Paul Allen, the NBA's Portland Trailblazers, and building a team


When Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, died in October, I decided to read his 2011 Memoir, Idea Man. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Seven years after co-founding Microsoft with childhood friend Bill Gates, Paul was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He left Microsoft, already a very wealthy individual. A few years after successful treatment and recovery, he bought the Portland Trailblazers NBA basketball franchise.

In 1994, Paul Allen hired Bob Whitsitt as the Trailblazers general manager, to rebuild the team. Whitsitt focused solely on basketball skills in his hiring.

What follows is a cautionary tale for anyone building a team - skill is critical, but it’s important to consider team fit, character, balance, diversity, resiliency, empathy, etc… The following passage from the book describes one of those worst-case scenarios of a team built solely on skill:

Whitsitt proceeded to overhaul our aging roster as he’d done in Seattle, drafting young athletes with upside and adding big-name veterans.

He openly professed that he cared only about talent, to the exclusion of character and other intangibles. “I didn’t take chemistry in college,” he told the media. With enough physical ability on the floor, team cohesion would take care of itself. It was a risky assumption for a sport in which five men share one ball.

With hindsight, Whitsitt temporarily staved off decline by using my wallet to load up on pricey long-term contracts, players who were available because they were overpaid or had off-court issues or both.

When you come so close to winning a championship, as we had in the early nineties, it makes you that much hungrier because you know what the Finals taste like. It was the same for Whitsitt, who was desperate to validate his approach with a title. We were perpetually one big-salaried veteran away from contention, and our payroll ballooned. Deep down I knew that something was wrong. In the playoffs, when the pressure peaks and higher-caliber opponents target your weaknesses, a player’s makeup is revealed in performance. In the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, we fell behind three games to one and then fought back to earn a deciding seventh game. Up fifteen points in the final quarter, it looked as though we were headed to the NBA Finals against Indiana, whom I thought we could beat. When I watch my team in the playoffs, I get superstitious; I try not to think about how much I want to win. Whatever happens, I’ll be fine with it. The players tried their best. But in that fourth quarter, I succumbed. I couldn’t deny it. I really wanted to beat the Lakers.

Within minutes, the Blazers unraveled. We missed thirteen consecutive shots. Our players suddenly looked as though they’d met for the first time that morning. The coup de grace came when Shaquille O’Neal dunked an alley-oop from Kobe Bryant with forty seconds left.

That seventh game exposed us as a team without leadership or discipline. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when we boarded our plane, still festooned with BEAT LA stickers, and headed home, our season done. It was a crushing defeat, and it took me a long, long time to get over it.

IN 2002, EIGHT years after Whitsitt’s arrival, we fell into the abyss. We led the league in payroll at $106 million, $44 million more than the championship Lakers. We were $65 million over the salary cap and $50 million over the league’s new luxury tax threshold, which had been designed to level the playing field for small-market teams like ours. Our player salaries cost us an outrageous $156 million, all for a medium-to-good fifty-win team that would lose yet again in the first round of the playoffs.

Off the court, it was worse, as the Trail Blazers became exhibit A for all that was wrong with professional sports. I found myself reeling from one lowlight to the next.

November 9, 2002: Bonzi Wells is suspended for spitting on the Spurs Danny Ferry.

November 22: Co-captains Damon Stoudamire and Rasheed Wallace, on their way home from a game in Seattle, are pulled over and cited for possession of marijuana. To settle the case, both agree to attend drug counseling sessions.

November 25: Ruben Patterson is arrested for felony domestic abuse. His wife later asks prosecutors not to pursue charges.

January 15, 2003: Rasheed is suspended for threatening a referee.

April 3: Zach Randolph is suspended after sucker punching Ruben in the face during practice and fracturing his eye socket.

The fans who felt so close to the Drexler-Kersey-Porter Blazers were disenchanted. Our attendance suffered, and our TV ratings fell by half. The wayward players showed little remorse. Bonzi Wells told Sports Illustrated: We’re not really going to worry about what the hell [the fans] think about us. You could see why parents weren’t rushing out to buy Bonzi or Rasheed jerseys for their kids.

One day I said to Whitsitt, “What’s it like in the locker room? How is the team reacting to the latest incident?”

And he said, “Well, Paul, half our guys are normal and half our guys are crazy. The good guys are all freaked out, but the crazy guys are crazy, so they’re fine.”

I’d heard enough. A team might be able to absorb one erratic personality, but who could win with a group that was half crazy? Three days after our season ended, I fired Whitsitt and gave his successor, Steve Patterson, a mandate to clean house. We traded established starters like Rasheed and Bonzi for forty cents on the dollar while letting bad contracts expire. The win-now regime had stunted younger talents like Jermaine O’Neal (who blossomed into a six-time all-star after being moved to Indiana), and our cupboard was bare. In 2004, the Blazers missed the playoffs for the first time in twenty-one years.

And then we sank even lower. An internal investigator came to me with a report on Qyntel Woods: “We think there may be dogfighting at Qyntel’s house.”

Dogfighting? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

A few days later: “We think there may be some dogs buried in his yard.”

Buried in his yard?

And a day or two after that: “There’s a room in his house where we hear the walls are covered with blood.”

Blood on the walls?

I was shocked and mortified. Qyntel eventually pleaded guilty to animal abuse and got eighty hours of community service. We suspended and then released him three months later.

The next year we touched bottom. With a record of 21-61, the Trail Blazers were indisputably the worst team in the league. Though things were quieter off the court, I had a new challenge: how to pay for my team’s home court.

As we discovered too late, the financial formula was fatally flawed. Add a local downturn and an unpopular losing team, and we had a perfect storm of red ink and disaffection. The Blazers were getting booed at home, once unthinkable in Portland. Our season ticket holders were canceling in waves amid calls for a boycott, despite our explicit efforts to rebuild and start over. All told, I’d invested more than half a billion dollars in the franchise, at a huge net loss. Something had to give.