The Trail Blazers weren't just a business for Paul Allen. They were his passion, though even that seems too trivial a word to use about the NBA club he owned for three decades.
Allen, who died Monday at age 65 from the effects of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, never married. He never had children. Allen learned to appreciate football and the Seattle Seahawks, for whom he was owner since 1997. But besides the computer, which made him his fortune, the Blazers were his baby.
"l always felt like our players were his kids," says Kevin Pritchard, who worked for Allen with the Blazers from 2004-10, the last three years as general manager. "It was the way he wanted us to care for them, to give them every opportunity to succeed, that made him special."
So in a way, Allen was married to the NBA club he purchased from its original owner, Larry Weinberg, in 1988 for $70 million. The estimated value of the franchise is now at more than $1 billion.
Weinberg "was very aware of the direction the NBA was going," says Lori Spencer, the club's internal ticketing director who has been with the Blazers for 40 years. "Though he hated to sell the team, he knew we needed someone with deeper pockets than he had."
A renaissance man
Allen, a Seattle native who made his billions as co-founder of Microsoft, had become one of the world's richest people by the time he bought the Blazers. However, before that, came a much simpler life. His father, Kenneth, was a librarian. His mother, Faye, was a grade-school teacher.
Everything changed when Allen joined with Bill Gates and the other visionaries who helped change the world with Microsoft in the 1980s. Allen left the firm in 1983 after contracting Hodgkin's lymphoma, his first of three bouts with cancer. He recovered quickly and set out to pursue other interests, including the NBA. Not an athlete himself, Allen became a Seattle SuperSonics season ticket-holder and, when the opportunity arose, the owner of their Northwest rival.
Through the next three decades, Allen owned the Blazers and, eventually, the NFL Seahawks while helping both franchises maintain financial stability in their respective cities. A renaissance man, Allen had interest in music, the arts and, of course, in technology. Sports, though, were always at or near the forefront.
"The reality is, if weren't for Paul, there might not be the Portland Trail Blazers, and there certainly wouldn't be a (Moda Center)," says Steve Patterson, the Blazers president under Allen from 2003-07. "And he saved the Seahawks for Seattle.
"Beyond developing spaceships or building a rock-and-roll museum or looking for ships at the bottom of the ocean or all his other interesting endeavors, in a purely sports world, the fans of the Northwest owe him a great debt of gratitude," Patterson says.
It wasn't all gravy for Allen during his years of ownership. Toward the end of the "Jail Blazers" era in the mid-2000s, Allen's Oregon Arena Corporation filed for bankruptcy, citing untenable lease terms, and turned the Rose Garden over to creditors. Shortly thereafter, Allen put the Blazers up for sale.
Only Allen knows if he was ever serious about giving up the Blazers, but about a year later, he pulled them off the market and, in 2007, repurchased the arena. It seems but a blip on the radar screen now for an owner who was getting plenty of financial advice from those those in his holding company, Vulcan Inc.
During Allen's first full season as owner in 1989-90, with Rick Adelman as coach as Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey among the star players, the Blazers reached the NBA Finals, falling to Detroit in five games. They got there again in 1991-92, losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games. Allen was like a kid in a candy store.
"Paul was so excited to have ownership," says Porter, who played for the Blazers from 1985-95 and is now coach of the University of Portland Pilots. "He was a fan who was blessed to own a team. He wore that big beard and was a newbie to the whole pro sports thing.
"He didn't have a basketball background, but he loved watching the game. In those early years, he was around a lot, maybe to a fault — wanting to be around the players and getting to know us and learning what the NBA was like and trying to learn the game."
An owner and a fan
Allen, Williams says, struggled to strike a balance between being an owner of the team and a fan.
"His first few years as an owner, he got engulfed with the team's personalities and let it affect some of his decisions," says Williams, who played for the Blazers from 1989-96. "After a few years, he settled in and looked at it as a business, but he also tried to keep that element of 'Blazermania' alive."
A few times through the early years, Allen had the Blazers practice at his estate in Bellevue, Washington, during the preseason or prior to a game against the Sonics. Drexler was invited for a visit or two on his own.
