Before the Thorns, Portland had a Power surge

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Once upon a time, a women’s professional sports team in Portland was capturing the imagination of the city, drawing big crowds and had become the flagship team for a league struggling in many other areas.

These days, that would be the Portland Thorns. But before the Thorns, there was the Portland Power, and many of the same aspects that make the Thorns special were seen in the brief, but spectacular, few seasons that the Power existed.

In the annuls of Portland sports history, the Power would make for an interesting chapter. They were only in existence between 1996-98, just over two seasons. But what they did in those seasons was wake up a fanbase not really served by the NBA’s Trail Blazers, WHL’s Winterhawks or PCL’s Beavers.

Because the fanbase that is celebrated at Thorns games, including the large number of young girls, a big part of the region’s lesbian community and area families, were the fanbase of the Power. They hooked on to the team from Day 1, and didn’t let up until the American Basketball League folded at the end of 1998.

Those Power teams were fun to watch, as well, especially after Lin Dunn took over as head coach midway through the 1996-97 season. There was fantastic talent on the Power, with ex-Tennessee star Michelle Marciniak running the show from the point, former UCLA star Natalie Williams controlling the paint, local legend Katy Steding shooting threes and Lisa Harrison working the perimeter.

Though the Power missed the playoffs their first season, attendance was already building. Crowds of between 7-8,000 were not uncommon in Memorial Coliseum, and they were an enthusiastic group during the bad times and when Dunn started to build for 1997-98.

The 1997-98 season was one to remember, and I admit a bit of bias on this. I was the home radio producer for the Power that season, handling duties for play-by-play voice Kevin Toon (who also was the media relations director for the Power the first two seasons). The Power added Delisha Milton and Sylvia Crawley to the team, and they went on to win the ABL Western Conference that season with a 27-17 record. The fun in the Coliseum that season was amazing, as the Power were far and away the biggest drawing home team in the ABL. They even approached 10,000 on a few nights as the team stayed in first place.

The memories of that season are still vivid to me. For that season, Williams may have been the best all-around center in the women’s game (yes, I’m including Lisa Leslie in that). Marciniak was the crowd favorite with her hard-nosed play, ability to control the game and willingness to get in the face of an opposing player if she needed. Steding continued her high level of play in front of her hometown fans, and Milton added a spark that seemed to start runs as needed.

Then, of course, there was Lin Dunn. Few coaches in Portland history ever had the impact, or could be as entertaining, as Dunn. I often had to turn down the crowd mike when she’d go after a ref or got upset with a bad play. Her yell of “MICHELLE!!!” when trying to get Marciniak’s attention would echo though the Coliseum, even when the big crowds were cranking up the noise. Those of us on press row, and even players on the bench, would often have Lin Dunn sound-alike contests. Heck, Dunn herself would chime in on those on occasion, just to loosen things up. On occasion, she’d give a thumbs up, a wavy hand or a thumbs down to the fans behind the bench who tried to mimic her vocal style.

The type of crowd seen at Power games was different than what Portland had seen, as well. The number of girls’ basketball teams who would come out, dressed proudly in team gear, and filling sections of the Coliseum was often quite large. They would line up around the court for autographs with Power players after games, and players like Williams, Marciniak, Steding and Harrison were as big to the girls in the Portland metro area as any of the Blazers. That ticket prices were reasonable and it was a “family atmosphere: also added to the appeal of the team.

Power games were also a big occasion for Portland’s LGBTQ community, especially lesbians. It was no secret that a number of Power season ticket holders were lesbian couples, and the Power were the first team that they felt like they could call their own. They were comfortable being themselves at Power games, and they every night was a big occasion. The recent Willamette Week article that called Portland Thorns’ games the city’s biggest LGBTQ cocktail party and biggest lesbian bar in the city…well, that was a Portland Power game in 1996-98. They were some of the team’s biggest fans, and their passion for the team and the game was on full display. In a sense, the Power gave a glimpse to what we would see with the Thorns years later.

The Power lost to Long Beach in the conference finals that season, but all seemed to be set for a title run in the 1998-99 ABL season. Outside of Columbus, who had won the first two ABL titles (coached by Brian Alger, one of the best women’s pro basketball coaches of all time), no team in the league was as stable as Portland.

