From Damian Lillard to Scottie Pippen, Portland has always been a basketball town. And one shop in the Hawthorne District aims to spread that love even further. Back to The Basket, a retail shop owned by Grand Ronde tribal member Troy Douglass, opened in the middle of the pandemic. The shop aims to cultivate a space that connects to the inner-child basketball fan. It offers apparel, collectibles, basketball items and more.
OPB’s Paul Marshall talked with Back to The Basket’s owner, Troy Douglass.
Paul Marshall: You’ve mentioned in the past that a lot of your gear is from the ‘90s. Why the ‘90s?
Troy Douglass: I think the ‘90s was such a good time for sports, obviously with Michael Jordan leading the way. When you think about logos, a lot of people’s favorites are from the ‘90s. There’s just something about it. It had an old-school vibe, but it also had this new youthful wave.
The music of that era was hip hop which was coming to the mainstream. The ‘90s was my childhood and for a lot of people that are in this weird millennial group, that was our childhood.
Marshall: The name of the store is Back To The Basket and it’s gone through a couple of changes. Why the change? And what does the new name mean to you now?
Douglass: When we first opened up this business, it was called Ball Was Life and it’s a satire of Ball Is Life. Ball Is Life is not only a phrase but it’s also a media company that has become very large in basketball culture. Ball Was Life was the name of our store, but it also kind of held this weight of satire because what I was trying to do was tell the perspective of basketball from somebody that was becoming past their prime. So Ball Was Life was the store name. The company Ball Is Life sent us a cease and desist letter almost a year ago. We had to pivot and change our name. So Back To The Basket is our current name and I really like that one.
There were about 30 to 50 names that I had written down on a piece of paper and I had a set of criteria. One of the criteria’s was does it fit the store aesthetically with what we do as a store. One of the names was like “Over the Hill” or something and I was like, no, it doesn’t say basketball. I needed to have basketball in the name. Back To The Basket was chosen and I really like that because I like to build stories.
The story that I was building was obviously: we’re changing the name due to the cease and desist. Back To The Basket was a triple-double entendre and like the triple-double part, obviously that’s the basketball reference.
But Back To The Basket, when you first hear that you probably think of Shaquille O’Neal or Karl Malone or the nineties basketball when you throw the ball into the big man and the game was played with your back to the basket. That was the first meaning of the triple-double entendre.
The second one was being at the age that I am 33 now. I’ll be 34 in the summertime. I’m that guy that’s becoming past my prime. So I’m walking away from the game. So my back is literally towards the basket. I’m walking away from the game.
I’m also at this age where I’m not too far away from it, I still got it. and so when the young fellas start chirping and start talking, I’m coming back to the basket.
It’s this tug and pull and that’s what I love about it. This whole store from its inception was always intergenerational. You have the youth and then you have this old school and it’s beautiful because when you see a father and son walk in and they both enjoy the store in different ways. But then they find something that’s similar that they both enjoy, it’s really cool.
Marshall: How did COVID impact the store?
Douglass: We actually opened up mid-2020 so mid-pandemic of that first year.
It made it difficult for foot traffic driving people to the store just because people were being cautious. Before we opened the store, it opened up the opportunity for us to locate ourselves here, because with COVID everyone was having a hard time, but the space opened up. Two doors down was a tattoo shop called Tattoo 34. I knew the owner and he actually called me and was like Clogs-N-More is leaving and it would be super cool to have you in the building.
First couple of years were good because people were high about the memories and the nostalgia and maybe taking them away from the current time place of being in a COVID time period and taking them to their childhood.
Marshall: You had a store called Cultural Blends at the Lloyd Center Mall. Can you explain the relationship between Cultural Blends and Back To The Basket?
Douglass: Without Cultural Blends, there’s no Back To The Basket. That was my first endeavor and it really was based on a philosophy that if you can learn about other people’s cultures that are different than your own, you will find common bonds, and within those common bonds, it can just slightly tighten the fabric of humanity. That was the idea.
It wasn’t like trying to do anything too crazy. It was just saying you learn about other people’s cultures, and so I tried to weave in that message through the products that I put out. For the resources that I had, I did that well enough because people could feel my heart and soul in it. And even if they maybe didn’t love the products, you know, they liked or loved the person enough where they spent $30 on the T-shirt and that’s super important.
In the products that I created within Cultural Blends a lot of times, it related to basketball. I put out this 1977 hat that Damian Lillard actually wore the day after he hit the 0.9 shot against the Houston Rockets (in 2014), which is actually coming up on the ninth-year anniversary. He hit that shot and he wore my hat that I had given to him months earlier.
I was trying to get that 1977 hat into the Moda Center, that entire season.
The buyer during that time was politely just telling me no. I’d follow up with an email and they’d be like, “Hey Troy, if we’re interested, we’ll reach out to you.” But when Dame wore the hat, it went completely viral. It went on ESPN and it was on all the local stations. Everyone was asking where you get that hat and during that time Cultural Blends didn’t even have our own domain name for our website. It was still cultural blends dot big cartel dot com and I had eight hats in inventory.
Within a minute they all sold because my friends were putting that cultural blends dot big cartel dot com into the comments and it was just spamming the comments. A couple of my friends actually got kicked off the page on Facebook. It went viral. The Blazers called up on a completely different tone and said we’re very, very happy to have the hats in the Moda Center. So I had to scramble to get hats to game three and I wasn’t able to get it to game three because I was working on pre-existing orders.
We sold 300 hats that day and I only had eight hats in inventory. So my embroiderer was just working and you can only make like 88 hats a day. But we got it done. It was amazing.
Marshall: When basketball fans walk in the store, does it overwhelm them?
Douglass: It overwhelms them with joy, which is great. It’s so much easier to interact with someone who loves the game than someone that comes in asking, “What is this? What’s going on?” because then it kind of defeats the fun of it. You kind of have to explain that we’re a basketball-themed store.
It feels good because when you put together a store you kind of reverse engineer, where you’re like, okay, how are they gonna react when they see this? And so when it happens the way that you envision it in a way that is really satisfying.
Marshall: What are some of the more popular items? Are they all Blazer items?
Douglass: Blazer items are popular because we’re here in Portland and I think most of our customers are still local folk. Bill Walton stuff does great with the older crowd. Even some of the like middle-aged [and] younger crowd.
I would say anything Rasheed Wallace or Brandon Roy does well. Obviously, Dame does well.
You do get a lot of people from traveling cities. [Seattle Super] Sonic stuff does great too because we get a lot of folks looking for Sonic stuff. That sells really quickly.
It’s crazy when the Blazers play the Lakers. It seems like half the arena is in Lakers gear. We got a lot of people that are coming from different parts of Oregon that are certainly not Blazer fans. And so when the Lakers play, you can definitely sense it because they come in and they’re all decked out or they’re looking for something to add to their collection.
Marshall: Why do you think this store resonates with so many people?
Douglass: I think there’s a truthfulness to what we do. I think the love of the game is pure. I think it just carries so much weight, truthfully.
People love their teams. What we do and who we are: we love the game. People see that truthfully when they walk in here, they know that there’s somebody in here.
We try to have everyone in here that works here love the game. It’s really just a love for the game. I think that’s the true difference between our stores.
When you walk in, you can feel like someone loves the game here and for people that feel that same thing, you know, it’s like they’re coming into their own community.
They’re walking into a place where they know they belong because they love the game the same way. So I think there’s just a lot of people where it’s a shared subculture.