"Clyde played 'H-O-R-S-E' and watched movies and talked cars with Paul," says Williams, who now lives in Maryland. "Paul had a broad range of knowledge in a lot of areas. It was fascinating to talk to him. He meant so much to Trail Blazer basketball, and just as much to the technology industry. He was truly a pioneer on both counts."
Williams says he communicated with Allen via email through the years.
"Most successful people like to do a lot of talking about their accomplishments," Williams says. "Not Paul. He was a phenomenal listener. I was taken aback by that at first. We would talk about current events as much as basketball. He was the first person I met who was successful who always wanted to listen to what you have to say. That meant a lot to me."
Allen was among the first NBA owners to fly his team charter and, eventually, buy his own team plane. He was among the first, too, to build a training facility for his players. For several years, the Blazers' payroll was at or near the top of the league, even when the team wasn't contending for a title.
"I always wanted to win a championship for him," Williams says. "He would do anything to win in terms of spending money, did everything an owner could do to give his players an edge to win. I was disappointed to not win one for him. You rarely have an owner so committed to winning as Paul was. He lived and breathed Trail Blazer basketball."
Adelman, too, was disappointed to fall short of winning an NBA title for Allen.
"Paul and I got along really well," says Adelman, who would go on to win more than 1,000 games in his 23 years as a head coach. "He gave me my first head coaching job in the NBA. He didn't have to do that. I thought he was really good until he fired me."
"He was a new owner trying to figure it all out, and I guess I was (as a coach), too," says Adelman, now retired and living in Portland. "We had a lot of talks, watched a lot of film together. He was always very involved and inclusive about what was going on. He grew as an owner as he went.
"When you got Paul one-on one, he was so receptive. That was the biggest thing. If we convinced him we were doing the right thing, he'd do whatever we wanted to do. The result was some pretty good success while we were there together."
Geoff Petrie was the Blazers' general manager from 1989-94, enjoying an excellent relationship with the owner that extended beyond basketball.
"We used to have a lot of very long conversations about the team, but it would drift off into other things," says Petrie, retired and living in Loomis, California. "He was a man with an unrelenting interest in pursuing the boundaries and areas of life that were of interest to him."
On the afternoon prior to the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta, Petrie received a phone call from Allen.
"Do you and Ann-Marie (Petrie's wife) want to go to the Super Bowl? l'll pick you up in an hour," Allen said. The Petries took the flight with Allen on his private jet and had a great time.
"One of Paul's most exciting times of the year was the draft," Petrie says. "He wanted to know everything about the college players. He was a thoughtful student of the game. He always researched things."
Allen was willing to foot the bill if he thought it would be beneficial to the team.
"One of the first drafts that we were involved with, I remember writing out 'decision trees' on the board," says Pritchard, now general manager of the Indiana Pacers. "I said, 'It could come down to A, B, C or D. Each one is going to cost a lot of money.'
"I remember Paul looking at me, deciding what he should go for. Finally he looked at everybody in the room, got a glimmer in his eyes and said, 'You know I'm an all-of-the-above kind of guy.' We spent $12 million in that draft to try to make the team better that year. He would spare no expense to try to acquire players."
One year at the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league, Allen went to dinner with Petrie and some of the Blazers' front-office types.
"With our staff, we'd always flip for the bill and the odd man paid," Petrie says. "That night, I had Bill Gates on my left, and Paul on my right. We flipped and I lost."
Just a 'regular guy'
Allen loved rock-and-roll and often was a member of his own band.
"He was a fabulous guitar player," Petrie says. "He played Jimi Hendrix's 'Hey Joe' at our wedding reception at Oregon Golf Club."
John Nash, the Blazers' general manager from 2003-06, saw Allen play guitar at a function for sponsors and stakeholders on one of his three yachts, which was docked along the Willamette River.
"That was such a contradiction," says Nash, retired and living in Philadelphia. "He would perform in front of a crowd playing a guitar, where he was much more comfortable than speaking in front of an audience."
Indeed, Allen was an introvert. I did one-on-one interviews with him many times over a 25-year period, the last time in 2013. I'm not sure he ever called me by name, but once our conversation began, it was just a couple of people talking about the NBA, and it seemed like I was shooting the breeze with a regular guy.