But there were issues beyond the control of the Power that would seal its doom. The first was the league itself, which always seemed to operate on shoestring and emphasized national sponsorships over local money. While the Power had no problems getting local sponsors, the often-haphazard decisions coming from league staff was a big issue with other teams in the league. The crew in the Power offices often had to scramble when a decision from the ABL would come out with no notice to the teams, sometimes on game nights.

Another issue was the “other league”, the WNBA. The battle between the ABL and the WNBA was fierce and cutthroat, and because Nike was based in the Portland suburb of Beaverton, Power games often were a battleground for player recruitment. It wasn’t unusual for Lisa Leslie to sit behind the visiting team’s bench, talking to players before and after games trying to get them to jump to the WNBA. That the ABL was Reebok league added to this, as Leslie was Nike’s main client in women’s basketball at that time.

(No, I can’t say whether Leslie was trying to recruit players for Nike, because I don’t know, but she was recruiting for the WNBA.)

Each league had its strong points. The ABL had most of the best players in women’s basketball and played during “basketball season”, between November and April. The WNBA had the money because of the backing of the NBA and because of its summer schedule, players could play overseas for more money in the fall and spring, and players could make more money overseas than in the ABL.

Then there was the lack of support from other teams in Portland. The Trail Blazers couldn’t openly support the Power because of the NBA-WNBA connection, but members of the Blazers would show up at Power games on occasion. Otherwise, support from the Blazers’ staff was more tepid, at best.

The Portland Winterhawks didn’t like the presence of the Power at all, because they lost possible home dates in the Coliseum (the Hawks couldn’t get more than a few dates in the Rose Garden in those days, as opposed to the big presence they have in the big arena now) and that the Power outdrew the Hawks on a number of occasions. The Power were seen as a threat to the Winterhawks’ position as the number two team in Portland to some in the Hawks office, and rarely did I see Hawks staff any grumpier than when they were playing in the Garden on the same night the Power were in the Coliseum. If they bragged about their Memorial Cup win to anyone, it was to those connected with the Power, because it gave some in the Hawks’ staff a feeling of superiority over the Power.

It wasn’t to last, of course. By time the 1998-99 season had started, Marciniak was in Long Beach, as was Williams for a brief time. But when the Long Beach team folded, Williams was assigned back to Portland. While the Power was still drawing big crowds, it felt like the ABL itself was doomed. I was still with the team, but was assigned to running the Coliseum scoreboard because the new radio play-by-play broadcaster didn’t want me as producer and the new media relations director wasn’t sure what to do with me. Games were still fun, but dealing with the league wasn’t.

It all came to a crashing end three days before Christmas in 1998, when the ABL announced the entire league was going out of business. It was done by press release, so many of the Power players and staff didn’t have prior notice of the collapse (I found out by listening to the radio, not from anyone with the Power). Just like that, the Power was gone, but they made an impact on the city and its fans that is still looked back on by some with a smile.

The WNBA did put a team in Portland, as the Fire played for three seasons starting in 2000. But the Fire never drew the crowds that the Power did, with some fans blaming the WNBA as much for the Power’s demise as the ABL itself and thus not supporting the new team. While Crawley and Marciniak returned to Portland to play for the Fire, and college sensation Jackie Stiles being a big league a draw, the Fire never matched the passion that the Power did. Despite an attempt by a local group (which included Clyde Drexler) to purchase the Fire, Paul Allen and the Trail Blazers (who owned and operated the team) folded the team after the 2002 season. For women’s pro sports in Portland, that was the end until the Thorns started up in 2013.

It wouldn’t be surprising if many fans of a certain age at Thorns games were also regulars at Power games. Much of the passion we see now at Providence Park for Portland’s NWSL team was seen at Memorial Coliseum for Portland’s ABL team. In a league structure, the Power was much like to the unstable ABL as the Thorns are now to the NWSL. The big difference, of course, is that there’s no real national competition for players for NWSL clubs like the WNBA was to the ABL.

But, for a brief time in the 1990s, there was excitement for women’s professional sports in Portland. Their time was short, but the Power gave us a glimpse of how fun women’s professional sports could be, and how passionate the fans could be for that. I believe they laid the groundwork for what we would see with the Thorns, and should be remembered as such.

The Portland Power was more than a footnote in Portland sports history. They were groundbreakers.

(Photo is the Portland Power logo from a shirt the author still owns from his time working with the team.)

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