," he said. "It's hard for them to compare or judge. Maybe they've watched me on (video), but they're mostly going by hearsay."
I've seen both, however. I'm a great admirer of Lillard for his game, his competitive fire and his professionalism. Though I can be accused of bias toward Drexler — I co-wrote his autobiography, "Clyde The Glide" — it has nothing to do with the fact that though Lillard has moved into the No. 2 spot in Blazer history, Drexler is still a firm No. 1.
Before we get into statistics, understand that Drexler is a two-time member of the Naismith Hall of Fame — as an individual and as a member of the 1992 "Dream Team" that won Olympic gold at Barcelona, Spain. And that he led the Blazers to the NBA Finals in 1990 and '92 before winning a championship with the Rockets in 1995. Clyde was a 10-time All-Star and, in 1996, was named as one of the NBA's top 50 players of its first half-century.
Drexler is one of the greatest all-around players in NBA history, a 6-7 swing man who could run, jump out of the building, shoot, score, rebound and defend. The latter part often went overlooked. He was outstanding at jumping into passing lanes, snaring a pass and going coast-to-coast for a transition slam.
He shares the Portland franchise single-game record of 10 steals with Larry Steele. The NBA record is 11.
Clyde finished his career with 22,195 points (one of 32 players to top 22,000), 6,677 rebounds, 6,125 assists and 2,207 steals. Only three other players in history have surpassed 22,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, 6,000 assists and 2,000 steals.
Oscar Robertson (26,710 points, 7,804 rebounds, 9,887 assists) and John Havlicek (26,395 points, 8,007 rebounds, 6,114 assists) played before the NBA made steals an official statistical category in the 1973-74 season. LeBron James has totaled more than 33,000 points, 9,000 rebounds and 9,000 assists, and at this writing has 2,003 career steals.
Drexler and James are the only players in the 22,000/6,000/6,000/2,000 club. Jordan? He finished with 32,292 points, 6,672 rebounds, 5,633 assists and 2,514 steals.
In his time with Portland, Drexler's totals were 18,040 points (20.8 per game), 5,339 rebounds, 4,933 assists and 1,795 steals. At this writing, Lillard's totals in his 7 1/2 seasons with the Blazers are 14,503 points (24.1), 2,524 rebounds, 3,908 assists and 585 steals.
In 94 playoff games with Portland, Drexler averaged 20.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.9 steals. In 51 playoff games with the Blazers, Lillard has averaged 24.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.3 steals.
Lillard has said several times that one of his goals is to be considered the greatest Blazer of them all. He is moving in the right direction and has passed all but, well, the greatest of them all.
Damian would have no problem with that assessment. He has told me more than once he has great respect for Drexler, has watched video of his playing days and considers him one of the all-time greats.
"Clyde is the standard by which any player in this franchise must be judged," Lillard said.
Drexler wants no part of a debate but has a healthy respect for the Blazers' current point guard, who has been chosen for five All-Star contests.
"I love 'Dame,'" Lillard said. "He and CJ (McCollum) are among the best guards in the game. Dame is a great talent. I like that he is always on the court. He doesn't miss games. He's not injured very often. It's hard to lead from the hot tub. Dame is a standup guy. I don't see him often, but when I do, we have great conversations."
• • •
Asked about his most vivid memories of playing for the Blazers, Drexler began with the folks in the stands.
"Loved those rabid fans," he said. "They are some of the best in the world. I like the continuity the organization has had, from the time of (president) Harry Glickman, (trainer) Ron Culp and (doctor) Bob Cook on to today. Also, the camaraderie the players always shared when I played. We had a good group of guys the whole 11 1/2 years.
"I enjoyed the things off the court — the reading programs, the visits to children's hospitals, the community initiatives the Blazers put forth year after year. I enjoyed giving back to that community. And I appreciate the maturity of the people in the Northwest — intelligent, smart, supportive and with a great sense of humor."
Drexler played his first three years in Portland for another Hall of Famer, Dr. Jack Ramsay.
"Jack is an institution in the NBA," Drexler said. "He was iconic. Very intelligent, an intellectual in his approach to the game. I couldn't have picked a better first coach in the NBA.
"He was a teacher at heart, like a college professor. You learned so much just being around Dr. Jack. A great guy. We had many barbecues at his house. He'd invite me over to talk the philosophies of basketball. I really respected Jack. We had a great relationship."
