Inside the Lumberjacks
- By Tim Wallis, Day 1, 2021
Hello, readers. My name is Chip Woodson and I’m going to be covering the Portland Lumberjacks this season for the Portland Observer. In a city that has long been hungry for a professional sports team, the Lumberjacks are sure to attract a devoted local following, but the roster is perhaps the least recognisable in the JBL. In an effort to redress that situation, the Lumberjacks’ General Manager, Tim Wallis, invited about a dozen local journalists to the opening day of training camp. We were able to chat at length with each player and coach as well as the GM, and by the end of the day those of us who were paying attention came away with an understanding of what this franchise is all about.
“We know we’re not expected to do much this season,” the GM told me as we watched the players running through drills from his office window overlooking the court. “It’s going to take most of the expansion teams a few years to acquire enough top end talent that they can contend for a title. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start building that championship contender from the bottom up. Superstars alone don’t win you rings. You need a supporting cast and you need the right coaching. To be a truly great team, it’s even more than that. It’s about culture. We’re setting the standards from day one and making sure every person in this franchise knows what it means to be a Lumberjack.”
He points to Luke Williams, pushing himself so hard in the line sprints that you would think he was the 60th pick in the draft just trying to cling to a roster spot rather than a 10 year veteran who is almost guaranteed the starting shooting guard position on opening night.
“That’s why he’s here,” Wallis continues. “He’s a good honest player that will play a lot of minutes for us this year, but that’s [he points to Williams, more emphatically] the reason we got him. He gets every bit out of himself. When he eventually retires, he’s not going to be wondering if he made the most of the great opportunity this sport gave him. That’s what we want from every player on the roster. We don’t expect them all to match that [he points to Williams again], but if you’re putting in the work, we will give you every opportunity to be a part of this team moving forward.”
I asked the GM who he saw as the Lumberjacks’ franchise player. Was it their first draft pick, Jarvis McSwine? His former Tritons’ point guard, Keith Humphries, who he rushed to offer a maximum contract on the opening day of free agency? Or perhaps the team’s only household name, Linton Hughes?
“We’re not worried about franchise players. We’ve gotta build a franchise first. We’re really excited about Jarvis but the kid is 18. Hawk (Humphries) is one of the best young point guards in the league, but he knows as well as anyone that the contract he got this year was due to exceptional circumstances. We’re not expecting him to play like a 20 million dollar player. He just has to do what we brought him here to do. And L-Train? He’ll be shouldering a lot of the media load this year and of course he’ll be a leader internally, but we’re obviously not building around him. Like I said, we build the franchise first. Nobody on this roster, on the coaching staff or in this office is bigger or more important than the franchise. Every one of us will leave this place some day and the Portland Lumberjacks will move on without us. But we can set the standards, build the culture and establish a reputation that will outlast our own careers.”
Keith “Hawk” Humphries may not be under pressure from the GM to live up to his contract, but he’s not naive enough to think that pressure won’t come from elsewhere. If his shot is not falling or if too many passes are ending up in enemy hands, he can be assured that he’ll be reminded about his many millions by fans and media commentators alike.
“People are going to expect a certain level of output for that money,” Hawk admits. “And there’s probably no stat line I can put up that will convince certain people that I’m worth my salary.”
Humphries has the most secure position on the team, not only because of his contract but also because he’s the only experienced player at his position. Fighting for his backup minutes will be second round rookies Jax LaRose and Deonte Christian, and Hawk finds himself now in the mentor role, after serving as Austin Williams’ understudy in Oakland for his first four seasons.
“It’s a little different,” explains Hawk. “Austin was already a legend when I came on the scene and was, like, twice my age. I’m actually only two years older than these guys. In a way that might make it easier to relate and get certain messages across, but at the same time, they don’t look at me the way I used to look at Austin [laughs]. But yeah, that’s another thing. Austin was always a star. I know what it’s like to have to wait for your chances. I think I can teach these guys something about being ready when those chances come.”
I happened to be in the locker room talking with rookie bigs Austin Bryant and Dorian “Cat” Sylvester, when Linton Hughes first walked through the door. Picks 38 and 53 respectively, both are New York natives who will be hoping to establish themselves in the rotation early in the season. It was Bryant who spotted L-Train first, his eyes almost popping out of his head despite the fact that he must have known this moment was approaching. He nudged Sylvester who paused briefly to smile at the sight of the JBL legend before continuing to answer a question from the young woman interviewing him for her college paper.
Hughes has been one of the brightest stars in the league since before many of his teammates were born. As native New Yorkers, Bryant and Sylvester grew up as Rens fans and were 15 and 16 respectively when L-Train joined the team.
“He was already one of the oldest players in the league by then, but it was exciting,” Bryant explained when I asked him later about his reaction. “He was already one of my favourite players from when I first starting watching JBL as a little kid, so to have him come to my team... I got his Rens jersey the day it appeared in the stores. I actually wore it today but the boss [GM Wallis] made me take it off.”
Sylvester had the sense to leave his New York #35 at home in the closet, but he also regards Hughes as one of his greatest role models through his high school years. “I used to watch Rens games sometimes and never take my eyes off him until he went to the bench and sometimes not even then,” laughed the 6’11 C/F dubbed “Cat” by the GM. “He’s just such a pro, such a big time player...I wanted to be like that.”
It took a while for me to identify Vlade Rimac, the inaugural Portland head coach. While the voices of assistants Reggie King and Antonio Delrosa echoed around the mostly empty stadium, Rimac moved almost anonymously from player to player, chatting quietly about how they were settling into Portland with just a slight Serbian accent. Rimac has earned a reputation as a good development coach but if it weren’t for expansion, he would probably have given up on ever getting another head coaching gig. His first opportunity was in 2012 with New Orleans, but he was fired after compiling a 22-90 record in two seasons. He’s been back and forth between the US and Europe since then, but was top of the Lumberjacks’ wish list for their first head coach.
“We’re obviously a young team,” explained Wallis. “And he’s one of the best going around when it comes to young players. He’s got this fatherly, even grandfatherly presence and the kids listen to him and want to make him proud. He’s a motivator and that’s what we wanted.”
For his part, Rimac feels the same way about the GM with regard to his suitability for a new franchise and a young roster. “He’s loyal to his people. If you’re on board with his vision, then you’re family. I’ve been telling these kids how fortunate they are to be drafted here. To some GMs, they would be simply assets, to be flipped for something more valuable at the first opportunity. They can make a home here.”
Across the many conversations I had with players, coaches and staff, there were three recurring themes: work ethic, teamwork and loyalty. It seems the Lumberjack may be a fitting mascot for what is shaping up as a blue-collar team with a focus on family and community.