PORTLAND, Ore. — Are the Portland Trail Blazers cursed?
After Jusuf Nurkic crumpled to the ground in double-overtime of Monday's game against the Brooklyn Nets, felled by multiple compound fractures to his left leg, it's getting harder to ignore the evidence.
Nurkic will miss the rest of the season and the playoffs. After Bill Walton and Sam Bowie and Greg Oden and now Nurkic, the bad news — as horrific as it was — seemed like more of the same for long-suffering Trail Blazers fans.
Curses are common in sports lore. From the Boston Red Sox and The Curse of the Bambino to the Chicago Cubs and The Curse of the Billy Goat to the Chicago Bears and The Curse of the Honey Bears to the Phoenix Suns and The Curse of the Coin Flip, fans have tied their teams' lack of success to superstitious curses for years.
Read about a bunch of sports-related curses here.
It may be time to add the Trail Blazers to the list.
It started with Bill Walton.
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Walton may have been the most talented player to ever wear a Trail Blazers uniform. In his first four seasons in Portland, he averaged 17.0 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.6 blocks per game, highlighted by Portland's only championship season in 1977.
That season, Walton averaged 18.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.2 blocks per game. He was named MVP of the NBA Finals after averaging 18.5 points, 19.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.7 blocks in the championship series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The next season, Walton was named league MVP, despite playing in just 58 games. With Walton having his best season, the Blazers started by winning 50 of their first 60 games, but the team wasn't the same after Walton broke his left foot in the 58th game of the season. They struggled down the stretch, losing 14 of their final 22 games, and were ousted from the playoffs by the Seattle Supersonics.
The next offseason, Walton demanded that the Blazers trade him. In a 1978 article by Sports Illustrated's John Papanek, he wrote that Walton had soured on the franchise, blaming his injuries on the team's medical staff.
"He believed that his latest injury ... might have been avoided if the Trail Blazers had provided him with proper medical advice and care," Papanek wrote. "Walton also charged the team with the misuse of the pain-modifying drugs Xylocaine and Marcaine, and the anti-inflammatory drugs Butazolidin (phenylbutazone) and Decadron (dexamethasone)."
The Blazers didn't end up trading Walton. He sat out the 1978-79 season in protest and signed with the San Diego Clippers as a free agent during the 1979 offseason.
In 2009, Walton returned to Portland and apologized to Blazers fans.
"I'm here to try and make amends for the mistakes and errors of the past," Walton said during a news conference. "I regret that I wasn't a better person. A better player. I regret that I got hurt. I regret the circumstances in which I left the Portland Trail Blazers family. I just wish I could do a lot of things over, but I can't. So I'm here to apologize, to try and make amends, and to try and start over and make it better."
The rift between Portland and Walton is over. Old wounds have healed. But the Blazers have yet to win a title since he left town.
Few things in Trail Blazers history are more disheartening than the 1984 NBA draft. The Blazers lost a coin flip for the No. 1 selection to the Houston Rockets, losing out on the chance to draft future Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.
Portland, desperate for a center, then drafted Bowie, the celebrated but oft-injured Kentucky big man, with the second pick, leaving Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player in the history of the NBA, on the board. Jordan was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the third overall pick.
While losing out on Jordan and Olajuwon in that draft is the biggest disappointment for the Blazers and their fans, injuries stealing the potential of an All-Star career from Bowie should also be considered.
Bowie was a talented player. He averaged 10.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.5 blocks in five seasons with the Blazers. But after playing 76 games during his rookie season, he broke his left tibia once and right tibia twice over the next four and ended up playing just 63 out of a possible 328 games his final four seasons in Portland.
Bowie later expressed regret, saying he believes he tried to return from his injuries too soon in Portland.
“I have one huge regret,” Bowie said. “I wish I would’ve been more patient and didn’t come back as quickly as I did the second year I fractured my leg. [I] feel like [I] disappointed Portland."
The silver lining was the trade that sent Bowie to New Jersey in 1989 brought back Buck Williams, the starting power forward for the Trail Blazers team that went to two NBA Finals, losing to the Detroit Pistons in 1990 and to Jordan and the Bulls in 1992.
