BY HENRY ABBOTT
The 1997 accusation came from a woman who said in a lawsuit that on the night of Nov. 9, following an evening at a Boston comedy club, she was raped by Billups, Ron Mercer and Michael Irvin—who is of no relation to the former N.F.L. player—at Antoine Walker’s home. Walker and Mercer were Billups’s teammates in Boston, while Irvin was Walker’s roommate. No criminal charges were filed. Billups and Mercer settled with the woman for an undisclosed amount in 2000, and Walker also settled a lawsuit with the woman soon after. Billups denied any nonconsensual contact, but said he had sex with her.
—Sopan Deb in The New York Times, writing about new Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups
It is getting tricky to feel good about being a Blazer fan—and that’s before you learn about the necklace made from the skull of a penguin.
Let’s back up.
In fairness, and I say this as a proud Blazer fan, Blazer fans have unreal expectations. They want to win championships with Boy Scout-type players. They also want players to say the nicest things about Portland, the biggest city in a state that was literally founded as a “white utopia.” (I know of a current Blazer who has elected to say nothing public about an uncomfortable, seemingly racially motivated, run-in with the Portland police.)
Neil Olshey’s teams have come close to threading that needle. He has assembled a team of such good guys—the league’s first squad to be vaccinated!—that no one talks about the Jail Blazers anymore. They make the playoffs constantly, and the conference finals once. But with Damian Lillard’s clock ticking, and the defense abysmal, it’s hard to see a path to a title.
After the Blazers were eliminated by the injury-plagued Nuggets, Lillard began broadcasting discontent.
Lillard’s not in a great position to demand change. One of the richest contract extensions in NBA history won’t begin until next year. Lillard has three years and almost $130 million between here and free agency. He’s a Blazer.
But he’s the star, and he wants the team to do better.
When the Blazers parted ways with coach Terry Stotts, I learned that day that general manager Neil Olshey already knew whom he wanted as the next head coach. (Only later could I confirm it was Chauncey Billups.)
Lillard quickly made it known, through the media, that he preferred Jason Kidd or Billups. Maybe it wasn’t an ultimatum, it was certainly a power move, not unlike when Lillard went to bat for Stotts a few years earlier.
Kidd instantly backed out and … well, hey, look, out of all the candidates … The guy Olshey wanted all along. Olshey recently reminded the public that he and Dame talk all the time. Was this coordinated?
Who could resist Lillard’s choice?
Dave Deckard, for one. Stotts was fired on June 4. On June 5, the BlazersEdge founder wrote—thoughtfully—that his mother had been a victim of abuse and he could support neither Kidd nor Billups, not because he knew them to be terrible, but because he knew the feelings they’d stir up in some survivors of abuse.
No matter how much Damian Lillard and Neil Olshey like them, and no matter how sterling of a character these candidates now have, I hope the Blazers find another coach. If the Blazers decision-makers say they know these candidates as fine men and promising coaches, I have no reason to disbelieve them. Those aren’t the only voices in the conversation, though. And in this case, they may not be the most important.
Many others in the online Blazer fan community expressed similar sentiments. Blazer fans would need some convincing.
Then came word of an exhaustive search, three rounds of interviews, leaked word that Becky Hammon or Mike D’Antoni were in the running. Later we heard a former FBI investigator assessed the consensuality of that 1997 intercourse.
After all of that, a press conference was scheduled to announce Olshey would do exactly what sources say he originally wanted to do: Name his former Clippers co-worker Chauncey Billups as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.
There has long been a celebrity playbook for accusations of sexual misconduct: Don’t admit anything, don’t talk in specifics. Say vague things or no things at all. Stories of sexual assault have been swept under the sports rug since the beginning.
It’s amazing how well it has worked. I’ll never forget the story of Anthony Mason and his friend, who were accused of statuatory rape for an incident involving a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old. “The girls said Mason and Duggins each took a girl into their respective limousines,” reported the UPI, “and had sex, then pulled over and traded partners.” Mason’s lawyer denied everything, eventually Mason did community service in his next NBA city.
It wasn’t that long ago that several Blazers reportedly had sex with two 16-year-old girls they met in a Salt Lake City mall. The NBA has many stories like that. Has any powerful NBA man discussed such things in any detail in public, or expressed convincing remorse?
The old deny-and-obfuscate playbook has certainly worked in the past. Would it still, after Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, #MeToo, and our “grab ‘em by the pussy” president? Can powerful men accused of sexual crimes still just duck hard questions and keep ascendant careers?
There’s an art to conveying “we take your concerns seriously.” That was the task in introducing Billups to Blazer fans.
The first problem: Olshey’s the NBA’s reigning king of smarm. On his warmest and fuzziest days his body language and tone veer toward, “it’s cute that you think you understand what I do.” The moment called for vulnerability; he’s teflon.
The second problem: He’d be addressing local journalists. Through the years I have heard incredible stories of his essentially saying to their faces that they don’t rank. They demand explanation? Not Neil’s problem. He doesn’t have to explain it. Not to them.
National journalists, on the other hand … Olshey has long lavished one-on-one time on the short list of insiders who can elevate his brand and career prospects. (After Olshey embarrassingly lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Adrian Wojnarowski told a fawning story, full of details only Olshey could have known, which described Olshey as “one of the NBA’s true self-made executives.”)
This guy, talking to that crowd … seemed unlikely to convince anyone that “we take your concerns seriously.”
It turns out Ashley Clinkscale has been working for the Blazers for months, initially as the team’s senior vice president of communications (after an esteemed career with the Thunder and a number of agencies). Later, Blazers CEO Chris McGowan asked her to also manage the team’s diversity, equity, and inclusion. But for most Blazer fans and some journalists in the room, the first time they learned the Blazers had a high-ranking female communications executive was the day the team needed to allay concerns about an alleged rape.
One of the first things Clinkscale said, before the press conference began, was to point out “Chauncey’s daughters” were in attendance.
The signals of female empowerment were in place. What about the substance?
Both Billups and Olshey made comments about the 1997 incident, but no one expressed a whiff of concern about the alleged victim.
Reporter Anne Peterson of the Associated Press asked about the search, and why Portland didn’t pick someone with more experience. Olshey said things like, “we were looking for somebody who I know has natural gravitas, leadership skills, someone with a history on the defensive end of the floor.” She had asked about the search. Here was a chance to talk about how seriously they had considered this Hammon or that D’Antoni, and what tipped the decision. Olshey replied by describing the man sitting at his right elbow, a former colleague, describing qualities he’d known about for a decade. If Neil just wanted Chauncey, what was that search about again?
Sean Highkin @highkinNeil Olshey on Becky Hammon: "We obviously admire Becky. She did a great job. Making it as far as the owner in the process isn't easy. She made it all the way to the ownership level, which is an endorsement."
Asked about Becky Hammon, Olshey said, “she made it all the way to the ownership level [of interviews], which is really an endorsement.” It came awfully close to “pretty good for a girl.”
Let’s not get confused. Was a crime committed? Did Coach Billups commit a serious crime? Sexual assault is famously difficult to assess. Olshey said “nothing non-consensual happened,” and that the organization had investigated the incident and found no reason not to hire Billups.
Bleacher Report’s Sean Highkin wanted to know more. “I guess I’m still looking for a little clarity,” Highkin asked, “about the investigation you guys conducted. Who did you guys hire, who did they talk to, what specifically did they tell that led you to the conclusion that you got to?”
Clinkscale started to cut in. Olshey talked over her. “That’s proprietary, Sean, so you’re just going to have to take our word.” Disdain level: 10.
The Blazers were building a brick wall around the investigation; the Athletic’s Jason Quick tried to navigate around it with Billups’ own words—what had he learned from it all? The next few seconds are an NBA Zapruder film: Did Olshey’s chugging water while glaring to the right cue Clinkscale to quickly silence Quick?
Perhaps the most powerful 80 minutes in NBA podcast history is this heartfelt breakdown of Olshey’s press conference.
Deckard co-hosts the podcast with Dia Miller, who talks openly about how she grew up with a life-sized Clyde Drexler on the wall, and discovered the Blazers again as an adult in a dark period after an abusive relationship. When the press conference began, and she saw Billups and Olshey sit down, she says she had “a physical reaction I could not control” but really wanted Billups to talk her out of those feelings.
“Maybe he has something to say,” she remembers thinking.
Accountability is different from shame. Brene Brown says accountability makes it possible to move on together, to see each other as human:
As we start to hold people accountable and say, “Hey, listen, it’s not OK to say that.” And people are like, “You’re shaming me.” No, no, no, I’m just holding you accountable. If you’re feeling shame about what you said, that’s you. That’s your thing. Those are your feelings. Those are your feelings. I’m just holding you accountable in a respectful, productive way.
But the event seemed not to be designed to allay the concerns of Dia Miller.
Something happened in 1997. Blazer fans want to account for it, in the hopes they can move on to the business of cheering. Of course Blazer fans want to love their head coach.
