I’ve been covering the Portland Trail Blazers on a pretty regular basis since the days when Jack Ramsay was the coach. I started several seasons after the championship but did write a small, sidebar story after the title game in Memorial Coliseum.
During that time I’ve missed very few home games and have become very familiar with the hearts and minds of Trail Blazer fans over that time.
Usually, they are a pretty easy group to figure. Play hard, don’t break too many laws or rules (unless you’re a very good player and then you might get away with it) and they’re going to love you.
Unless you’re Meyers Leonard.
They’ve just never taken to him. I’m not going to psychoanalyze anybody here – player or fan – but I’ve found, at times, the level of vitriol pushed his way over his Portland career rather puzzling.
Obviously, it hasn’t always come from just fans. A few talk show hosts have been all over him for a long time, too – perhaps framing the city’s conversation about him.
I get it that there is frustration that he earns a big salary and doesn’t play all that much. And there have been times when he’s played that he’s shown indecision or reluctance. There have been times when he's been buried so deep on the Portland bench you couldn't find him with a search party and bloodhounds.
But I’d also say on his behalf that for a player with such obvious shooting and athletic skills, his inconsistent playing time has made it difficult for him to build a massive confidence base. Or even a consistent feel for the game.
I never try to tell people how to be a fan. You pay your money and do what you want, as long as it’s reasonable behavior in a public setting.
I think, though, I’ve never run into a player in any sport quite like him and I should share a little of that.
Over the years, I can’t tell you how many players – a lot of them big fan favorites, too – who aren’t getting the playing time or touches or opportunity they think they should get, have tried to undermine their coaching staff or teammates.
By using me or others in the media. Little whispers, innuendo or just outright blasting people on their own side.
I’ve never seen it from Meyers Leonard – even when I’ve actually tried to get a reaction from him about limited minutes in games following solid performances. He just won’t bite on it.
He stays positive, works hard and tries to find his place on the roster. Listen to the way teammate Zach Collins talks about him:
“His positivity is really contagious,” Collins said Sunday night after Leonard’s solid shift off the bench. “He’s talking the whole time… you hear his voice. He’s super positive – a great attitude the whole time. On that backline defense you can hear him the whole time. You know he has your back."
Collins has seen Leonard behind the scenes.
“I’m really happy for him,” he said. “Obviously, I see it every day – I know what kind of work he puts in. I know how good of a player he is. He got an opportunity and he played really well.”
I’m pretty sure a lot of fans do not appreciate the caliber of athlete Leonard is.
“He’s a big-time athlete,” Collins said. “He’s strong and bouncy, man. A very good athlete.”
Leonard’s Sunday double-double came on the heels of one of his worst nights as a pro. Against the Lakers Saturday he turned the ball over the first two times he touched it and then missed a shot.
I know a lot of the frustrations here started early in his career when a lot of people didn’t understand his talent and how it fits today’s pro game. The man can shoot. From deep, too.
But people wanted to see him mixing it up inside, old-school style – which really isn’t the way the game is being played very often these days.
But he just keeps working hard, waiting for a chance, which he’s getting more often these days. Coach Terry Stotts didn’t waste much time getting him into Sunday’s game, even though Saturday was a bit of a debacle.
“I thought it was a good matchup for him,” Stotts said. “He played well early in the season. He had a rough three minutes in Indianapolis -- foul trouble and then Caleb (Swanigan) came in and played well. Then we played Houston and they played small.
“But I never lost any confidence in him. I thought the matchup was good for him and he played well. I was happy for him.”
I think everyone who knows him was happy for him.