But for Ramsay, the young Clyde was like a bucking bronco that needed to be tamed. They butted heads at times. Drexler came off the bench as a rookie, playing only 17.2 minutes per game, and didn't start until midway through his second season.
"There was no friction from my end," Drexler claimed. "I knew I should have been playing more. I told Jack he was the only one who could stop me. But he was loyal to his players. He had Calvin Natt at the 3 and Jim Paxson at the 2, both All-Star level players, and great point guards in Fat Lever and Darnell Valentine. Jack kept saying, 'I need to find a place for you.' I said, 'Jack, just put me on the floor.'"
Drexler had been a star on his teams at Houston's Sterling High and the University of Houston.
"I'd started on every team I'd ever played on and had been high-producing," he said. "How are you going to relegate me to the bench without seeing what I could do? That was my argument. And to (Ramsay's) credit, he didn't take that the wrong way. He didn't hold it against me. He kept trying to work with me, And at one point, he told me, 'I need you to be a great defender.' So I worked hard on that. He would give you specific tasks, and if you passed them, he'd give you more tasks.
"He taught me the value of professionalism. He was a patient coach. I learned a lot from Dr. Jack about the cerebral side of the game."
Drexler blossomed individually under Ramsay's successor, Mike Schuler, then had his greatest team success under Rick Adelman, who had came on as an assistant coach to Ramsay during Clyde's rookie season. Adelman's first full season (1989-90) was the year that Drexler, Terry Porter, Buck Williams, Jerome Kersey and Kevin Duckworth led the Blazers to the NBA Finals. They got there again two years later.
"Rick was a perfect coach for that team," Drexler said. "He knew how to manage egos. He knew how to put guys in a position to succeed. He was really quiet, didn't say much, but he was an excellent coach. I knew Rick really well. We had a great relationship."
• • •
Drexler's salad years coincided with the best three-year period of basketball in the Blazers' 50-year history. Portland averaged nearly 60 regular-season wins from 1989-92, more than any team but Chicago. The Blazers prevailed in eight playoff series and made it to the NBA Finals twice.
"Those teams were good enough to win championships," Drexler said. "We didn't, but we set a standard of excellence. That first year, we overachieved, because nobody thought we'd even win the division. The next year, we had the best record in the NBA. Then we got back to the Finals (in 1991-92).
"It was a special time. The guys I played with all could have done a lot more individually, but we were a team. We had some great talent. Had Drazen (Petrovic) stayed in Portland, he could have become one of the greatest Blazers ever."
Drexler was sensational in 1991-92, averaging 25.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists while finishing runner-up to Michael Jordan in voting for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award. The Blazers lost to the Bulls in the finals.
"That year was magical," Drexler said. "I was in my ninth year. Three years before, I averaged (27.2) points a game. In order for us to reach the next level, we talked about me scoring less, relying more on my teammates so I could be healthier for the playoffs.
"But that year I had to do more. There were games when you just have to take over. I could have been scoring 30 points a game, but sometimes less is more."
Drexler played so well, he forced the U.S. Olympic Team selection committee to make him the last pro added to what would be called the "Dream Team," which won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Drexler went into the Games with an ailing knee.
"I was healthy until March; then I had the (torn) meniscus," he said. "I didn't want to sit down, because I'd miss the playoffs and then the Olympics.
"I was relegated to not practicing, taking as much time off as I could between games and then during the summer (with the Dream Team). Had I gotten surgery, I'd have been on the shelf. I could run on (the knee), but I couldn't jump. I was basically playing on one leg."
From March through the Olympic Games, Drexler got the knee drained once or twice a week.
"I'd rather get it drained than to not play," he said. "(Doctors) said I couldn't do more damage to it. Playing on one and a half legs was better than not playing to me. The guys on the team knew I was injured, but nobody else knew."
Drexler played in the Olympics, and pretty well. In eight games at Barcelona, he averaged 10.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting .578 from the field. He was the team's No. 5 scorer behind Charles Barkley, Jordan, Karl Malone and Chris Mullin.
A week after the Olympic Games finished, Cook performed surgery to repair the torn meniscus.
The Olympic experience "was phenomenal," Drexler said. "We were treated like rock stars."
The U.S. team was like a circus, stocked with such all-time greats as Jordan, Malone, Barkley, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson.
"They were all great guys, all there with their families," Drexler said. "It was truly a family atmosphere. It could not have been a more pleasant experience. Those guys became like brothers. Many of them are good friends to this day.
