How the Portland Trail Blazers Won by Losing

Elwanda Tulloch

After a nail-wrecking set of qualifying games, three playoff rows, one unlikely win, a Damian Lillard knee sprain, a whole heap of bizarre Mario Hezonja plays, a brief wildcat strike, and a Dame-less contest where they left it all on the court, the Portland Trail Blazers’ season is over. In […]

After a nail-wrecking set of qualifying games, three playoff rows, one unlikely win, a Damian Lillard knee sprain, a whole heap of bizarre Mario Hezonja plays, a brief wildcat strike, and a Dame-less contest where they left it all on the court, the Portland Trail Blazers’ season is over. In a way, it was a metaphor for the whole season: they came, they tried, they threw out all the gambits they had, but they just didn’t have the players they needed to make the magic happen.

The Blazers’ brief playoff berth is probably the strangest in history, only earned because of the colossal failure of the modern American state coming to a head when a once-every-100-years global health crisis left the entire country reeling and gave them time to get Jusuf Nurkic back and reduce Hassan Whiteside’s minutes in the qualifiers.

They almost didn’t lose their way out of the playoffs at all, simply because the league’s experiment in confined play nearly ended because police officers in Wisconsin shot a man in the back seven times for no clear reason, leading the ennui of life in the playoff bubble to overflow and nearly drive the players marching out of Orlando altogether. The old president talked them out of it. 

The Blazers might have lost, but it’s hard to be too sad. First off, they were playing with house money. Every extra game they managed in the bubble was bonus content, freebies. All emotional upside. Proof of concept, showing the world that, yes, they actually would have been good if they were giving Nurk’s minutes to Nurk. Through the whims of fate, they achieved way, way more than could have been expected in, like, February. You could theoretically be thankful for that. I guess. As thankful as you could be for anything, right now.

And even if the Blazers lost—the worst thing you can do in sports, at least—now, they’re liberated from the bubble. I am thankful for this janked-up version of basketball where every defense is totally dysfunctional and you don’t have to see disgusting fans sitting courtside and calling Kyle Lowry a piece of shit. But I have to admit that it is an aggressively dystopian setup—neoliberalism taken to its most extreme conclusion, where, even though we can’t seem to do anything to combat the pandemic at large or improve society at all, billionaires looking to recoup a loss can partner with their broadcast partners to engineer a massive, sealed-off social bubble deep in pandemic-ravaged Florida, and manage to avoid consequences when the world they lord over manifests an incident so hideous that it nearly chased their assets out of the fucked-up little world they made.

The Blazers failed to win at basketball, but in a much larger way, they have won, because they get to leave the bubble, see their families again, and order takeout from somewhere that isn’t owned by all-time rent-seeking douche, Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta. Sure, their names wont be cast in gold in the history of the game, they won’t be remembered as heroes who brought joy to Portland in dark times. But they get to leave, and finally opt out of the nightmare they’ve been shoved into.

After Avengers: Endgame came out in 2019, I began to swirl an idle thought around in my dome. I thought about the primary, the election, everything I knew I was going to be subjected to, all the myriad irritations I was going to confront over the course of the upcoming year. I was unnerved, exhausted, and I just got done watching the only thing I had been looking forward to even a little bit. I thought, “Hey, if I could, I would definitely go into a coma right now that lasted until the election was over.” What I didn’t know, at the time, was that it would end up being exponentially worse than I could imagine, in every conceivable way, a living nightmare of fear and violence and death with no end in sight that would even infect my dreams.

And so, I come here not to bury the Blazers, but to celebrate their exit from their own personal nightmare. Hopefully, someday, we can all follow their example and lose the games in our lives and leave the bubble we are all trapped in—day after day, horror after horror.

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