Paul Allen paraded through Seattle with the new Super Bowl champions on Wednesday, completing an experience that few team owners can dare to imagine. He brought the Lombardi Trophy to the place where he grew up, the city where he and Bill Gates had huddled together over their prep school's lone computer terminal. He had kept the franchise in town 17 years earlier, when the previous owner threatened to move it, and the 2013 Seahawks ended 35 years without a major pro sports title for Seattle.
About 175 miles down the Interstate-5 corridor, followers of Allen's first pro team had to wonder how soon they might stage a similar parade, ending a drought that goes back to 1977. The Portland Trail Blazers, the wonderkids out of the NBA gate this season, have cooled off in the last six weeks, but they remain something of a revelation. They sat at 35-14, two wins ahead of their total for all of last season, and in third place in the Western Conference after Wednesday's 94-90 win in New York, which ended a four-game road losing streak.
They have gone 11-9 since Dec. 27, after a 24-5 start. At the time, general manager Neil Olshey knew exactly how to describe the Blazers' feverish pace. "Yes,'' he said, ''this is still a small sample size.''
With that in mind, Olshey said he considered the franchise slightly ahead of schedule during its second season of reconstruction under him and head coach Terry Stotts. The rehab project sounds similar to the one Pete Carroll undertook with the Seahawks four seasons ago. In Seattle, yoga, meditation and the relative benevolence of Carroll set the tone, and a roster full of young, undervalued players over-delivered. In Portland, the front-office slogan has become "player first,'' a philosophy that encompasses everything from an upgrade of the training facilities to a deeper commitment to nutrition to iPads on the bench to seeking input on decisions large and small from LaMarcus Aldridge, the most experienced member of the Blazers' core.
"LaMarus was kept aware of every move on the offseason,'' Olshey said. "… When I was with the Clippers, I ran things by Blake (Griffin) because he was our franchise player, and by Chris (Paul) and Chauncey (Billups). And it wasn't to appease them. I really respected their opinions. Why wouldn't you utilize their basketball IQ?''
The offseason priorities were building a stronger bench, finding a new center and a point guard to spell Damian Lillard, who led the NBA in minutes played (38.6 per game) as a rookie in 2012-13. They got Robin Lopez to take up space in the middle, and as a bonus added his Stanford degree (mimicking the Seahawks' fondness for the school) and a character quirky enough to suit the city's unofficial motto: Keep Portland Weird. "I'm weird as hell,'' he told the Bay Area News Group. "So it goes hand in hand.''
The Blazers also brought in guard Mo Williams, who currently averages 24.2 minutes in support of Lillard. The starter has dropped down to 36.1 minutes a game and, with the presence of another ballhandler, reduced some of the intensity embedded in each minute. It has, according to his coach, allowed an already preternaturally mature player to grow as a professional.
"Last year, he was just doing it on talent and will. Now this year, I think he's figured out the league a little bit more,'' Stotts said. "When you're used to playing 39 minutes, you don't have to figure out the game, you just know you're going to be out there.''
If the long-range plan for this franchise works out optimally, Allen could become the first owner of both a Super Bowl and NBA champion. Owners have doubled up on other major trophies - most notably Jerry Reinsdorf with the Jordan-era Bulls and the 2005 White Sox. But until Allen bought the Seahawks in 1997, the NFL had prohibited crossover ownership. Now, an owner may have two teams in the same media market, or a second one in a market without an NFL team. Tom Benson in New Orleans took advantage of the rule to acquire the Pelicans as well as the Saints.
The Microsoft co-founder has been more visible with the Trail Blazers, whom he has owned since 1988, and he recently told the New York Times: "In Portland, I am more involved in the details of trade discussions because I've been around that sport longer and can watch tape and can give some input to the drafting process. In football, not at all. It's so specialized."
When the Blazers brought Lillard in for a pre-draft workout and interviews, Allen led a group of executives taking Weber State's star to dinner.
"He sat at a dinner surrounded by Paul Allen, a new general manager and eight other front-office members,'' Olshey said, "and carried himself with such aplomb that I walked out and said to Paul: 'I know, I feel like I did when I met Chauncey Billups. There's just something about him you can't quantify, but I know you need it to build a winning organization.''
The Blazers have been tagged as one of the NBA's more sophisticated subscribers to the lessons of advanced metrics, but both Stotts and Olshey also talk avidly about a great source of disdain among devotees of analytics.
"I think chemistry breeds winning, winning doesn't breed chemistry,'' Olshey said. "We want a 'better than a sum of its parts' team.''
Going into this season, the Blazers needed to improve defensively, upgrading at least to a level of adequacy. In their win over the Knicks, they were able to survive frigid shooting from their two All-Stars, Aldridge and Lillard, a near-impossibility last season, even against one of the NBA's weaklings.
Of course, last season is no longer a proper standard for the Blazers. They're still a year or two away from measuring themselves against the boss's other team up north. But the Seattle celebration spoke to Pacific Northwest pride, and it winked in their direction.