By the time Paul Allen died Monday, he had spent 30 of his 65 years as owner of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Allen bought the Blazers from Larry Weinberg in 1988 for $70 million when the team was starting to outgrow the Memorial Coliseum.
Allen worked with the City of Portland to build the Rose Garden - now known as the Moda Center - and build the Blazers’ value to an estimated $1.3 billion, according to an analysis by Forbes Magazine.Along the way, the Blazers appeared in the NBA Finals twice, reached the Western Conference Finals three additional times, and completed a string of 21 seasons with a postseason appearance. It was under Allen’s leadership that Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter challenged Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Finals.
Allen also endured the “Jail Blazers” era, when players periodically showed up on police blotters for drug possession, speeding and violence. And while the Blazers’ post-season streak ended in 2003, he helped the team start a new string of consecutive appearances, uninterrupted since 2014.
But the Blazers fell short of Allen’s ultimate goal of winning another NBA championship (Portland’s only title was before Allen’s tenure, in 1977.)
At an emotional press conference Tuesday, team officials talked about how Allen was different from other sports team owners. General Manager Neil Olshey said the last conversation he had with Allen was the night before the Blazers’ first preseason game. He said Allen called him from a hospital bed to talk about a different NBA game the billionaire was watching.
“It never even occurred to me to watch the Clipper-Minnesota game, opening night of preseason — and it was on the heels of him already having watched our practice, having watched the Milwaukee preseason game,” Olshey recalled with a laugh.
“I think he just got a really good burst of energy from his treatment and he wanted to talk basketball.”
Olshey said the Portland Trail Blazers under Allen was a “small market team with a big market owner.”
“He said to me one game, ‘We don’t have a kids’ area in our arena, I want you to develop a kids’ zone,’” McGowan said, crediting Allen with prompting the creation of a kids’ area in the upper level of the Moda Center.
“He’s like ‘Go do it, tell me what it’ll take.’”
That same ethic applied to improving the team. Under Allen’s ownership, the Blazers regularly had one of the highest team payrolls in the NBA.
Olshey said the message from Allen was always that the team should make whatever personnel moves were necessary to improve and be ready for adversity. Olshey didn’t have to worry about the cost.
“Paul always felt there’s got to be one more guy - the money doesn’t matter - there’s got to be one more guy that you need,” said Olshey.
With Allen’s passing, Blazer fans are wondering: what does the absence of one of professional sports’ wealthiest owners, and a constant presence on the Blazers’ sideline, mean for the city’s highest-profile team?
Short-term, the Blazers say nothing has changed.
When Allen announced he was stepping away from the team to receive treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he said: “I have confidence in the leadership teams to manage their ongoing operations during my treatment.”
“We’re going to move forward, and try to get it to ‘business as usual,’ as quick as possible,” McGowan said. “Obviously we have opening night in a couple days and we’ve been told to continue doing what we were doing.”
Olshey also wanted to convey a sense that the Blazers were not a rudderless ship when it comes to possibly trading or signing players, as the season begins without Paul Allen.
The longer-term answer is less clear.
The last time an NBA owner died was just over a month ago, when the Orlando Magic’s owner, Richard DeVos died. He left the team to family members, many of whom were involved with the team for years beforehand.
The Trail Blazers directed inquiries to Vulcan, the Seattle-based organization that Allen created in 1986 to coordinate his philanthropic and investment work. Vulcan provided no details.
“Paul thoughtfully addressed how the many institutions he founded and supported would continue after he was no longer able to lead them,” Vulcan officials wrote late Monday.
“We will continue to work on furthering Paul’s mission and the projects he entrusted to us,” the statement continued. “There are no changes imminent for Vulcan, the teams, the research institutes or museums.”
At the Tuesday press conference, Olshey and McGowan declined to clarify whether Vulcan or the Allen estate own the team.
“I think those details will come out, right now, we don’t have all of those details,” said McGowan.
Some media reports have put the focus squarely on Allen’s sister Jody, and based on unnamed sources at Vulcan, suggest she’s interested in owning the Seattle Seahawks, but not the Portland Trail Blazers.
