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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Portland Trail Blazers’ fate hung on extra-long bathroom break

Promoter Harry Glickman was late getting to the key meeting, so Baltimore Bullets basketball team owner Abe Pollin stalled for time by waiting in the bathroom until he arrived.

Harry Glickman on KPTV Fox 12
Trailblazer co-founder Harry Glickman talks about how close Portland
came to getting a major-league football team in this video clip from
KPTV-12, Portland's Fox Network affiliate station.

Downloadable audio file (MP3)

To serious professional sports fans, Portland is a bit like a cell-phone dead zone. Kids in Portland grow up with no local football team to root for, and despite efforts by the state legislature, the town’s only baseball franchise is a minor-league farm team for an Arizona ball club.

(Editor's Note: This article was written in 2010, before the Portland Timbers professional soccer club was founded. Since then, Portland has acquired the Thorns (pro women's soccer) as well. At the time of this updating (early 2021) the city still has no major-league pro baseball or football team.)

What Portland does have is a major-league basketball team, and a pretty good one at that: the Trail Blazers.

But had it not been for a really long bathroom break taken in Beverly Hills 40 years ago, Portland today might not even have that.

Here’s the story:

Pitching a plan for Portland basketball

In the summer of 1970, a group of Portland investors had put together a proposal for a local NBA team. Perennial Northwest rival Seattle already had one – the Supersonics, est. 1967. San Francisco, of course, had had one for some time. Wasn’t it finally Portland’s turn?

Beverly Wilshire Hotel
The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, now operated by Four
Seasons, is one of the plushest hotels in the world.
(Photo: BeverlyHillsTourism.com)

The investors thought so. So when the NBA’s expansion committee met that summer at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Portland promoter Harry Glickman flew in to make the city’s case.

The NBA’s expansion committee consisted of Abe Pollin of the Baltimore Bullets (later the Washington Wizards), Fred Zollner of the Detroit Pistons, Tommy Cousens of the Atlanta Hawks and Carl Scheer, a representative of NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy.

But how would they pay for it?

Glickman had the plan for the team in hand. But he’d had to leave before the full details of the team’s financing could be hashed out. When he left, the plan was to raise funds through an initial public offering of stock, and interim financing was still a big question mark. So when Glickman made the initial presentation, that’s what he told the committee.

Early Portland Trail Blazers logo
The Trail Blazers' first logo, which
represented the team from its founding
through the 1989-90 season. The stripes
in the logo represent two five-man hoops
teams squaring off against one another.

Committee members were a bit dismayed, but they were impressed enough with the Portlanders’ plan that they didn’t shut Glickman down. Cousens immediately offered to pony up $250,000 if Glickman could find funds to match it from his Portland people. Glickman promised to find out if that could be done.

Private financing comes through

From Pollin’s hotel room, Glickman called home and got a discouraging reply. But just as the promoter was “thinking we were dead,” the phone rang again, and suddenly everything had changed: The IPO was a no-go. New Jersey real estate developer Bob Schmertz was on board, and so was Seattle businessman Herman Sarkowsky; they wanted to finance the franchise privately in partnership with Beverly Hills real estate developer Larry Weinberg, and had $750,000 committed to the cause.

“I went back to the room and said, ‘Hey guys, time out, there’s a new deal,’” Glickman recalled later, in his book. “I explained that we were now going to have a privately financed company.”

The committee members were no doubt relieved to hear this. Pollin told Glickman to get a letter of credit ready and present the whole thing to a meeting of all the league’s owners, scheduled for noon the following day.

An impossible deadline

Glickman got on the phone to Sarkowsky, who told him he’d have his banker in Tacoma get in touch the next morning.

The Blazers' logo from 1990 to 2002,
adopted shortly after Microsoft
co-founder Paul Allen bought the team
in 1988.

Glickman can’t have felt too comfortable with this – bankers didn’t start work until 10 a.m., which would give him very little time to get the documentation he needed. So the next morning, at 10 a.m. on the dot, he called the bank. He was referred to a banker named Hugh Darling at the bank’s sister institution in Los Angeles.

“I called Darling,” Glickman said. “He had never heard of me, Sarkowsky, the NBA or anything. He called Tacoma, called me back and said yes, he would handle my problem.”

So at a few minutes after 10 a.m., Glickman was on his way to downtown L.A. to pick up the letter.

Lost in Beverly Hills

He got lost on the way. By the time Glickman got to the office, it was already 11:15 – and it was a half-hour drive back to the hotel, even if he didn’t get lost again. He raced into the bank and found Darling yelling into the telephone, having a heated discussion with someone.

Current Portland Trail Blazers logo
This is the Blazers' current logo, which
has been in use with minor revisions
since 2002.

“He waved me to a chair where I sat biting my nails for about 10 minutes,” Glickman recalled. “When he finished, he started asking me questions about Portland and the NBA.”

Without being too offensive, Glickman managed to redirect Darling’s attention back to the letter, which was just on the verge of being too late. Darling dictated the letter to his secretary, who brought it over for him to sign. Alas, there was a typo on it. He told her to take it away and retype it.

"Just give me the damn letter!"

“I said, ‘Don’t bother with that, just initial it and give me the damn letter,’” Glickman said. “Which he did.”

Racing to the parking lot, Glickman leaped into his car and started running every red light he saw between downtown L.A. and the Beverly Wilshire.

When he got there at 12:05 p.m., he found Pollin – the Baltimore Bullets owner – in the bathroom.

Pollin “told me he had been worried about my lateness so had asked for a recess while he went to the john,” Glickman said. “He remained there until I arrived with my letter.”

The happy ending: Portland, NBA city

The NBA representatives took the information and told Glickman to come back at 3 p.m. When he did, he was told that – congratulations – Portland was now an NBA city.

(Sources: Glickman, Harry. “Give me the damn letter” (excerpt from his book, Promoter Ain’t a Dirty Word, Timber Press, 1978), Citadel of the Spirit (ed. Matt Love). Newport: Nestucca Spit Press, 2009; www.nba.com/history)