Larry Miller’s sudden promotion to power within the Portland Trail Blazers’ organization five years ago was representative of the zeitgeist of the consumerist post-modern age. Style over substance. Quick fixes over practicality. Panache over pragmatism. Simply put, he gamely attempted to trick all of us into buying the notion that he knew anything about basketball, or sports in general, by wearing Armani suits and holding elaborately staged press events, the colorful Trail Blazers backdrop evenly littered with pinwheels all the while accentuating the scarlet handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket.
Most of us, I would like to think, knew better than to take Miller at face value. Granted, it was not an enviable position, having immediately taken control post-Patterson, just as the franchise was recovering from a freefall that led to Paul Allen openly considering selling the team to the guy who founded Hollywood Video. Still, he was nothing but a slick puppet that disguised self-interest for an eagerness to stick up for his rich boss, who he strangely insisted on calling “Mr. Allen” instead of “Paul”. Hell, even newly-appointed GM Neil Olshey gets away with calling him “Paul”. Such a shock for our virgin ears, wasn’t it, to hear our vaunted owner be called by his simple Christian name? Like he was one of us? A fellow bottom feeder?
In Miller’s world, see, money demands respect – at least on the surface – and what led to his disconnect between Blazers brass and the Rose Garden faithful was his inability to connect on a personal, rational level devoid of dollar signs and finance ledgers. Going on record last season, after the Blazers had squandered an early 7-2 record to fall quickly out of playoff position, Miller boldly stood in front of the microphones and proclaimed himself theretofore quite pleased with the season. Evidently, he was a big picture guy who didn’t bother scanning the box scores in the morning like the plebeians. He’s a glorified ad-man, after all, as evidenced by his return to Brand Jordan, where he has chosen to return to the friendly confines of selling and marketing athletic apparel to brand-conscious teenagers from the safe side of the tracks – a position that seems remarkably fitting for such a polished, irrationally confident, and morally bankrupt person.
Think George W. Bush standing on an aircraft carrier wearing a bomber jacket, proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”. Think Donald Trump on television, exuding a smug sense of self-confidence, hairpiece firmly affixed to his flaky spotted scalp, claiming that our President was born in a cave in Africa. These are the types of people we as a society routinely accept as leaders of men, shapers of history, and holders of high moral clarity, and reflecting on this sad state of affairs leaves one struggling to retain normal motor functions. It’s ludicrous to think that Miller had the slightest grasp of the nuances involved in modern sports management, and closely examining his record singles out his unique ineptitude. Make no mistake: Larry Miller was given full autonomy to run the franchise, and he sat and hid in the bathroom when it came time to make a decision that actually mattered (besides keeping a regular bowel cleansing routine, in tandem with maintaining a high fiber diet).
You know, decisions like hiring a general manager, hiring a coach, etc. That old chestnut. Things that require insight and, at the very least, time spent around the sport that you directly preside over. There was never a straight answer given about Kevin Pritchard’s dismissal, which he could have easily summed up with two words: “Greg Oden”. But he didn’t, and it’s a telling sign of his loose grasp of reality and snarky temperament that he leaked word throughout league circles that Pritchard was cancerous to the chemistry of an organization. Similarly, there were vague allusions to Rich Cho’s incompatibility with Miller and Allen, but again, there was never an explanation. If there were lines drawn in the sand over the ever-present “win-now vs. rebuild” debate, as the prevailing theory suggests in regards to the Cho drama, why not admit as such? Why beat around the bush? What was there to hide?
These are questions that will forever remain unanswered, and will likely still provide endless confusion and head-scratching by future team historians hundreds of years from now, when baskets are 20 feet high and every team has in its employ a mysterious German doctor with easy access to what they refer to in the industry as “the juice”. Full disclosure: Larry Miller is the antagonist in my work-in-progress roman à clef “Bellybuster”, a story of intrigue, suspense, and sexual promiscuity that is loosely based on my time as the US Ambassador to the Cayman Islands. Granted, some of the actions I prescribe to his character in the story are somewhat exaggerated, but only in a loose attempt to answer the question of what he could possibly be doing with his time. He surely didn’t get involved in basketball matters, because if a team has an active, involved, knowledgeable president, that team does not take over a year to find a general manager, and that team usually gives coherent reasons to the press and all involved parties when there is a personnel change.
That team is most definitely not the Portland Trail Blazers, as evidenced by the hiring of Miller in 2007 to revive “the brand”, something that was, in fact, dying a slow death. The brand has indeed been given a new lease on life, albeit temporary, in no small part to the forgiving nature, rabid devotion, and irrational positivity of the fan base. In the meantime, the Portland Timbers moved up to the big stage and completely schooled Miller and his henchmen on how to connect with your passionate fans (witness the active involvement of the Timbers Army in the promotion and management of the Timbers organization). Image is everything to people like Miller, and in his mind branding has superceded winning percentage as the way to get ahead in the marketplace.
Oh well. These are the emperor’s new clothes, we are told, finely sewn and meshed together to form a media-friendly, rose-tinted, foul-smelling patina. Sure, Larry Miller knew what hue to emphasize when the cameras started rolling, and he knew which pair of eyeglasses and necktie to match with each tailored suit in his arsenal – a process in which, in my admittedly grotesque imagination, he consults a little spreadsheet he typed up late one night on his iMac, font size 8 with a size 10 header (underlined and italicized), each suit, tie, and pair of designer specs listed in separate boxes in sorted corresponding columns, and taped hastily on the inside of his sock drawer, so his romantic companions would remain blissfully unaware of his anal-retentiveness. And sure, there were no stories of karate kicking ticket agents’ computers, as was widely reported under the regime of his immediate predecessor, Steve Patterson; nor were we forced to face the familiar ever-present distant gaze of lonely horndog pre-spousal abuse, eternally etched on the mug of one Bob Whitsitt, who once upon a time failed in such spectacular fashion that there is no conceivable chance he could be hired in any capacity, for any company, in any position which carries one ounce of responsibility or business acumen.
This is simply not how it works in the NBA. Miller slowly learned this over his half-decade with the team, and he jumped out of the fire before he was sufficiently burned. People – be them his faithful, loyal fans, or even his multi-billionaire absentee superiors – demanded answers that he was unable to give, and he left under the aegis of greener pastures and less prying eyes. Fair enough. He was a person of no consequence, a man of no significance, a worthless cog in the rusty transmission of the Portland basketball machine, which at this point can’t classify itself as anything above a jalopy. Yes, he will be remembered, for even when the Trail Blazers were winning, Rip City couldn’t really savor victories to their extent, knowing full well that it was people like Larry Miller, he of a corrupt and incorrigible nature, who would soon enough pull this franchise back down towards its muddy and mediocre destiny.