Before the Blazers drafted Oden with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, he was compared to Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. In fact, before the draft, NBA.com analyst Maurice Brooks referred to Oden as "the next Bill Russell."
"He changes games defensively, finishes with either hand around the rim, rebounds well and always appears to be in the right position," Brooks wrote.
A year after Oden was drafted, despite missing all of his rookie season after microfracture surgery, ESPN's David Thorpe called him a "man-child ... a true force on both ends [who] will compete with passion and purpose every night."
Hindsight is tricky. Seattle drafted Kevin Durant with the second pick. Looking back now, he should have been the top pick. But at the time, the overall consensus was that Oden was not only the best player in the draft, but a transcendent player who would lead a team to multiple championships during his career.
The injuries started early and plagued Oden's entire career. Before his rookie season even began, he had microfracture surgery on his right knee. In the first game of his second season, he left after 13 minutes with a foot injury. He returned six games later and ended up playing 61 games in the 2008-09 season, despite missing three weeks in February with a chipped knee cap.
Oden started the 2009-10 season strong, averaging 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while playing about 24 minutes per game through the first 21 games of the season. On December 5, 2009, he fractured his left patella, had surgery and missed the rest of the season. Oden never played another game for Portland.
Over the next three seasons, Oden had four surgeries on his knees, including two more microfracture surgeries. He struggled on a personal level, too. He admitted that he headed down a "destructive path of drinking and doing things I shouldn’t have been doing."
"When I played well, I’d drink to celebrate. And when I played poorly, I’d drink to forget. That second year in Portland I pretty much became an alcoholic," Oden told Mark Titus of Grantland in 2012.
Oden and the team parted ways at the end of the 2012 season. The player who was supposed to be the next Bill Russell ended up playing 82 of a possible 328 games in his four seasons with the Blazers.
In the 2013-14 season, Oden played 23 games with the Miami Heat, but hasn't played an NBA game since. He entered his name into the 2019 draft pool for the Big3 league and hopes to drafted for the upcoming season.
This is the second time Nurkic has broken his leg since the Denver Nuggets traded him to the Blazers in February 2017. Portland fell in love with Nurkic immediately. A combination of surprising production, winning basketball and an infectious personality endeared Nurkic to Blazers fans, and Nurk Fever was born in Portland.
In his first 20 games in Portland, Nurkic averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks, helping lead the Blazers back into the playoff picture as the team won 14 of its 20 games with Nurkic in the lineup. The good times were interrupted on April 1, 2017, though, when the team announced Nurkic had suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right leg.
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He returned to play 17 minutes in Game 3 of the Blazers' first-round playoff series against the Warriors, but didn't play in Game 4 as Portland was swept by Golden State.
Until Monday's gruesome injury to his left leg, Nurkic had enjoyed good health the past two seasons. He played in 79 games last season and had missed just one game this season, on January 30. After an up-and-down 2017-18 campaign, Nurkic was playing the best basketball of his career.
Nurkic was averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 blocks for the Blazers. He ranked 18th overall in real plus-minus (fifth among centers) and seventh overall in player impact plus-minus (third among centers) this season. Nurkic's impact on the Blazers this season can't be overstated. As head coach Terry Stotts said after Monday's game, this is a "devastating" loss for Portland.
The team didn't provide a timeline for Nurkic's return, but it's likely that he'll miss not only the rest of this season and the playoffs but also a good portion of next season as well.
Are the Blazers cursed?
Other beloved Trail Blazers players have had their careers interrupted or ended by injuries, most prominent among them guards Brandon Roy and Geoff Petrie. But it's the long list of injuries to the franchise's most talented big men over the past 40 years that has some fans wondering if there's something else at play here.
Are the Blazers cursed? Probably not. But if other teams' fans can believe their team is cursed because of a player contract or a billy goat or a coin flip, then it's not a stretch for some Blazers fans to think the basketball gods are frowning on Portland.
Jared Cowley writes about the Trail Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. He's also the co-host of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast (listen here). You can reach him on Twitter @jaredcowley.