Blazing the Right Trail

Professional sports franchises can oftentimes resemble daytime soap operas. The egos, the money-hungry power players and the back-stabbing can destroy the team from the inside, leaving the men and women charged with running it powerless. Perhaps that’s why Neil Olshey has fit in so well in Portland. He knows soaps.

Olshey had different dreams before arriving in Portland. The man who has so effortlessly endeared himself to Blazers fans wasn’t taking the basketball route originally; he had his sights set on the screen, not the court. He wanted to act. With a face befitting of the big screen, he landed roles in television commercials, print ads and, most famously to Blazers fans, soap operas.

Luckily for Portland, his life went a different direction. Now in his second year as general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, the fruits of his labor are beginning to pay off. After an offseason of mid-level acquisitions, the Blazers now find themselves 14-3 at the start of the season. Veteran leaders and unheralded big men have helped the franchise fully turn the page from the Felton-Wallace-Camby debacle of two seasons ago. Olshey’s moves have been underwhelming, precise and sometimes head-scratching. So far, however, they’ve been home runs.

Flying under the line

Olshey found success in Los Angeles for the Clippers. Those Clippers. He quickly turned them into the town’s most exciting attraction. When an opening arose in Portland, he took the call. He needed a new challenge. He needed to break out. He also needed to get outside of his comfort zone. Olshey is a man immersed in the L.A.-New York scene, a man so used to looking his best at every moment. He’s been slow to embrace the Portland way, but it’s coming.

“I [recently] went a week and a half without shaving,” he told The Oregonian earlier this year. “I was embarrassed. It’s all white. I looked in the mirror and I could feel it, but I couldn’t see it.”

Olshey has not been alone in embracing change. His boss has as well. For years it seemed Paul Allen, the billionaire owner of the Blazers, would never let a GM succeed under his watchful eye. Manager after manager came to town, only to be swept aside before their impact could be felt. The beloved and worshipped Kevin Pritchard was cast aside in one of the darkest
behind-the-scenes moments the franchise has seen. Rich Cho, the up-and-comer, barely had a cup of coffee in town before he was shown the door. Allen’s rulings felled them all. He seems to have too much power for his own good, and his passion for winning often has overshadowed his ability to let the GM do what they are meant to: manage.

Olshey appears to be the perfect yin to Allen’s ever-present yang. Olshey has the charisma to make everyone feel important. He has the suave good-naturedness that makes everyone feel comfortable. He also has the ability to make everyone better. And he does it all, not surprisingly, in his own way.

Robin Lopez wasn’t considered a prize get. Mo Williams, Dorrell Wright and Earl Watson didn’t make season ticket sales double. And Thomas Robinson may have been the most perplexing player in the league. After 18 games, all five have cast an imprint on the season. A team that last year toiled with one of the worst benches in NBA history has been, in the words of Brian Wheeler, rebuilt,re-energized and re-ignited.

Limited experience, big results

Olshey’s hiring was met with raised eyebrows. He was a relatively unknown commodity after such a short stint in L.A. His reputation among NBA players, however, was the driving force behind the hire. Olshey’s charisma comes at you in waves; he’s a walking quote and his infectiously positive attitude resonates with players. Getting players to come to a city like Portland, an
out-of-the-way stop on the NBA free agents tour, requires a man in charge that can sell the city, the fans and the vision like none other. It requires, in a way, an actor.

That’s not to say Portland doesn’t have the things he’s selling. Its fan base is often mentioned as the most loyal and passionate in all of sports. The city has much to offer, but it takes some time living here to experience it, especially for young, rich NBA players. Olshey has one day to sell that experience.

It wasn’t hard to get players to Los Angeles, even if it was to see the perpetually poor Clippers. Beaches, nice weather, the spotlight—they were all available, right outside your front door.

He also has built-in relationships. Olshey had built trust with NBA players through SFX Sports Group, Inc., where he was director of player development. While there, he created, organized and conducted NBA pre-draft training camps. With the talent coming in and Olshey’s personality shining out, it’s no surprise that he forged trust with players that still exists today. That trust has paid off so far: Look no further than Mo Williams.

Williams said the friendship he had with Olshey from SFX was his main reason for signing. Since coming aboard, Williams has been a catalyst off the bench, sparking runs in numerous games in this young season. His veteran leadership and steady play has Portland in the running for a playoff seed—exactly what Olshey envisioned when he signed Williams, though the move barely made a blip on the radar. It was another one of the unheralded signings that has worked for the league’s most surprising team.

Credit where credit is due

It hasn’t been a complete bed of roses for Olshey in Portland. As this past offseason came into focus, fans had grandiose visions of what was to come. Armed with $12 million in cap space, it seemed Portland was finally in the running for a big-time acquisition. For many, the results fell far short of expectations.

As good as the free agents have been, their production pre-Portland didn’t give a ton of hope. Selling Robin Lopez to a fan base that is just two years removed from Greg Oden wasn’t an easy task. People wondered if the picture Olshey was selling was just that—a picture. Not reality.

The time has come to give the man his due. His moves have been unspectacular yet effective. His hiring of Chris Stackpole as the team’s new director of player health and performance was viewed as a cunning and futuristic move by those in the know. He is gutting the practice facility in favor of a New Age venue that will attract free agents. He has made smart moves that have improved the team without damaging the future, and he has done it all with a smile on his face. It’s too early to anoint him the savior. If things continue to progress, however, that’s the title he will earn.