26 April 2010
There’s about four minutes left in Game 4.
Kevin Pritchard walks out of the Portland Trail Blazers training room, gives a quick handshake, exchanges pleasantries and walks through the dark tunnel and into the light of a sold out Rose Garden where Brandon Roy has come to life as a seven game series savior.
Fresh out of a team timeout, Pritchard takes a seat on a three-foot high black stool just down from the Blazers’ bench. He doesn’t sit for very long. LaMarcus Aldridge knocks down a turnaround jumper to give Portland an 89-83 lead over the Phoenix Suns. Pritchard pumps his fist. He sits back down, pulls a pack of gum from his brown pinstripe suit and chews nervously.
There’s a lot of game left.
Whether sitting or standing next to the railing, the tunnel has become Pritchard’s safe haven.
He no longer sits courtside on the baseline next to the hoop and in the company of Larry Miller, Paul Allen, Allen’s current female friend, and Bert Kolde. Instead, Pritchard watches the Blazers from the tunnel. It’s been that way for a couple games now – more specifically since April 10. That was the night of the Nike Hoop Summit. Pritchard hasn’t sat in those seats since.
Some wonder if he ever will again.
Last week, a person close to Pritchard confessed Allen asked Portland’s general manager to no longer sit alongside him at games. The reason: it would only add another distraction to an already distracting situation. Three others within the Blazers said there was no such belief to that theory. Still, one company person admitted the strangeness of the sight of Pritchard tucked away. Many are left confused.
“I enjoy being mobile,” Pritchard said when asked about his “tunnel vision”.
“I’ve been a player and I’ve been a coach, and the one thing I know is what makes basketball so special is the ups and the downs. I’m feeling just like I’m out there. I’m emotionally invested like anybody.”
At the two minute mark, Roy sinks a jumper. It gives him ten points on the day and another reason for Pritchard to jump out of his seat. Portland leads by nine. He tries to control his emotions. You can see in his eyes that the only thing on his mind is this game.
He takes out another piece of gum.
“I wouldn’t say it is nervous energy. Listen, I get caught up in the moment just like everyone else. I just love seeing a good basketball game that comes down to the wire. You go through that in a span of two minutes.”
Pritchard is off his stool once again, this time peering past players to the other end of the court. Channing Frye just fouled Nicolas Batum and is given a Flagrant 1 foul. Pritchard gets another look at the foul from a small grey and black TNT monitor stashed under the stands showing the replay.
He pumps his fist.
“Everyone gets more physical, and it’s not so much they are more physical. It’s the intensity of every single possession. When I played – and I think Nate (McMillan) does a great job of this – the focus is on us. That’s what we can control. They are going to play the way they are going to play. We have to control what we can control.”
A short TV timeout interrupts the game with 47.7 seconds left and the Blazers leading 93-86.
Pritchard is already halfway through the tunnel and walking back the trainer’s room as McMillan diagrams another play coming out of the timeout. It’s a quick break. But it doesn’t matter if it’s a 20 second or full timeout – or in this case a television timeout – Pritchard is up and about, often retreating back to the trainer’s room to pass the time.
“I’ll pace back and forth and come back to the front. I enjoy that part of it. I really do.”
Returning back to his seat seconds later, Pritchard pauses and looks up into the stands.
“It felt like every play was the most important play. If you love basketball and it’s true to your heart, that’s what you live for – where the game isn’t decided and two phenomenal teams are fighting out. The crowd was as animated as I’ve ever seen a crowd.”
He casually checks his BlackBerry and begins riffing with TNT’s Craig Sager who approaches Pritchard with a smile and some friendly conversation about what a story it will make if Portland can hold on for the win.
What a story it was.
“We wanted to see how we felt about it and Brandon – for as much as he was communicating with us that he wanted to play – we still had to make the best choice for Brandon. For me, it comes down to one thing – trust. Brandon tells it like it is. When he’s been hurt, he’s told us. And he’s told us on a million occasions that he felt great and wanted to go. There have been times where he’s said he can’t go, and there have been times where he said he can go. Ultimately we trust him.”
Sitting back on his stool as the game draws to a close, Pritchard anxiously bounces his knee as he talks to Chad Buchanan- the Blazers’ Director of College Scouting – who stands across the way.
“That was a heck of a response game from him,” Pritchard told Buchanan.
The “him” in this case was Aldridge who hit two free throws to put the Blazers up 96-87 with 24 seconds remaining as part of his 31 point performance.
“He was hit a little bit in the media. I think that’s done. I think his true character came out. If there’s one thing I know about LaMarcus, it’s that he has an unbelievable amount of pride.”
That’s the game. Blazers win.
After he exchanges high fives with Patty Mills, Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez, Pritchard does the same with all the players, coaches and training staff as he walks out onto the floor waiving to a couple of friends as red, silver, black and white streamers fall around him.
“This team has responded all year long. The only thing you can control is your ability to overcome and this team has done that.”
As Roy and Marcus Camby handle their postgame TNT and radio interviews, Pritchard heads back to the join the rest of the team in the locker rom. On his way, fans shout his name. They reach over the railing to touch him. Pritchard smiles. He is greeted in the tunnel by Mills and Jeff Pendergraph – a postgame tradition for the rookies - who swap laughs and high fives with the GM and each other.
Pritchard disappears behind the double doors of the trainer’s room and does the same several minutes later as he makes his way home after an emotionally long day in an emotionally long season.
Portland lives to play another game on Monday night in Phoenix and Thursday night at the Rose Garden.
Pritchard will be back.
And the tunnel will be there waiting for him.
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