Column: Miller says Penn's firing was isolated incident
During what has already been a surreal, unbelievable season, the sight nearly defied reality.
The image: A recently fired Tom Penn, former Portland Trail Blazers vice president of basketball operations, carrying boxes filled with possessions out to his car.
This was it for Penn. This is what it had all come down to.
The Blazers had just wrapped up another practice at the team’s workout facility in Tualatin, Ore. And as a mid-March sun shined down Thursday afternoon, Penn — the former golden boy who at times shined as bright as his friend and ex co-worker, Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard — was suddenly on the outside looking in.
Once the boxes were inside his car, Penn hopped in, closed the door and drove away. But while he was able to watch three years with the Blazers suddenly disappear and dissolve in the rearview mirror, questions surrounding his unexpected departure — and the implications of what his firing means for the future of the organization — are not going anywhere. Moreover, they are mounting and gaining weight.
“In my many years of doing this, nothing was more baffling or befuddling than this action with Tom,” said Warren LeGarie, agent for Penn and Pritchard. “This is one I can’t explain.”
Reached late Thursday night by telephone in Los Angeles, Blazers president Larry Miller attempted to explain.
Miller said he could not reveal specific details about what caused Penn to be relieved of his job Tuesday, in a move that was originally chalked up to “philosophical differences.” But Miller did make an effort to paint a broader picture.
He said it was not one person who decided that Penn and the Blazers should suddenly part ways — it was a group senior management decision that involved executives in Seattle and Portland.
Miller also disputed the notion that Penn’s firing was the result of long-simmering animosity between the basketball and business sides of the Blazers.
“We have a closer relationship between basketball and the rest of the business more than any team in the NBA,” Miller said.
He added: “Everybody in the organization wants the basketball side to do well. Because the better the basketball department does, the better we all do.”
Miller then shot down the biggest wave to crash since Tuesday’s shocker. To Miller, the idea that Penn’s firing ringed a bell that signaled the eventual end for Pritchard in Portland is “absolutely being dreamed up.”
“Kevin is our GM. He continues to be our GM,” Miller said. “From my perspective, Kevin’s done a good job of building the team that has gotten us to where we are. To me, this was an incident that was specific to Tom Penn.”
Miller’s words contrast recent statements made by sources close to the situation who have spoken of burned bridges, overflowing pride and unchecked egos. Words such as “spies,” “micromanaging” and “jealousy” have been used, while expletive-filled tirades have followed during attempts to explain the mysterious circumstances surrounding Penn’s departure.
“It wasn’t just someone woke up (Tuesday) and said, ‘Let’s fire Tom Penn,’ ” a league source said. “There was a reason.”
Nearly three days after the fact, the real reason is still unknown. Neither Pritchard nor owner Paul Allen have publicly commented, while even three-time All-Star guard Brandon Roy was left to ponder what caused the end of Penn’s at times magical run with the Blazers.
“I was like, ‘Wow. I wonder what happened?’ ” Roy said. “Usually a guy gets fired; maybe something happened. But it was kind of just something that got brought to my attention. Nobody really knows. I don’t want to play detective. I’ll let you guys do that. Maybe you tell me what happened.”
Thursday night, while staying within the confines of what he could and could not publicly discuss, Miller did his best. The team president did not sound defensive, nor did he sound guarded. He answered every questioned asked and ducked none. He also wished Penn the best, while noting the remarkable progress the basketball side of the organization had made in recent years.
And before he got off the line, Miller attempted to sew back what had temporarily been ripped apart.
“From my perspective, we should be focused on winning games and trying to go deep in the playoffs,” Miller said. “And as unfortunate as this is, we should now move to put it behind us and move forward.”
Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter