COATED WITH PRIDE
By Pat Perkins
Observer Staff Writer
The cancer ravaging Verlee Jones' esophagus is nothing compared to her disappointment at the Portland Trail Blazers' recent departure from the playoffs.
"I hope somebody blows the Lakers out of the playoffs," said the 69-year-old La Grande grandmother. "That's just a wish because I know it ain't gonna happen."
Portland's first-round failures against Los Angeles, including Sunday's loss, have done nothing to quell Jones' support for the team. She's been a Blazer fan since the 1970s, when the team won its only NBA championship and Jones and her husband drove trucks across the country.
"I was going down the West Virginia turnpike and I had the game on," Jones said about that 1977 championship Game 6.
"I pulled over to listen to the game and my husband woke up and said, What are you stopped for?' I told him I was listening to the game and he listened with me," said Jones, who lives at Grande Ronde Retirement Residence.
All these years, she had never seen a game. So after she was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, her daughter, Verla Kirkeby, got her tickets to a game. The only problem was that Jones was in a wheelchair at the time and the seats were not that great.
Kirkeby turned to Grande Ronde Retirement Residence administrator John Lamoreau, another Blazer fan, to see if he could arrange for better seats. A friend of Lamoreau's in Portland helped upgrade the tickets to the wheelchair accessible seating in the Rose Garden.
This "Make-a-Wish" scenario would have been a fine ending to the story for Jones, even though Portland lost to the lowly Memphis Grizzlies that night and star forward Rasheed Wallace didn't play.
"She was so happy to see a game," Kirkeby said.
But Lamoreau's friend in Portland went a step further.
"All of a sudden in the mail, I get this letter," Jones said.
The letter was from Chris Dudley, a backup Portland center who has done more community service work in his career than most NBA teams.
Dudley's letter thanked Jones for being a Blazer fan, but the package that came with the letter had something more.
Dudley had included one of his Blazer warmup jackets from the 1993-94 season and had autographed it on the back. The size-48, extra-large coat was more like a bathrobe or night coat on Jones.
"She practically slept in the thing that first night," Kirkeby said.
It couldn't have come at a better time. Jones had just completed her first treatment of chemotherapy and was about as low as she could get.
"This elevated her spirits so much," Lamoreau said.
"It was such a neat thing for this to come," Kirkeby said. "It made a difference in her whole attitude."
Jones spent last week in a Boise hospital undergoing another round of chemo. She watched the playoffs from there, talking yelling to each player as if they could hear her.
"She yells so loud that they have to come tell her to be quiet," Kirkeby said. "In the hospital, they had to close the door."
"I don't mean to be loud, but I am," Jones said.
She won't be loud for long. She will have her esophagus removed in four weeks, and more chemotherapy is on the horizon.
Jones now wants the Sacramento Kings to win the championship, but she won't seriously follow basketball until the new season starts this fall, and the Blazers take another stab at their second title.
Expect Jones to be wearing her oversized gift for each game.
"It's large, but I wouldn't give it up for anything," she said.