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Steve Blake's Angry Ghost Will Haunt Portland Forever

Steve Blake has brought his grim, workaday playmaking and wild temper to Portland on three separate occasions. He won't be back this year. It's sadder than it seems.
Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This column could be about one of the many interesting things going on in the world right now, none of which have anything to do with basketball. It could be about:

  • The extremely depressing Presidential election season, but dressed up so it appears to be about sports.
  • Baseball, and how blazed you can get at the stadium without security taking away your piece.
  • The Olympics, infrastructural maleficence, disease, and, maybe, eventually, the sports that will be played there, provided everyone present doesn't get swamp flu and die in the street.
  • Civilization 6 hype, and the present and future of 4X strategy gaming in the 21st century and beyond.
  • The shambles of my personal life. Why don't I get out more? Maybe I need to do some online dating? Why is modern life so alienating for handsome guys like me?
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine


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But this column is mostly about basketball, and so it will not be about one of those things. Instead, let's get deep with one of the game's nasty men.


In the last month, America's Squad, the Portland Trail Blazers, re-signed their entire team, and also a few other players who weren't previously on the team, to giant contracts. With plenty of cap space and few true free agents expressing interest, no one was shortchanged. Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless, twin gods of inconsistency? FORTY MILLION. C.J. McCollum? MAXED OUT. Evan Turner? Sure, he might be bad, but money isn't even an object! Heed the call of the ALMIGHTY DOLLAR, baby! (Crowd snaps in response.)

For a certain type of Blazer fan, however, all these moves left a sadness in their bones. Because the roster is full and the cap filled to bursting, Blazers fans—or some weird ones, anyway—will not be able to see their hero on the court this year. He of the dead-eyed Juggalo stare. The bald head. That body, so haunted and doomed, constantly shifting back and forth between human life as we know it and a kind of beef-jerky limbo state. Yes: Steven Hanson Blake, from the University of Maryland.

Yeah baby. Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Steve and the Blazers haunt each other. He has signed with the team on three separate occasions. He keeps an offseason home in Lake Oswego or some such place. Every time he leaves, the whole Portland metro buzzes with a magnetic attraction, a compulsion, a heaving yearn for a return to home, and for home to return to them.


Despite all these new contracts and new faces, the Blazers and the world will remain out of proper balance. Blake will either go play somewhere else or, like, get into coaching. Either way, it will not happen in Portland, where he most belongs.

What made Portland love Steve Blake, other than the most obvious answer, which is also the actual reason Portland loves Steve Blake, which is that he is white? I have studied the clips of his various tenures with the Blazers, searching for answers.

Anger. We all feel it, all the time. Revenge consumes our days and haunts our dreams, and the only thing you can do to live in a society is to bundle up all those bad feelings and bury them, so you don't have to formally recognize them. It's sad and hard.

Would that we could all react to our co-workers and enemies by shoving them onto the ground, gaining a pall of malevolence and genuine danger as you glower over your opponent, lurching forward while people around you try to hold you back, to keep you safe from your own anger. But we cannot do that. We have to live in a civilization, and work in workplaces.

But once Steve Blake steps onto the hardwood, he is allowed to release the beast in any way he sees fit. He is unbound by normal societal convention, manners, laws both legislative and natural. Watch him lose his mind in a 2002 scrimmage—once the fists come out, there's no restraint, no humanity. He is consumed, by competition, ambition, anger.


When Blake knocks Kenneth Faried to the ground and stand over him glowering, he is declaring war upon his enemy's joy. Faried is such an optimistic young man, all smiles, rebounding, showy blocks, and good vibes. He is rich and successful and fun, and there's no way a rational person could hate or even resent him. But the deepest depths of our intellect are not rational, and when Steve Blake reacts to a marginal moving screen with rage and terror, we can feel our own rage, our own terror, flowing into and from him. It doesn't matter that, in a genuine fight, Faried would destroy Blake, tear a black hole in his chest, collapse him into nothingness. Blake surely knows this, too.

He's not alone in this. Any one of our problems could emerge from its cocoon at any time and poison and devour us. But to watch Blake confront power in this way is—well, it's more fun than watching him play basketball, and much more fun than sitting around and absorbing every minor slight and interruption. Instead, we watch Blake put all those slights paid, or at least do some lite sports-tussling with his ghost-white fists. It's drugs.

Former Blazer Steve Blake leaving new Blazer Evan Turner sucking dust on a pair of very slow, deliberate crossovers. Listen to Mike Barrett, newly relieved of his broadcasting duties, cry out in pleasure after Turner finds himself on the other side of the screen. Hold it in contrast to Blake, showing no pleasure in his triumph. He operates by a lifelong credo of non-excitement, grimness in the face of all possible on-court pleasures. Off the court, Steve is, by all appearances, a loving father and husband, a good teammate, a proper citizen who raises money for Rwandan children. On the floor, that all disappears.


There, he is the high priest of a bleak and terrible version of "playing the right way." Observe him in his dingy temple, surrounded by pillars of blue, frozen flame. His amulet is a red basketball, made from the hides of squirrels, the animal from which he manifests his on-court Spiritual Powers, and dyed deep red with the crushed petals of the "Blood flower."

And so, even when Blake unleashes his dark art on his soon-to-be-successor in Portland, you sense no joy, no happiness, only a monastic remove. When he does it again, on the next possession, and drills a three-pointer, you sense even less joy. He takes no pleasure in his comparatively sick move. No light leaves the crossover. There is just an ashamed Evan Turner, slid halfway across the wood, standing in that kooky, wide-sliding stance, beaten and depressed. It is a crossover of pure negativity. Only Mike Barrett, whose mood is controlled by the Blazers' performance, moment to moment, can bring himself to celebrate.

How long has Steve Blake been a league veteran? Was he ever truly a young player? Does his grim, slow-paced game suggest any youth at all? Where most players have youth slowly drained out of their body until they achieve a husk-like veteranhood, Blake was born this way. He is in control, but not explosive; he can shoot, but he is not lethal; he can dribble, but his driving is perfunctory and harmless. He can pass, but not with any particular flair or feel. He is solidly satisfactory across the board.

Watch him shuttle passes to LaMarcus Aldridge and Chris Kaman in 2014, fellow soldiers in the business of dull basketball. Except for his wide stance on that one-handed bounce pass—something that passes for in Steve Blake's world—he and his partners are nothing but machines built to create two points, time and again. They have played the game so long, for so many hours, with so much discipline, that they are now wrung dry of spontaneity or joy. The art of the game, the style that makes basketball worth watching, has been flushed in favor of determinism and organization. This is not what any of them are really like as people, we can presume, but on the court, Blake has abandoned the ways of youth and devoted himself, totally and without reservation, to professionalism in search of victory.

For decades, Portland was that kind of city, too. One where you marched to a log factory or whatever and grimly led out your life, sawing shit. Have you ever been to Camas, 20 minutes away from the city? I have, and there's a big fucking paper mill there that smells like a chlorinated asshole. But in Portland those days are gone, swept away on a tide of affluent youth and a new American economic paradigm. Yet there remains a current of romanticism for those old times, before bullshit and money made the world into a playground. Steve Blake and his stilted, dour, on-court joylessness evoked and represented those old times to everyone who watched. Even if he keeps getting traded, Portland can't quit the feeling.

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