Channing Frye: Urban Explorer

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The degree to which pro ballplayers assimilate in their cities varies wildly. Some guys confine themselves to a small tract that includes the arena, practice facility, the airport, and their house or condo. The smaller the circumference around the circle that surrounds those points, the better. The NBA season is essentially an extended 8-month business trip. Come spring, it' s back "home" to Houston, Los Angeles, Philly, or Florida.

Then there's Channing Frye in Portland. The Blazers' big man is having a love affair with his city. He adores everything about it -- the art scene, the quirky neighborhood life, the political culture. Frye tells Willamette Week's Casey Jarman, "This is where I want to spend the rest of my life."

The problem for Frye is that his services as a basketball player might be valued more elsewhere. The Blazers' depth this season means Frye isn't logging many minutes. When Frye's contract is up at the end of the season, it's very likely that the Blazers' front office will tell him in the kindest possible terms that as much as Frye loves roaming Portland's Pearl District, the Blazers have better personnel to roam the paint.

That would be a cruel irony because, as Jarman reports, Frye is the team's true ambassador to its city:

He is, for fans more concerned with local art and cuisine than with Brandon Roy dropping 52 on Phoenix last week, the face of the Blazers. He's the guy they see regularly cracking jokes in the Portland press, eating with his bulldogs Milton (also known as "Fat Boy) and Lily at the Tin Shed on Northeast Alberta Street, or hanging out in the Pearl on First Thursday.

And the love is mutual. "This is where I want to spend the rest of my life, Frye says. "But, at the same time, if you ask me the question, 'Do I think this is the place for me in the next five or six years?' I'm saying definitely not.

On June 28, 2007, jersey-wearing and sign-wielding fans packed the Rose Garden for the biggest draft in recent Blazer history-the night the team used the NBA's top pick to choose Greg Oden. The future, it seemed, had arrived.

But an unexpected trade rumored on ESPN the same night also underscored just how serious the franchise was about starting anew. The deal, confirmed the following day, sent troubled forward Zach Randolph (the Blazers' leading scorer, rebounder and offensive focus) and two role players to New York for veteran guard Steve Francis-who would never actually play for Portland-and a lanky forward named Channing Frye...

When the trade was announced, he got a call from a close college friend who was born and raised in Oregon. "She was laughing her ass off, Frye says with a chuckle. "Because I used to be like, 'Portland, man, what's up there? Nothing but some grass and some rain and some hippies.'

"We're gonna show you a good time in Portland, the friend replied.

"What? Frye asked. "Are we gonna go to a granola festival?

Turns out, the 25-year-old Frye meshes perfectly with Portland's sensibilities: He's a music lover, from hip-hop and R&B to Coltrane ("when he goes off on a solo it's like a guy getting hot on the court) and even-if a touch ironically-Foreigner and Def Leppard ("I love that stuff, man...I love karaoke at Dante's).

Frye has turned his home into what amounts to a gallery for local artists like Alex Steckly and Klutch, who created a full-wall mural for the hallway between the master bedroom and living room.

He posts green tips on his blog at channingfrye.com and appears, bright smile alight, on recycling handouts from the city's Office of Sustainable Development.

Like any true resident of Little Beirut, Frye rolls his eyes when President Bush comes on television. He is goofy, a student of pop culture ("VH1 is seriously competing for best channel ever) and a bit of a nerd (his primary World of Warcraft character is "Dookiedrawls, a level 76 gnome frost mage-though he maintains he's not as serious about the game as Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who has a "really nice level 80 paladin).

On his blog, an ever-amused Frye posts YouTube clips of kids acting out medieval battles in the forest ("May you LARP forever and may the battlefields be filled with duct tape and just-pretend soldiers) and asks Portlanders for advice on new restaurants to try, while sharing his favorites.

"Some people think it's a façade, like I do this for attention, Frye says. "But it's just me being me. The Photoshopped poster on his wall, of monster trucks, naked-lady mudflaps and Frye in a Western leather vest, would speak to that point.

"We get stereotyped so much, Frye says of his fellow pro ballers. "Look, people are going to think what they're going to think of me, but if I'm myself consistently then I don't fit into your little box of what a professional athlete is. You don't need to be a stereotypical basketball player to be successful. You can be yourself. You can kick it with artists, you can kick it with nerds.

...Fate, Frye insists, brought him to Portland, a city far from the media spotlight.

"I came for a reason: I met my future wife, I got this house, I love Portland...I mean, how could you not?

From the night he arrived, Frye started exploring the city. He was introduced to Lauren Lisoski, who would become his fiancée on his first night in Portland ("I don't want to say love at first sight, but best friends at first week, Frye says). Together they sampled the city's outdoors, its nightlife and, most importantly, its food.

"People put their heart into food here, Frye says. "And their beer.

On an off-day at Southwest Macadam Avenue's Buffalo Gap, his regular hangout, no one tries to talk basketball or have their picture taken with Frye. He orders his marquee menu item, "Channing's Fries, and watches the Celtics play the Hawks on a big screen, cringing when Boston's Kevin Garnett gloats.