But first: is lifting up Billups pushing down a victim? “That’s proprietary, Sean.”
Billups talked about the event as a trial for him and his family. Billups talked about holding people accountable. Deckard suggests, “you first.”
Miller says the whole event did nothing to get her to move on from this story from Billups’ past. “Every time I see his face, that’s going to be the first thing I think of.”
What if Clinkscale had played a bigger role? She was recently on the Women Blazers podcast, where she discussed the early years of her career saying things like, “there were many nights I came home crying … but I continued to challenge myself,” and, “being on the front lines, using my voice, being an advocate—is just something that came naturally.”
What a waste of her experience to have her take clumsy cues from Olshey.
It might have been the least successful press conference in NBA history. Sources said Olshey’s job was beyond secure before that day. (He IS the Trail Blazers. Almost no one in the building has been here since 2012. He has been running the Blazers longer than his boss, Jody Allen.)
Those same sources sound less certain now.
Another story from two people who know him is that Neil Olshey has been openly complaining about po-dunk Portland for years and—with a big guaranteed deal and eyes on bigger markets—would be happy to get fired right now.
If Blazer fans have a feeling this all could have been different or better, it probably stems from reports like this. Did the Blazers come close to making history with the first female NBA head coach?
Maybe not. Does it even make sense? Can you remember a story about a male billionaire hoping to get his way? Jody Allen could hire Mick Jagger if she wanted.
Was this leak a smokescreen, to fuzz up the idea the Billups selection was on rails?
In addition to giving the feeling that Hammon was almost the pick, it also gave the feeling that one of the NBA’s first female owners might be lurking as a force of decency.
This might be the hardest part of being a Blazer fan: We keep learning more about the Allens and the news keeps getting worse. Tom Leonard in the Daily Mail:
In 1998, Allen ended up in court after Abbie Phillips, who he had employed to run his film and TV production company, Storyopolis, accused him of sexually assaulting her.
He denied the charge and the case was settled out of court, but not before her lawyer had accused him of mistreating four other women — 'developing crushes, lavishing gifts and vacations on, and then firing, married female employees'.
In 1999, Paul Allen reportedly invested with Ghislaine Maxwell and her siblings. Four years after that, the billionaire was part of an elite digital networking startup with Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and a list of people who’d later emerge as having Epstein connections. Paul Allen’s in a photo with the mysterious Nikole Junkermann. (Did Epstein go on a Microsoft trip to Russia?)
Town & Country magazine’s Ben Widdicombe explored the role of Ghislaine Maxwell who was spotted hanging out on Paul Allen’s yacht: “to hang around those billionaire guys,” said one of his sources, who says he was speaking about no one in particular, “you either have to be sleeping with them or you’re finding them girls.”
Since Paul’s 2018 death, the team has been run by Paul’s sister Jody. Levi Pulkkinen in the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported the story of several lawsuits brought by bodyguards for Paul’s company, Vulcan, where Jody was long the CEO. In the fall of 2010, a new head of security arrived from the FBI and found the security team in disarray “because of Jody Allen’s sexual harassment of team members,” and—in some allegations—messing with the pay of those who rebuffed her advances.
One former military man said under oath he didn’t feel comfortable being alone with Jody Allen. Pulkkinen writes:
Another former Vulcan bodyguard, also a retired Navy SEAL, said Jody Allen bought tight, revealing swimsuits for the security detail and asked the men to “do a fashion show.” Vulcan contends that any conduct resembling that described was entirely innocent and occured in the spirit of fun.
In 2012, one veteran testified, “I’d rather get shot at than do this.” One remembered telling a Vulcan attorney that Jody Allen’s behavior was “going to bring the company down.”
Wrapped up in those lawsuits and arbitration—some of which were settled—were several allegations about the bones of rare animals being smuggled for Jody Allen. The FDA reportedly collected and destroyed 78 pounds of Allen’s giraffe bones. And then there were the penguin parts.
In a memo, a security officer noted that they were able to make sure “the penguin bones that JA picked up in Antarctica were boxed and put on the plane without being scanned at customs.” Jody Allen emailed her nanny looking for a penguin skull that went missing during the return from Antarctica; a friend apparently wanted to make jewelry from it.
Deposed during the lawsuit, Jody Allen refused to say whether she took the bones or trespassed into a protected penguin nesting area.
Even security guards with special forces training needed protection from these billionaires. What chance did the penguins stand?
Maybe the best news to emerge from all this, from a source who knows Allen: She doesn’t want to do anything that would hurt the value of the team, because one of these days she’s going to sell it.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop!