New book reveals fan inside Paul Allen

COMMENTARY: Owner of Seahawks, Blazers is more than just a computer nerd

May 24, 2011 

From Paul Allen’s memoir “Idea Man,” the national media have focused on his sometimes stormy relationship with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

And surely the technophiles have been atwitter with racy passages recounting the way DECtape was once a status symbol as it had “dual redundancy and two layers of Mylar protecting the oxide.”

Ah, yes, what young man didn’t crave it?

For our purposes, Paul Allen is the most influential person in Pacific Northwest sports. And aside from the revelations about his professional, business and personal relationships, the book provides at least a couple of chapters of insight behind the scenes of sports development in the region.

It’s not stretching to suggest that Allen and his software millions played a large role in saving professional football in Seattle. But he’s clearly been publicity shy over the years, and a prevailing perception is that he’s a bit of a reclusive computer nerd.

So, one of the early surprises in the recently published book is that Allen’s love of sports initially arose as a participant. Well, sort of a participant. He said he sat on the end of the bench for his peewee church league basketball team.

At Washington State, he played hours of H-O-R-S-E in the frat house driveway where his “notorious ‘matador’ shot was hard to beat.” He claims he rarely dropped a pass on his frat intramural football team.

When the little Microsoft outfit moved to Bellevue in 1979, Allen said he got swept up in the community fervor surrounding the Sonics’ NBA championship run. In the early 1980s, when he fought off Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Sonics games “became my escape,” he said. “(They were) a godsend in getting me through that difficult time. No matter how rotten I felt, there was always the next game to look forward to.”

It seems that some of those passages show more vulnerability and humanity than Allen has revealed since becoming a public figure. Yes, he’d been a fan, but an even deeper connection was forged at a time of deep personal challenge.

We are left to only imagine how enjoyable it would be to write the few sentences that start off the chapter on his purchase of the Portland Trail Blazers: “On March 13, 1986, Microsoft issued its initial public offering. I sold 200,000 shares … overnight I was $175 million richer.”

An NBA basketball team seemed like a fun toy on which to splurge. The Sonics were not on the market, but the team down I-5 came dislodged for $65 million.

Coming to ownership as a fan was the best thing, because it assured his passion for the product, but the worst, at first, because he found himself getting too close to players.

He started receiving 3 a.m. calls from Clyde Drexler, complaining about his teammates or his salary. Allen still loved him, and ended up nixing a trade of Drexler for Hakeem Olajuwon because he was so close to Drexler.

A curious character in Allen’s ownership of both the Blazers and Seahawks was executive Bob Whitsitt – who ended up being fired from both franchises.

“Some of his moves were brilliant,” Allen wrote. “But there were too many times when Whitsitt operated like a rotisserie league GM, piling up players with gaudy numbers.”

Allen writes that basketball was his passion, whereas his involvement with the Sea-hawks was initially from a sense of “civic duty” to preserve them.

He was moved, of course, by the team’s run to Super Bowl XL, but a surprising highlight for him came moments before a game when he raised the 12th Man Flag.

The big screen played a tribute that brought Allen to tears: “His dad took him to Husky games. … He saved our Seahawks … built the NFL’s most beautiful stadium …”

“As I read those words … my eyes were wet,” he wrote. “I thought about my father, the man who’d taught me how to throw a tight spiral, and I wish he could have been at my side.”

He recalled watching his Blazers take on the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 NBA Finals, and seeing Michael Jordan net six 3-point shots in the first half.

“I’ve seen just one other person up close who compares to him, who wanted not only to beat you, but to crush you if he could,” Allen wrote. “Those two stood apart for raw competitiveness: Michael Jordan and Bill Gates.”

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