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Originally published Saturday, April 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Blazermania: Portland falls back in love with Trail Blazers

Led by Brandon Roy, coach Nate McMillan, Blazers are back in playoffs for first time since 2003.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Today

Houston @ Portland,

7:30 p.m., ESPN

Full playoff schedule > C9

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PORTLAND — So this is what Blazermania looks like. Red, black and white everywhere.

After a five-year absence, the Blazers are returning to the playoffs, and Portland threw the team a party unlike any celebration this city has seen in a long time.

Beneath blue skies, roughly 10,000 Blazers fans crowded into downtown's Pioneer Courthouse Square, where they danced to 1970s music and cheered for their favorite players during a three-hour rally Thursday afternoon.

Team marketers called it an uprising in Rip City, but it felt more like a basketball revival hearkening to the Blazers' glorious past when Maurice Lucas and Bill Walton delivered an NBA championship in 1977, the city's only major professional sports title.

"When we first pulled up, I was thinking, 'All of this for making the playoffs?' " two-time All-Star Brandon Roy said onstage, as "M-V-P" chants echoed blocks away to the banks of the Willamette River. "I can only imagine what a championship will bring."

When it comes to Portland and the Trail Blazers, their relationship is essentially a classic love story: City meets NBA team. They fall in love. They fight and threaten to break up. And they get back together again.

Consider Thursday's rally the reunited portion of their 39-year, sometimes-rocky romance.

"People here live and die for the Portland Trail Blazers," said David Harris, 57, a North Portland native. "That's what we do because it's the only pro team we've got."

Adam Ross, a 25-year-old retail manager, has waited a long time for this day. It wasn't just the rally that attracted him and his 18-month-old son, Connor, but rather the chance to cheer for a team that he could be proud of.

"There was a time I was almost embarrassed to say I was a fan," said Ross, a Boring, Ore., resident. "I was a closet fan. I would watch games on TV, but I wouldn't buy tickets or the gear. It was hard to claim them back then, but things are completely different now."

These Blazers, led by Roy and coach Nate McMillan, are the anti-Jail Blazers, their alter ego in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those teams disregarded the league's soft salary cap and adopted a win-at-all costs mentality that nearly killed Blazermania after a series of player arrests and run-ins with law enforcement.

"It feels like the locker room in here is a lot more together than it was," said forward Travis Outlaw, the longest-tenured Blazer. "Everybody can get on each other. If another guy is doing something wrong, then you're more willing to help [rather] than sit back and watch. Before it was kind of like, 'You're on your own.' "

It wasn't just Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, Ruben Patterson, J.R. Rider, et al, who threatened to ruin the Blazers' relationship with Portland.

In 2004, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, ranked by Forbes the third-richest man in the United States, put the Rose Garden into bankruptcy when the city wouldn't help bail him out. Back then, rumors circulated that Allen, who owns the Seahawks, had become more infatuated with the NFL and was looking to sell the Blazers and perhaps buy the cash-strapped Sonics.

During an interview Wednesday, Allen described the Blazers as "my first love" and gave no indication he ever considered leaving Portland.

"Some number of years ago when things were going in the opposite direction, a lot of people were disenchanted with our players and how they played on and off the court," Allen said. "I just made a decision that we were going to go in a different direction, and so we were going to get players that reflected that new direction and bring in some different coaches."

The reclamation project began in 2005 when Allen hired McMillan, while entrusting Kevin Pritchard, now the team's general manager, to skillfully rework the roster through the draft, trades and free agency.

"When I first got here, there were no fans that showed up to a game, but now they are definitely behind us," Outlaw said.

Wednesday's 104-76 victory over Denver marked the 68th consecutive sellout, dating to Dec. 21, 2007.

The win also gave Portland a share of the Northwest Division title, their first title since 1999, and guaranteed the fourth-seeded Blazers home-court advantage against No. 5 Houston in their first-round series, which begins today.

These are happy days in the City of Roses.

The 54-28 Blazers have the most wins for a McMillan-coached team, surpassing the 52-30 record he posted during his final season in Seattle in 2004-05. It's also the most Blazers victories since the 1999-2000 season, when they advanced to the Western Conference finals.

Not even the most die-hard Blazers fan expects a similar run to the conference championship this year. Portland is the youngest team in the playoffs, which suggests many more playoff appearances are in its future and the team's rekindled love affair will continue to burn.

"I was a part of the Washington turnaround and that was great, but it was not like this," Roy said. "Man, these people are really into it. They love the Blazers. They feel like they are a part of it, like they are really on this team. Like they got numbers and lockers and everything.

"I've never seen anything like this in my life. Everybody kind of warned me that when you guys get it going, it's crazy. But I didn't imagine it would be like this. I mean, I can't go anywhere."

Roy's heart belongs to Seattle, but the longer he remains in Oregon, the former Garfield High and Huskies star is becoming entrenched in this community that adores him.

"It really hit me my rookie year when I went to an Oregon State game," Roy said. "Just the year before I was a Husky and they booed me. I mean they were cussing at me and everything.

"A year later, I walk into the gym and they went crazy. They chanted my name. And I'm like, 'Man, that's crazy.' And that let me know these people couldn't care less about what happened in college. All they cared about was I was doing good for the Blazers, and they loved me for it. That connection between this team and this city, it's incredible."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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