I wasn't alone. Stephanie Smith-Leckness, who served as flight attendant for the Blazers for nine years, told me for my upcoming book, "Jail Blazers — How the Portland Trail Blazers Became the Bad Boys of Basketball," that Allen used her name only one time.
"That was when I accidentally locked him in the bathroom (on the team plane)," Smith-Leckness says in the book. "I heard this 'ding, ding, ding.' Then I heard him screaming, 'Stephanie!' I ran back and opened up the door. He said, 'You locked me in the bathroom.' That was the one time he used my name."
"But I knew what my role was," Smith-Leckness says in the book. "I didn't care if he liked or didn't like me. Paul is super gifted, super smart, just socially inept. I wish he could have felt more comfortable. He'd spent thousands of dollars catering food he may or may not like, and then he was nervous about asking, 'Do you think I could have pizza on the way home tonight?'
"Really, he was a very nice man. I wasn't there to be a friend of his. I wasn't there to crack his shell."
Those around Allen understood he wasn't a people person.
"He was a very private person," Nash says. "He shunned the limelight. He preferred to work behind closed doors."
"His concentration at Microsoft had been in the development of software," Petrie says. "That world is computer code intense. He was spending 18 hours a day with his mind trained on trying to do that. He valued his privacy. Public attention and having to deal with the press and fans were a whole new world for him. Even around us, he spoke in computer terminology. He'd say things like, 'That's insufficient data.' "
"Paul was not the most adept at certain social skills," Patterson says. "He was shy. He didn't express himself emotionally all that well. That didn't mean he didn't possess those emotions."
Patterson recalls a reception for longtime season ticket-holders before a game at the Rose Garden.
"I asked him if he'd come talk to them," Patterson says. "[His] PR person didn't want him to, because they hadn't prepared notes for him. So I said, 'One of the two of us has to go talk to them.'"
Patterson proceeded to the room where the season ticket-holders were convened. As he started to move to the podium, he felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Allen.
"OK if I talk?" Allen said.
"It was like a little kid almost," Patterson says, chuckling. "He asked what he should say. I said, 'Talk about what it means to have been the owner for all these years.' He told a story of the first time he and his mother came to Memorial Coliseum, and what it meant to him to be able to enjoy those games with her all those years and with all those people in attendance.
"He picked a few people out of the crowd that he recognized and said something about them. It was totally off the cuff. When he was done, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I still get choked up thinking about it."
Pritchard grew close to Allen.
"At one time, we were as good friends as there are," Pritchard says. "In a comfortable situation, I found him to be incredibly witty and funny.
"He was very detailed and incredibly intelligent. Many times we'd be in a meeting, he would sit at his computer and be working on 16 different topics all at once. The rest of us would have a lone conversation going and think he was out of it. And suddenly he would say, 'Wait a minute. I don't know about that.' He was following our conversation all along. His ability to manage multiple things at one time was truly extraordinary."
Allen's incredible wealth opened a world of opportunity for him.
"I remember trying to reach him on trade deadline day one year," Nash says. "I got him on the phone and asked, 'Where are you?' He said, 'I'm touring the south of France.' You never knew where Paul was going to be or what he was going to be doing.
"I remember talking to people who worked for him on (the smallest of his three yachts). That yacht had 31 full-time employees. It was magnificent. The employees didn't have a planned schedule or agenda. They went where they were told to go when they were told to go. Paul was one of the very few people on the planet who had the means to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it."
Allen's third bout with cancer did him in. Until then, as Williams says, "he enjoyed life to the end."
And through his ownership and charitable endeavors and contributions in a variety of ways, Paul Allen made the world a better place, while choosing an NBA team as one of his priorities.
"He always had big ideas and a different perspective," Patterson says. "He was willing to take risks and try new and different things. That means some of the things you try work, and some don't. But I admire people willing to take chances, who are bold and do new and different things."
"It was rewarding for me to have had the opportunity to run across somebody like Paul," Petrie says. "He left one of the world's most powerful companies and went after a life he wanted to have separate from that. Not many people have that chance, and take it. You have to admire him for that."
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