Oregon is known for its wheat, wilderness and rain — but not so much for its professional athletics. Until 1970 we were a Siberia for major sports franchises.

Then came the Portland Trail Blazers. In just seven years they were champions, and they were long Oregon’s sole top-level sports team.

Bill Schonely, the broadcaster from the first tip-off in 1970 until the 1998 season, stopped into the East Oregonian Pendleton offices to drum up support for the latest iteration of the Blazers. The franchise also shot a commercial, ran a skills clinic out on the reservation and signed autographs at Wildhorse Casino during its trip out east.

Schonely couldn’t help but think back about the way the rural areas of the state helped support the fledgling team.

“There were some huge fans out here,” he said. “It was too far to get to the games, and you couldn’t find them on TV. People used to listen, listen, listen. A lot more than they do now.”

It was that radio audience that helped Schonely coin the phrase “Rip City,” which has become the team’s slogan and rallying cry.

The Blazers are on a mission to reconnect and remind fans they are Oregon’s team — not Portland’s team. In the Round-Up City, Schonely sported a cowboy hat and walked down Main Street looking for old friends.

The Blazers no longer have a stranglehold on sports in the state. The Portland Timbers have staked their claim in the increasingly popular Major League Soccer, their fan base the envy of many. Wouldn’t it be great to see a Timbers exhibition game in the Round-Up Arena?

The Winterhawks are just a step below the National Hockey League, and there have long been rumors that the NHL might consider moving to town. And of course there are University of Oregon Ducks, who made their reputation first in track and field, and more recently in football. Outfitted by Nike, they have staked out their own national recognition.

We aren’t naturally a spectator sport culture out here in the West, where mountains beg to be climbed and skied, where rivers beg to be fished and where horses need to be fed.

But major sports will have a larger impact as Portland morphs into a top-flight city and urban culture takes hold. Depending on Trail Blazers success on and off the court through that era of growth, the team can continue to help mold Oregon culture — even out here in cowboy country.

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