September 25, 2022

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is an avid Portland Trail Blazers fan. He didn’t enjoy the team’s fruitless basketball season much, which began with the loss of Damian Lillard to a season-ending injury and ended with many more losses.

But he thinks he can give the Blazers a long-lasting victory.

The success he seeks? Confirmation that the Blazers will stay in Portland after their Moda Center lease expires in 2025. There is huge investor interest in NBA franchises these days, including billionaires up north who are still reeling from the jaw-dropping relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2008 to Oklahoma City.

On July 5, Blazers president Jody Allen denied that she was actively buying the team. “There is no set schedule,” Allen said in a statement.

Wyden, who earned a basketball scholarship to the University of California, Santa Barbara, has an unusual attraction with the NBA, thanks to his long friendship with league commissioner Adam Silver. As Wyden recovered from a recent bout with COVID-19 (the senator took Paxlovid and says he’s fully recovered), he spoke to WW in an interview mainly devoted to sports.

He told us he’s been thinking a lot about the team lately. It’s because of Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s candidacy for the team and also because he’ll be speaking later this week at the belated memorial service for Blazers co-founder Harry Glickman. passed away in June 2020 at the age of 96.

WW: Tell me about your relationship with Harry Glickman.

Ron Wyden: Harry was responsible for sending me to the former Soviet Union in hopes of bringing [Blazer great] Arvydas Sabonis. It was straight out of a Rocky film. These huge guys are sitting around the table, officials of the Soviet sports federation. And I show up with all these papers: “Gentlemen, I’m here to present a document from senior officials of the Portland Trail Blazers, [owner] Mr. Larry Weinberg and Mr. Harry Glickman, clarifying that Sabonis will play for Portland. He will receive exceptional medical care. He will be housed in a beautiful residence. You know, all that stuff. I got angry and gave my little speech. And a guy straight out of the Rocky movies would say “niet” and then I would get all excited and do it again. After the third nyet, I was looking for the door. [Editor’s note: Sabonis played for the Blazers from 1995 to 2003.]

It’s an unusual job for an elected official.

Harry was a gift to our community, and the Blazers meant so much to the city. We had a love affair for almost five decades. And I’m as determined as Dame is when it comes to the hoop that the love affair continues. I spoke to Adam Silver about the importance of keeping the franchise in Portland. And I want us to get a WNBA team. Harry opened all those doors. At his service on Friday, I’m going to tell people it’s up to us to keep them open.

How do you know Adam Silver?

Adam interned for [former U.S. Rep.] The AuCoins (D-Oré.). So I have known him for many, many years. When we talk, we often think of Les and Oregon. What I told the commissioner is that no one has a more reliable and rabid fanbase than Portland. I argue that NBA basketball can’t just be about the big cities on the East Coast and California. Midsize and smaller markets like Portland, they need to know that the league is committed to them. Harry Glickman knew this in the 70s.

What does money say?

Adam is a longtime friend. I won’t go into all the details, but I was really pleased with his statement that he understood how important it is to have the club in Portland. I also made it clear that I was watching the process, because if you can get the Sonics to leave Seattle out of nowhere for Oklahoma City, you can’t let your guard down.

So what happens next?

Well, it’s such good news that Phil Knight has expressed interest in owning the club. And, without getting into those discussions, I’ve spoken to Phil often over the years about how important it is for the Blazers to stay.

Did you have any communications with Allen?

No.

Team owners often leverage fan affection for tax breaks. How to avoid this?

No one asked me for a grant. I see it as my job to set the temperature so clubs say, ‘Hey, this is the kind of place we want to be.’

You mentioned your hope for a WNBA franchise. Tell me more.

Portland is a mecca for women’s sports. You have an outstanding turnout for the Thorns. I can only imagine what the crowds would be like if [former University of Oregon star] Sabrina Ionescu or some of those old UO or [Oregon State University] the players returned to Portland. A Portland WNBA franchise would be a natural rival for the Seattle Storm. That would help the Blazers’ new owners with 18 to 20 more home dates. And when we celebrate the anniversary of Title IX, it’s a great opportunity beyond basketball.

Does Commissioner Silver or others have any idea when we will know the fate of the Blazers?

I can’t go into specifics, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of talk going on right now.

Easier Question: Rate the Blazers’ summer moves.

Jerami Grant has played very well for the [Detroit] Pistons. He helps us upstream. That’s a big plus. [Shaedon] Sharpe looks like a very promising young man. I like that the Blazers quit [Anfernee Simons] a lot. Nurk looks healthy and Dame looks healthy. I think the Blazers can make some noise.

You helped former Blazer Enes Kanter Freedom when Turkey targeted him. Is the NBA blackballing him now for his criticism of China?

I don’t know enough about all the discussions that took place with Enes and Boston and the league. I saw it several times and we were going to meet again, but that’s when I got COVID. He really is an honest, moral and principled guy. And I think he will stand up for human rights for many years to come.

Question not related to basketball: What do you remember from the January 6 hearings?

Cassidy Hutchinson was mesmerizing. It was telling the truth, and that was extraordinarily important. When she said, for example, that Trump knew the crowd was armed and said to remove the magnetometers? I said, Holy Moly, this is a mind-blowing discovery. I mean, how does it get any clearer than that? And I’ll tell you something else. I was there on January 6th. And when I’m in the Senate and they knock on doors, I thought, “That doesn’t happen in the United States. And now, after last week’s testimony, I think the odds of making sure that doesn’t happen again are getting better.