Remembering Seattle: The Best Basketball City In America Without A Basketball Team

Gary Payton

Insulting, depressing, shameful, unfair, bizarre, and completely idiotic -- the fact that Seattle doesn't have a pro basketball team is all of those things. We take a closer look at the best basketball city without a team, and why it deserves better.

It started the other day, when someone sent me a transcript from a live chat with Nate Robinson.

It took place on the website of Nate's hometown newspaper, and most of it was Nate telling random anecdotes that kept everyone entertained. Like his "epic" water balloon fight at University of Washington:

It started with me and Brandon Roy on the same team against the whole school. We literally went to class early and couldn't wait to get out to start the water balloons. it was hot like now. We took the fight to the Hub, to the gym. Those were the days. Classic.

Nothing that special, but funny. The sort of stuff that makes you like a guy.

But interspersed in all of Nate's back-and-forth with the fans, there were moments that made me remember how insane it is that the city of Seattle doesn't have a basketball team.

That UW hoops tradition that Nate helped start in 2004:

...That group of guys that we had on that team was perfect for the fit of Husky basketball.

When a commenter who called himself "David Stern" asked a question:

I'm not gonna answer any questions from David Stern until he brings the Sonics back from Seattle.

When someone asked about a two-on-two game against (fellow Seattle guys) Brandon Roy and Jon Brockman:

They're gonna kill us. Give me Tre Simmons and we'll win. We'll beat 'em every day. No disrespect to Quincy [Pondexter], but I never played with him. Give me a Seattle guy.

Or the best 6'0-and-under player in the NBA (other than himself):

Probably Aaron Brooks...Shout out to Seattle!

The starting five for Seattle alumni:

The 206 starters... [Brandon] Roy, [Jamal] Crawford, [Tre] Simmons, [C.J.] Giles, Terrence Williams. And me coming off the bench as the sixth man of the year. I could go on...but so many players... Aaron Brooks, Jason Terry, Marvin Williams...Martell Webster, Spencer Hawes, Brockman, etc., etc. Coach Mike Bethea is the coach.

And of course... Will the Sonics come back?

I hope so. Seattle deserves its team back... not now, but RIGHT NOW!

None of this is that special, obviously. We shouldn't be surprised that a Seattle native talking to Seattle fans talked about Seattle basketball. But it struck a chord with me for two reasons.

  1. If the average NBA fan didn't stumble across the transcript of a random Nate Robinson chat, he or she would have no reason to ever think about basketball in Seattle.
  2. When you really think about basketball in Seattle—what it means to the city, the bond between the players that grew up there, and its absurdly rich talent pool compared to other, much bigger cities—it's just not right for that city to go unrepresented in the NBA ranks. What's the right word for the current situation?

Insulting? Too self-righteous. Depressing? Too passive. Shameful? Too melodramatic. Ridiculous? Not dramatic enough. Unfair? Too whiny. Bizarre? Too vague. Idiotic? Too easy.

There's no one word to describe what's happened to pro basketball in Seattle, and yet, it's all of those things—an insulting, depressing, shameful, unfair, bizarre, and completely idiotic reality of the NBA right now. It's an abortion of common sense.

Why are we talking about Seattle basketball on a random Friday in August? Because Nate Robinson reminded me, and because nobody else will talk about it for the next nine months, save for a few good jokes about David Stern and Clay Bennett. Not because I think David Stern is evil and needs to be raked over the coals for this all over again. But because I was talking about basketball the other day with my younger cousin, and he knew nothing about pro basketball in Seattle. Not even the '96 Sonics.

Some would be quick to point out that Seattle still has the Storm, currently tearing through the WNBA like the '96 Bulls. And that's true. But will the Storm ever generate a crowd like THAT? Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson are great, but Seattle deserves Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

Or, say, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Imagine how much cooler it'd be to have a Sonics-Lakers series than Lakers-Thunder. Or when the Thunder visited the Blazers last season in a crucial end-of-the-year matchup. On its own, the game was phenomenal—but good lord. If that was the Sonics? It would have been complete mayhem. The I-5 rivalry, reignited!

Instead, it was just another game between two good teams fighting for playoff seeding.

Not a knock on OKC's fans, because they're awesome. But think of it this way: Oklahoma City is the brand new mansion in the NBA suburbs. Seattle's the brownstone in the heart of downtown that's been around for 200 years. How do you measure the difference between those two? Square footage—or a stadium's seating capacity—doesn't tell the whole story. Or any of it, really.

Seattle Basketball History: An Overview

The Seattle SuperSonics played their first season in 1967, becoming the first pro sports team in the Pacific Northwest. Like most expansion teams, they stumbled out of the gates, before hitting their stride in the mid-70s. They won the franchise's only title in 1979, with Hall-of-Famers Lenny Wilkens and Dennis Johnson leading the way. From there, the 1980s brought moderate success, and continued rabid support.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp arrived shortly thereafter, and through the early-90s, the Sonics were as captivating as any team in the NBA. The fans rabid support was finally rewarded. And then, it wasn't.

The team refused to meet Kemp's demands for a new contract, and instead used their money to sign Jim McIlvaine to a $32 million contract, upsetting the Sonics' biggest superstar, and ultimately prompting a trade that sent him to Cleveland. It was the beginning of the end for a team that could have been a dynasty if they'd been given another few years to flower. But that wasn't meant to be. From there, the team settled into the NBA's second class. Save for the final season in Seattle, the Sonics were never terrible. But they also weren't good enough to ever stir the imagination.

These changes all happened under Howard Schulz, an owner that never really understood Seattle basketball. That became clear as the years passed under his watch, and after a while, fans began to resent the owner. Fans stopped showing up religiously, the team wasn't good enough to counteract the fans' resentment toward the owner, the people of Washington refused to publicly fund a new stadium, and... It all sort of mushroomed.

That's how the door was opened for Seattle to lose the first pro sports team the city had ever known, and the team the city had once loved more than anything. Howard Schulz didn't understand.

It's More Than Wins And Losses

There's a movie about all this that you should watch, even if you don't care about basketball. Watch the first half of Sonicsgate, if nothing else, then for the insight it provides as to what sports really mean to us as fans. Not every team is as meaningful as the Sonics were to Seattle, but for the ones that are, a pro sports team means so much more than a revenue stream for the city, or an excuse to have a parade once-in-a-while. At their best, pro sports teams shape the way we understand the world and relate to each other.

This is rare, of course.

I'm from Washington D.C. Do the Wizards shape this city's understanding of anything? No way. Do the Washington Capitals? Not a chance. The Nationals? ... Wait, who are the Nationals?

But the Redskins absolutely do. I didn't grow up a Redskins fan, but in D.C., it doesn't matter. The 'Skins set the tone for everything. I knew a doctor who once said, "When the Redskins win, the next day, you can tell throughout the entire hospital. Everybody is a little more upbeat. When they lose... That's another story."

In the best of cases, that's what can happen with a sports team. When a city's soul becomes inextricably linked to a team, and sport, that allows everyone to relate to one another. That was the Sonics in Seattle. "There are a lot of cities in our league that sort of run into each other," said former Sonic Brent Barry. "If you were painting a picture, it'd just kind of bleed into one city."

"But Seattle on its own stands apart."

The city appreciated the players, and the players appreciated the city. The team didn't have to win championships to change lives. Players came from around the country, and wound up raising a family there. Kids grew up watching the Sonics, and wound up becoming basketball fanatics. Like Sherman Alexie, the award-winning author who remembers that he and his father never really talked about anything besides basketball. Or, more accurately, they would talk about basketball to talk about other stuff.

That relationship is a microcosm of a dynamic that exists between a great team and city. Basketball becomes a gateway to community, and Payton-to-Kemp alley-oop becomes something that bonds people. It's about basketball, but the endgame is something more profound.

"The big game's on Friday," says Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times. "And it's Tuesday, and you can't wait, and you're talking to everybody... You can't put a price on that."

That's what a team can mean to a city, and that's what the Sonics meant to Seattle.

When Schulz showed up, trading fan-favorites like Gary Payton, sitting coldly on the sidelines, and badly mismanaging the team in the process, Seattle fans suffered. When Clay Bennett bought the team with the sole intent of turning them into losers, turning the city against them, and moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City, the fans suffered even worse. When Bennett's motivations became obvious, and David Stern and the NBA stood by like nothing wrong was happening, it became a borderline tragic.

But through it all, nobody stopped loving basketball.