One option for the Blazers is for the Allen estate or Vulcan to sell the team — and discussion of a sale immediately brings up the possibility of the team moving. That’s what happened a decade ago when the Seattle Supersonics got a new owner and the team relocated to Oklahoma City.
The Sonics’ move was driven in large part by a conflict between team owners and the city of Seattle over potential renovations to the team’s home, the Key Arena.
No one is complaining about the Moda Center, a centrally-located arena near the middle of Portland. It was literally the house that Allen built, as both team and city officials have been quick to point out this week.
“To build what’s now the Moda Center and the Rose Quarter with no public funding, because he believed in this team and this market, and he felt like we could win here,” Olshey said.
Moving out of the Moda Center would involve the Blazers owners renegotiating or terminating their lease. Less than 24 hours after Allen’s death, city officials most familiar with these agreements hadn’t dug into the details of what such moves would mean.
“It’s pretty complicated and to be perfectly honest, we are just starting our own review of that,” said Susan Hartnett, the spectator venues manager at the Portland’s Office of Management and Finance.
“We’re not necessarily anticipating that [ending the lease] is going to happen.”
Hartnett said the city has four agreements with the Trail Blazers, a development agreement that encompasses the Rose Quarter, two ground leases involving the land where the Moda Center and its nearby businesses are run, and an operating agreement including the Memorial Coliseum. The operating agreement expires in 2023, and the ground leases are up in 2025.
Hartnett said based on timelines alone, she would anticipate the city and the companies involved would renegotiate these agreements in the near future.
“As we’re coming into the last five-to-seven years of these agreements, we are all cognizant that we’re going to have to sit at the table and have a conversation,” Hartnett said.
“From the city’s perspective, we would look to continue the partnership and what we have done, the last 23 years.”
Blazers’ officials described the “Paul Allen era” as certainly being influenced by the owner’s significant wealth, but also by Allen’s deep personal interest and passion for basketball.
Olshey and McGowan said one of Allen’s proudest seasons with the Trail Blazers was the 2015-16 year. Just before the season began, star forward LaMarcus Aldridge declined to renew his contract with the Blazers and instead signed with a Western Conference rival, the San Antonio Spurs. Team officials said NBA pundits wrote off the Blazers’ chances and predicted they’d likely miss the playoffs. Instead, Portland reached the postseason and defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round — a personal coup for Microsoft co-founder Allen, because it meant defeating the team owned by Steve Balmer, another former Microsoft exec, and then competing with the heavily favored Golden State Warriors.
“It was a little bit of a sibling rivalry,” Olshey recalled Tuesday. “The Clippers had three All-NBA players on their roster, and to get into Golden State, which is Silicon Valley’s darlings, and he basically created Silicon Valley with Bill Gates.”
In this case, it wasn’t Allen’s money that bailed out the Blazers. It was the team’s approach, including Allen’s constant video and statistical research, all with the aim of beating other teams to the best, undiscovered talent. Top of that list is the Blazers’ All-Star point guard Damian Lillard — who was picked from the lesser-known Weber State to become the team’s star in the wake of Aldridge’s departure. And pairing Lillard with Terry Stotts — a coach who’d spent years as an assistant coach, but appeared ready to run his own team when the Blazers signed him.
“Emotionally, it was tough for [Allen] — when LaMarcus left, it put us on a completely different timeline — Paul didn’t know how quickly we were going to get back to what his level of expectation is,” said Olshey.
“Remember, we’re talking about a guy who made the playoffs 23 out of 30 years,” and became one of the most successful owners in league history, judged by wins and losses.
Allen was eagerly anticipating the start of this season in a few days. Team officials said it will be emotionally hard starting the season without Allen courtside — and perhaps talking to the team before opening night.
Vulcan and the Trail Blazers said they are planning to honor Allen’s memory in multiple ways this season, beginning opening night on Thursday. McGowan mentioned a possible uniform patch, and a special video before Thursday’s game. Teams have already honored Allen with a moment of silence before other games, acknowledging Allen’s loss and enduring contribution to the NBA.
And Allen’s courtside seat? For now, it’ll remain empty.