When in Rome: Musings on Basilica, belief, Blazers

About a month ago, I was in Rome, officially initiating myself into a Vassar-elite lifestyle. A pre-multiculturalist perspective on history informs us that Rome is the birthplace of modern society. While gazing at some of the world’s great wonders, it was difficult for me not to agree. Of course, in my exploration of Rome, I couldn’t help but think about the Portland Trail Blazers, my hometown NBA team. Brace yourself.

Perhaps the most striking place I visited was St. Peter’s Basilica, the historic church in the heart of Vatican City. To attempt to put into words what it looks like is to do it an injustice. It’s the largest church in the world. It took about 120 years to construct. Walking into the Basilica is like walking into a different world—one with greater meaning. It is where popes give sermons, and when their final words ring out, they are buried beneath its stunning marble floors. The centerpiece of the Basilica is the ornate architecture above the tomb of St. Peter, perhaps the second most important figure in Catholicism.

For an Oregonian like myself, the Basilica was extravagance like I’d never seen before. Its beauty and its grandiosity are so awe-inspiring, it almost, almost, made me forget all of Catholicism’s baggage. It almost made me a believer.

Amidst my walk through Vatican City, I got to thinking: What would inspire an individual, let alone an entire civilization, to commit to something so grand? A belief in something higher? A thirst for conspicuous power? The sheer ability to command commonfolk, slaves and members of every class to stop what they were doing and dedicate their entire lives to the construction of one building? Again, keep in mind that the Basilica took 120 years to construct. Keep in mind the average lifespan of an individual in the 16th century.

The more optimistic conclusion—and the one that allows me to halt my enunciation of the history of St. Peter’s Basilica—is that the construction of such a magnificent church must be centered around belief. It’s a simple conclusion, perhaps an oversimplified one, but simple minds cannot help but come to simple conclusions.

That’s right, these Roman Catholics believed. In believing, they gained purpose. They gained a sense of service. They gained a sense of hope in something greater. They believed that something transcendent was in the works. These ideas can project onto many things—politics, sports, culture. For the purposes of this sports section (and perhaps your entertainment), I’m going to apply it to my favorite basketball team: the Portland Trail Blazers.

It just so happened that the night before visiting the Basilica, I finally got around to listening to the first part of CJ McCollum’s now infamous (for NBA-geeks) interview with Kevin Durant. Of course, what fans now remember the interview for is what happened afterward, when McCollum took to Twitter and used a creative analogy to call Durant the most dastardly of snakes, and Durant responded by saying, “I did your [expletive] podcast” (Twitter, KDTrey5, 07.25.2018). In other words, you owe me your loyalty—I did you a favor. Kevin Durant: loyalty expert.

However, what struck me about the interview was McCollum’s tepid endorsement of the direction of the Blazers. I believe his reservations come from a place of valid frustration, stemming from the fact that, since selecting Greg Oden first overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, and subsequently floundering in the face of bad luck (Oden and Brandon Roy’s injuries, namely), the Blazers have failed to build an inspiring message. They’ve failed so miserably that there is now a dearth of belief.

Midway through the podcast, McCollum jokes that he’s “been in trade rumors for four years.” Indeed, despite the Blazers’ lack of direction, they’ve still failed to create an atmosphere of commitment to their second-most-prized asset.

Later, McCollum explains that he wanted the Blazers to go after Demarcus Cousins in free agency. Durant, rightly, asks how that would work—the Blazers just poured $48 million into Jusuf Nurkic. McCollum claims to envision a scenario in which Nurkic takes the Anthony-Davis role alongside Cousins. That seems far too tall a task for a 280-pound center whose go-to move is the 12-foot floater off a pick-and-roll.

This offseason, the Blazers once again failed to move anywhere but horizontally. They tried to split the difference between building a culture and maintaining the talent they have. They let Ed Davis walk for the measly price (in NBA terms) of $4.4 million. They let fan-favorite Pat Connaughton walk. They doubled down on Nurkic, who might’ve been a slightly better version of Jamaal Magloire in the NBA of years gone by (for those less acquainted with insignificant NBA history, this is not a compliment).

These moves did nothing to enhance the increasingly stagnant Lillard-McCollum era in Portland; the Blazers are in no position to be a legitimate contender now, nor are they built in such a way to develop young talent, maintain flexibility and go for it towards the end of Lillard’s prime.

In short, the Blazers, led by general manager Neil Olshey, failed both the long game and the short game. They failed to make themselves a contender this upcoming season. They failed to construct something that would become better with time. They failed to inspire belief among their fan base (I can testify to this). They failed to inspire belief among their players (McCollum can testify to this, and so can Damian Lillard’s Twitter account).

When an organization fails to construct a coherent message of hope and progress, belief inevitably wanes. This is true for the Catholic Church. This is true for the Democratic Party (as you’ll see in columns to come). This is true for the Portland Trail Blazers. Until that belief, that trust in the process, is rekindled, nothing as magnificent as St. Peter’s Basilica is possible.

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