"I have so many memories. Larry and I roomed next door to each other. Having a beer with him most nights, talking basketball and life — it doesn't get any better. Playing golf with Michael and Magic, practicing with those guys. ... so much fun. (Coach) Chuck Daly was the perfect guy to manage all those egos, though that wasn't a problem with that team. As long as we were winning, it was all good."
Jordan and Drexler were regarded as the two best shooting guards of the era, and there were some heated moments in games between the two.
"But I always had a ton of respect, nothing but love (for Jordan)," Drexler said. "I talked to his father many times. He would come over and we'd have a good conversation before or after a game. He told me I was one of his favorite players. Michael and I were always cordial. He was a super nice guy. We were both trying to win, so it was very competitive between us, but we never had a problem."
• • •
Portland added Rod Strickland and Mario Elie and seemed poised for another championship run in 1992-93, but Drexler came down with hamstring and knee injuries and played only 49 regular-season games. The Blazers went 51-31 but lost in the first round of the playoffs. They were 47-35 in 1993-94 and got knocked out in the first round again. After that season, Adelman was fired, general manager Geoff Petrie resigned and the Blazers began to shake up their roster.
"Had I not gotten injured," Drexler said, "we'd have had another three- to four-year window to fight for the title. I finally got healthy (in 1994-95), but management was impatient, because we didn't achieve what they wanted.
"Then they started breaking down the team and getting rid of key guys. That was a huge mistake. And they fired Rick too soon — another mistake. When I look back at it, that was bad management."
Petrie's successor was Bob Whitsitt, who ultimately did Drexler a favor by trading him to his hometown team, Houston, at the 1995 trade deadline. Drexler was openly critical of Whitsitt during that time, but chooses not to revisit his position today.
"I'm going to let bygones be bygones," Drexler said. "That was his job. He was doing the best he could do. As basketball people on a championship-level team, we knew what was going to make us better and not weaker. I'm not sure he shared the same knowledge."
Drexler wound up teaming with ex-college buddy Hakeem Olajuwon to lead the Rockets to their second straight title.
"One of the pinnacles of my basketball career," Drexler said. "You always play to be the last team standing. I'd been on teams that couldn't quite get over the hump. That team got it done. You have to be good enough and lucky enough. We were very fortunate to stay healthy and give ourselves a chance. It meant a lot to me, because it was my ultimate goal since I was a rookie."
Drexler is proud that all 11 of his Blazer teams made the playoffs.
"It would have been great to win a championship in Portland, but I don't feel bad about what we accomplished there," he said. "We were competing and doing our best, and we were in contention year after year. The excitement that generated among our fans and in the state of Oregon — that was everything. We were a very good team. We were entertaining.
"That three-year period (from 1989-92) was some of the best basketball the NBA has ever seen. I'd put that up against anybody else's dynasty. You're not going to see much more exciting, more good quality basketball than we had in Portland those three years."
How did those teams stack up to the 1994-95 Rockets who won a title?
"To me, it's a pick-em," Drexler said. "The teams in Portland were uniquely talented. We had good players at every position. We had good depth — two units of five. We were a team in every way. That's why we were so good. I would put those teams against anybody of that era — the great Bulls teams, the Pistons, the Jazz.
"We were great in Houston, too. Both incredibly good teams. I was very fortunate to be a part of that. But I don't like to compare. It's like comparing two of your kids."
• • •
Drexler no longer plays any basketball — "it's an accident waiting to happen," he laughed — but stays close to the NBA game. He has great respect for the Rockets' James Harden.
"James is the best offensive player in the game today," Drexler said. "He scores in so many different ways. You can't guard him one-on-one. He's so strong. He picks up more fouls than anybody. He scores in bunches and has the ultimate green light. I love LeBron (James) and (Giannis) Antetokounmpo, but the best offensive player for sheer numbers night in and night out is James Harden."
A young player who has a chance to rise to the very top?
"Luka Doncic is one," Drexler said. "Look at what he's doing, and his team is also winning. Those numbers are amazing for a kid who is 20."
Best coach in the game?
"Gregg Popovich is one of my favorites, but I think I'd say Doc Rivers," Drexler said. "He relates to his players. He's gritty. He gets his guys to play hard every game."
How does Drexler hope to be remembered by basketball fans across the country?
"I hope they feel like I was a guy who gave it everything I had," he said. "That's one thing I loved about those Portland teams — good or bad, our guys hustled and gave what we had every single night.
"It's about professionalism. Our opponents always knew when they came to our city, they had to get their rest, because they were going to get a test when they played us."
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