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Almost like a reminder of the NBA's absurd oversight, Seattle's basketball culture continues to thrive. More than ever, we're talking about one of the three or four best basketball cities in the country, with grassroots programs (Friends of Hoop, Seattle Rotary Club) and intense high school rivalries (Franklin, Ranier Beach), Seattle U's burgeoning program, UW's perennially contending Huskies, the Seattle Storm, and a pipeline to the NBA that's unmatched by just about any city in the country.

The list of players is sort of staggering: Brandon Roy, Marvin Williams, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, Spencer Hawes, Jon Brockman, Luke Ridnour, Doug Christie, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, Terrence Williams, Martell Webster, Jason Terry... And there's more on the way, with college stars like Abdul Gaddy, Isiah Thomas, Peyton Siva, and high school phenoms like Tony Wroten, Abdul Gaddy, Anrio Adams, and Hakeem Stewart.

They're not all from the city Seattle, but every one of them was reared on a basketball tradition that began in 1967 with the SuperSonics. This sort of civic pride isn't something limited to Seattle as far as other cities are concerned, but it's not universal to all cities, either. 

New York, D.C., Chicago, L.A., Houston, Oakland and San Francisco, Charlotte, Indianapolis, and Seattle... What do all those cities have in common? Each is steeped in basketball tradition. But which city is different than all the others?

Again, it's strangely appropriate that all this is happening now. Like the Basketball Gods are trying to tell us something. The Sonics leave Seattle, and like never before, the city's basketball community has emerged to prove the relevance of basketball in the Pacific Northwest. And while Key Arena hosts rock concerts and ice dancing shows, the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA, but with unintended consequences.

Because they're so good, we can't forget how great it'd have been to have them in Seattle.

That's what the city deserves. And if you think this current group of NBA players happens without the Sonics being there throughout their childhood, think again. The Seattle Times did a story this past week that looked at the fraternity of players from the area, and Jamal Crawford stood out as one of the principal influences on the younger generation.

"For me, it's always been about helping those guys, like people helped me," said Crawford, who still keeps all his watches set to Pacific time. "It's not always about giving back monetarily, it's just with time and energy and advice and just being there."

Today, Crawford has spent $100,000 on renovations to the Rainier Beach gym and more than $15,000 on heart defibrillators for Seattle Public Schools, along with other charitable contributions to causes through the Jamal Crawford Foundation.

 

"He was the first one to do it, but it's his character. His spirit is beautiful," said Boston Celtics high-energy guard Nate Robinson. ... "He's a people person and he's very respectful. He talks to you like you're supposed to. He's like the big brother. He calls and checks on me, asks if my mom's OK, my kids. It goes a long way."

But if Jamal Crawford opened the door for guys like Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson, who were his influences growing up? "I've always been a Sonics fan," Crawford says in Sonicsgate. "They helped mold me. I looked at all those guys. I used to hang with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp and those guys, and they took me under their wing, to work out with 'em, just to see how professionals acted. How they were in the community. I was like, 'Wow, I want to be like that one day.'"

As the Seattle Times columnist said above, "You can't put a price on that."

So, without re-hashing the process that saw the Sonics get taken from the city—a combination of bureaucratic incompetence, cunning strategy from a couple of Oklahoman businessmen, and outright apathy on the part of David Stern and the NBA—it's something that bears repeating as often as possible, until something happens. Seattle needs an NBA basketball team.

This isn't some random city like Vancouver or Buffalo or Kansas City. We're talking about one of the few places in America where basketball's woven into the fabric of how people understand and enjoy life. To deny them a team might not be unfair and shameful in the eyes of some, but it's definitely idiotic

Ask Kevin Durant. "I understand," he said of the fans' plight during his lone season in Seattle. "As a fan growing up, if they were going to take the Wizards out of D.C., and we wouldn't have had a team, I'd feel the same way." What he probably doesn't realize, and what most people realize, is that if the Wizards hadn't been in D.C. when he was growing up, he might not have become Kevin Durant.

And that's the kicker here: With all this talent the past few years, and the fraternity that's emerged throughout the NBA, Seattle's reminding us of the most compelling reason why they need an NBA team—the zany interviews from guys like Nate Robinson, the heroic performances from Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford using the NBA to give back to future generations, Aaron Brooks surprising us on a nightly basis, Rodney Stuckey coming out of nowhere to unseat Chauncey Billups... None of it happens without the groundwork laid by the Sonics, in a city where basketball means the world.

So, in the end, Seattle needs a team—not as a gift to the city, but a gift to the game of basketball.

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