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All grown up, just like the Blazers

She figured it was time to attempt something bold, so Natalie Gilbert cleaned out her suburban Portland apartment, packed everything in her old Mitsubishi and drove to Hollywood.

She's taking lessons from a voice coach and is enrolled in dance, piano and acting courses, too. And so it turns out that the Trail Blazers aren't the only ones challenging themselves to rise to the moment.

You remember Gilbert, yeah? Natalie Gilbert, now 19, has moved to Hollywood to pursue her singing career.

Six years ago she won a contest and was invited to perform the national anthem during the first-round NBA playoff series between the Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks. She was 13 and woke up with the flu that day, but decided she wanted to perform anyway. Two hours before the game, the eighth-grader pulled on a black and white Jessica McClintock dress and went to her aunt's house to get her hair done.

Then, Gilbert's parents drove her to the Rose Garden, and she sat in the back seat, practicing the song. When she arrived, she went in the dressing room and sang the anthem perfectly five times. Then came show time. Gilbert took the microphone in her tiny hands, walked to the center of the court, looked around the sold-out arena, started singing -- and froze.

"I don't think anyone could do worse than I did," she said.

The words wouldn't come. Gilbert stood there, stammering. She wanted to close her eyes and be home. She wanted to drop the microphone and scurry out of the arena. She wanted to be anywhere else, doing anything else.

There were 20,000 fans in the arena that evening. There were three referees close by. And lots of media within a few feet. And there were 24 NBA players in uniform, lined up within a few steps of Gilbert.

Nobody moved.

Nobody except Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks.

It became a piece of Cheeks' legacy. He walked over, and put his arm around Gilbert. And he led her in the anthem, and soon, the entire arena was singing together. And it goes down as a warm, authentic moment that is emblematic of Portland and one that I think about every time an anthem is performed at the Rose Garden.

You rose together. You sang together.

All of you.

The Blazers lost the game, and the series, to the Mavericks. And after that, the franchise wilted. The front office turned sour. The roster was gutted. And in the next five years there were five lotteries and more than 100 Blazers front-office employees were fired.

Little Natalie?

She sat in sophomore math class a few years ago when her mother called to inform her that Cheeks was fired. She cried. And then came graduation, and she went part-time to Portland Community College and took a full-time job performing secretarial work at the family business, which is recycling and waste management.

The girl who sang the anthem that day, and dreamed about one day singing on Broadway, spent the last two years weighing trash.

Said her older brother, Vince: "Her talent is so far beyond garbage."

It's why her parents continued to encourage her. And why Vince told his sister all the time, "You need to go for it before it's too late." And it's why her friends encouraged her to try out for "American Idol," which she did last summer in San Francisco.

"I made it to the second round," Gilbert said, "then, they sent me home after hearing two notes."

There's been a lot of talk about the growth of the Blazers lately. Brandon Roy has developed into a star. Coach Nate McMillan has done an amazing job managing personnel. The young players didn't quit, or get discouraged when they were sent home. They didn't fade in the face of adversity and what was the toughest schedule in NBA history.

The Blazers have arrived.

This is a franchise that spent five years in the lottery, a good deal of that looking like an NBA garbage dump, and I'm thinking it wasn't so long ago that the most loyal Blazers fans were thinking, "The franchise's upside is so far beyond garbage."

Gilbert said she still has people who recognize her as the little girl who botched the anthem. She laughs about it and said, "You know, I wouldn't change a thing if I could go back. It was my fate, 100 percent."

She made lots of connections after that playoff series. She learned how to fail. She learned she's never really alone, even if it feels like it. She said she thinks of Cheeks and that moment every time she sees the anthem performed. In fact, the 76ers flew Gilbert to Philadelphia a couple of seasons ago to perform the opening-game anthem.

"I waited a very long time for people to get over it, but ultimately, I figured, messing up so bad was a good thing that happened to me."

The Blazers are back in the playoffs. And there will be anthems performed. And games played. And it feels like the journey is just beginning.

Gilbert's all grown up now, too. She's 19, and has an apartment in Burbank, Calif. And dreams of performing on Broadway, and she understands the odds maybe in the way this young basketball team understood them once.

Said Gilbert: "I'm on an amazing adventure now."

by John Canzano