PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — If the Trail Blazers are going to win a championship this year, there will be nothing easy about their path there.
A new head coach in his first job, a backcourt who has been together for nine seasons and hasn’t been able to achieve that elusive accolade of a title, playing through yet another juggernaut of a Western Conference schedule.
Look no further than the season opener against the Sacramento Kings. There were times when Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell looked to flow with ease in the three-guard lineup rolled out by head coach Chauncey Billups. Then there were times, like in the third quarter, when the team had no answer for the Kings’ hot three-point shooting. Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield combining to go 12-18 from distance, 66.7%.
After the game, Billups, Lillard, McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic, the only players made available, echoed a similar sentiment; setting out to do what they want to do this season is going to be a process, it will take time.
Powell said as much earlier in training camp.
“Obviously, there’s going to be some rough patches, you’re bringing in a whole new coaching staff, you’re trying to learn how they want to do things, especially for those guys. They’ve been stuck in one way, playing one brand of basketball, so really breaking those old habits and picking up a new style of play and making that your every day, you know there’s going to be some ups and downs in trying to do that.”
Norman Powell knew all these things this summer. When he was being courted by multiple teams in free agency, he knew a path to a title that went through Portland would be far from an easy one. It would require a commitment to the little things, that could lead to big things, including a championship few would see coming.
He chose the Blazers not in spite of that, but because of that.
“We’re committed,” Powell said of his team. “Everybody wants it so now it’s just about doing all the work to get there.”
Work is something Powell is ready for, in fact he relishes it.
“I’ve always been about the grind.”
And it all started with a lesson in painting.
Norman Powell grew up in San Diego, California. His parents separated when he was an infant so it’s his mom and his late Uncle Raymond, who Powell says was “like a father to him,” who he credits for raising him.
“He was like my dad, giving me game, teaching me how to be a man, giving me the responsibility of being the man of the house at a really young age. He instilled some good qualities in me and characteristics just of being a man.”
And he did it, seemingly at every turn.
Powell remembers being 10, maybe 11 years old, and driving around with Raymond while he went on jobs for the painting business he owned, RCP Painting.
“I was trying to figure out how to paint and he’d be on me about details of the paint.”
Details like how the best paint jobs are really the best prep jobs.
“He told me how to lay down the blue painters tape on the edge of the walls and it was really precise on how is was supposed to go, making sure I had it laid straight.”
And when you got to the actual painting, the details still mattered.
“He told me how to use the paint roller and which way to paint making sure it was all in one direction,” Powell remembers. “How many layers and coats of paint each wall would take, especially if the wall was a different color.”
The lesson in paying attention to the details carried over to the court when the two would head to Balboa Park, where they spent hours shooting around and playing 1-on-1.
“It carried over into how I worked out, being really meticulous about getting things done the right way.”
“I would always want to stay until I beat him,” Powell remembers. “I don’t think I ever beat him straight up, I think he let me beat him.”
From practicing the details of his game, to analyzing the details of the greats’ games.
“He was a big-time basketball fan,” Powell said of Raymond.
The two would watch games live together, and then rewatch old games taped on VHS. Powell’s favorite player was Julius Erving, aka Dr. J. As he grew up it was Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade who Powell spent hours analyzing the little things they did to make them great.
“I always tried to model my game off Kobe and Wade,” Powell said. “Kobe’s approach and mentality towards the game I really tried to embrace at a young age. Dwayne Wade’s skill set because we had similar abilities and body type, [I studied] how he used that to his advantage.”
The love of the game was a seed Raymond planted, and nurtured. One that only grew as Powell did.
“I would always be around the game, I’d always have a basketball. I’d be laying on the floor in their house and I’d be shooting the basketball up, practicing my shot, imagining myself in those moments I would see on TV, so the love of the game was always there.”
Along with the lesson of how the little things matter, came the lesson of the attitude Powell should have about working on them.
From learning how to grind, to understanding why you grind.
It’s a tattoo few people see. But the basketball court inked across Powell’s chest, the words “for the family” emblazoned underneath the hoop, with the San Diego skyline in the background isn’t for anyone else, it’s for him.
“It’s a reminder of why I play,” Powell explains. “I love the game, this is my passion, but my ‘why,’ what is my ‘why?’ Why do I sacrifice, why do I go out there and workout three, sometimes four, times a day, five days a week. It’s all for a reason and it’s for my family, it was learned and he taught me that.”
As Raymond was teaching Powell to paint, and grind and hoop, he was also teaching him why he did all that.
“He instilled some qualities and characteristics I still carry to this day of being a man,” said Powell. “You have the responsibility of taking care of your family, not looking at the sacrifices that you make as like an issue or a burden.”
Thanks to Raymond, Powell not only knows how to grind, but why he grinds. It’s those two cornerstones of knowledge that have built the foundation of who he is. Someone who sees a challenge and runs right at it, not away from it, especially when your people are running with you.
And when it comes down to it, the people, not the place, are why Powell chose Portland in free agency.
Damian Lillard’s name popped up on Powell’s cell phone more than once after the Blazers’ season ended in frustrating fashion to a short-handed Nuggets team in the first round of the playoffs.
“Telling me he wanted me back,” Powell said of the texts from the Blazers’ franchise player.
CJ McCollum’s name scrolled across Powell’s phone screen this summer as well, but not in the form of a text.
“I’m a random FaceTime guy, so I randomly FaceTimed him, just to check on him,” McCollum said with a smile. “I reached out to him throughout the process.”
Both Blazers’ guards, as well as General Manager Neil Olshey made it obvious to Powell; they wanted him back in Portland.
“You want to go where the team and the players see value in what you bring to the table and Portland definitely saw that in me.”
“I’ve always been a person of loyalty, of going where the love is.”
He felt the same love from the Blazers as he did from UCLA, when he was choosing a college.
“They were on me, always talking to me, always calling, always coming to games, Neil was pretty much the same way. [He was] calling, checking in, talking to my agent, talking to me, really voicing how they view me.”
“It was an easy fit for now and for the future.”
The fit may be easy, but Powell knows that doesn’t mean achieving their goals will be.
“One thing I’ve picked up from being around the league, you can be on really good teams but it’s your commitment to what you’re trying to accomplish. You say the goal is championship, well what does it take to win a championship? Chauncey’s won one, I’ve won one, we’ve seen it firsthand and we know. So now it’s, if we really want to win one these are the things we need to do to get there.”
In other words, do you understand the grind?
“The ceiling is what we want it to be,” Powell said. “I’m not going to say, ‘oh the sky’s the limit,’ it’s what we want to be.”
The grind has already begun, with the Blazers taking their first loss of the season in their opener against the Kings, falling 124-121 after they had to grind their way back into the game.
That first loss though, doesn’t seem to have shaken anyone. With 81 games ahead of them, Powell, and the rest of the Blazers remain committed, to their overall goal, to the reason Powell came back.
“It’s the commitment to what you’re trying to do, not just what’s in front of you.”
For the family; the one he was born into and the one he chose this summer.