Will the NBA reign again in Seattle?
A few weeks ago, the rumbles began again. The Atlanta Hawks were mired in controversy. The team was up for sale. Surely a change would be good. New city, new start. One location in particular came to mind, the same one that always does. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson took to Twitter to bang the drum:
Within days, however, reality set in. The Hawks weren’t about to move. Too many ties to Atlanta. Too strong a market for the NBA. A line of viable local owner candidates in wait. And so the Seattle sports world holstered its dreams once more and returned to talking about the Seahawks, Sounders and Mariners. Times are good in Seattle, after all. Never been better, sports-wise. The streets are littered with 12th Men, emboldened by the city’s first Super Bowl title. The Sounders boast a first-place squad and some of the best fans in MLS. And the M’s have awakened from a decade-long competitive coma to enter the AL Wild Card race.
Still, none of that can fill the Sonics-sized hole that remains in the city.
How does it feel to have your heart broken, twice?
Brian Robinson can tell you. The co-founder of the "Save Our Sonics" grassroots movement and a longtime writer at Sonics Central, Robinson spent years working pro bono – “a full-time hobby,” as he calls it – attempting to keep a team in Seattle. And then, when the Sonics were whisked to Oklahoma City, he tried to bring one back. He met with CEOs, ran arenasolution.org, brought 1,300 fans to a city council meeting, traveled to the NBA Board of Governors meeting. And in the end, it was all for naught.
And yet, sitting on a stool at FX McRory’s bar in downtown Seattle on a recent afternoon, he remains stubbornly optimistic. He says he thinks the odds are better than 50 percent that Seattle gets a team in the next three years. He says that after all the city has done, “the NBA has to show us something.” And he believes all those hours and nights of activism had an unintended benefit. “In some respects, I think we won,” says Robinson. “By finding a community. Basketball’s just a game. We created a community of fans. Bitterness has no place in this world. We’re like Boston Red Sox fans in the dark days.”
It is an admirable position to take, but, one senses, also an exercise in cognitive dissonance. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that a Sonics return seemed inevitable.
Indeed, right here in McRory’s, on Sept. 13, 2012, would-be Sonics owner Chris Hansen bought a round of beers for more than 1,500 fans, his way of thanking them for their support after the Seattle City Council approved a $490 million arena in the Sodo district. McRory’s is a Seattle institution – where the Sonics celebrated their 1979 NBA title and where a young Hansen once held a job as a dishwasher. Years later, Hansen sat in a corner booth – “that one right there,” Robinson says wistfully, pointing toward a window – and mingled with the diehards for hours. At the time, Robinson felt giddy. He envisioned taking his kids, then 12 and 9, to their first Sonics game. He expected them to be excited; him in tears.
And, for a while, all continued on track. By February 2013, the Kings were all but loaded onto a flatbed truck, bound northward up I-5 in a $525 million sale to a group led by Hansen and Steve Ballmer. The media described it as, “first and goal at the one-yard line” for Seattle. Shawn Kemp was featured on the cover of Seattle Weekly, kissing a basketball above the headline “IT’S REIGNING AGAIN.” At the time, Kemp spoke excitedly about the role he envisioned taking in the new team’s administration. As he told me back then, “I was always knew basketball would return to Seattle. I just didn’t know how quickly.”
And then, well, you know the story. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson rallied the whales. Silicon Valley responded. And, in the end, a quarter billion dollars in public funds was hard to turn down. NBA owners voted 22-8 to reject the Kings’ move to Seattle.
Compounding the heartbreak, a year later Ballmer bolted for a cuter girl. It took $2 billion, but Ballmer got a team with better players and a world class coach, even if, as Ballmer termed it, he paid an “L.A. beachfront price.”
Nationally, the perception was – and is -- that Seattle got hosed. Again. Or, alternately, that Seattle somehow blew it. A recent post on Deadspin listed Hansen as one of the “Most Useless Thinkers, Doers, And Dreamers” in sports, describing him as a, “Seattle finance dude who let himself get played like a damn kazoo by the NBA so it could get a new publicly-funded arena in Sacramento.”
Despite the heartbreak, Robinson isn’t the only one who remains bullish on Seattle’s chance. “I’d say we have tempered optimism here,” says Jason Reid, the director of Sonicsgate, a 2009 documentary chronicling the team’s relocation to OKC. “We believe in Chris Hansen and the arena plan. We have lots of years left.”
At the same time, Reid knows some people can only take so much. “Our executive producer from Sonicsgate, he’s really done,” says Reid. “It’s not that he’s not passionate anymore. But to continually have your hopes dashed. The emotional volatility….” Reid trails off. “I mean, that does suck.”
Here’s what does not suck right now: Seattle as a sports market.
To walk the streets is to see the markers of a boom town. Amazon’s corporate headquarters are in the heart of the city. Facebook and Google opened offices downtown after noting the number of engineers migrating to a city now being called “Silicon Valley North”. The Seattle Museum of History & Industry is describing this as the city’s third golden age.
Everything the NBA needs is here. Seattle has a dynamic owner who can rally fans and who made a point to involve Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf and other Sonics stars of yore in the arena push, tapping into a deep-seated nostalgia. It has a strong fan base, as evidenced by the Seahawks and Sounders. And it already owns a downtown arena plan that is viable until 2017.
“People look around at the growth here and say why the hell would the NBA turn its back on this?,” says Chris Daniels, a reporter for KING5 TV who’s been covering the Hansen story since the beginning. “If the NBA is built on the back of corporate interests, well, we have eight fortune 500 companies here.” As Daniels says this, he gestures at the cityscape from outside Top Pot Doughnuts downtown, a spot so popular that Obama visited on a recent trip. As for Daniels, he has both a personal and professional investment in this issue. He grew up outside Tacoma and saw the Sonics play at Key Arena, back when it was known as the Seattle Center Coliseum. Now, as a reporter, he’s won regional Emmy Awards for his coverage. He has friends who still won’t drink Starbucks, on account of their feelings for Howard Schultz, the one-time Sonics owner.
Like Robinson, however, Daniels is optimistic, also putting the odds at better than 50 percent of a team arriving in the next three years. He points to the new NBA TV deal, to be signed this fall, which SportsBusiness Journal recently estimated would be in the area of $2 billion. The influx of money would in turn raise the salary cap by an estimated $16 million. Which would in turn bring up average salaries. One way for the league to get around jacking up salaries too much, while at the same time increasing the NBA reach? Expansion. To, say, a city like Seattle. See how easy it is to do the math?
As for Hansen, he laid low for six months but hasn’t given up. The proposed arena is in the midst of an environmental review, set to be completed in January. The NHL appears interested in coming to Seattle. It’s a perfect market, with a natural rivalry northward with the Canucks. The only problem is that gaining an NHL team doesn’t trigger the arena proposal’s funding. The only thing that does that is an NBA franchise.
And clearly it makes sense for basketball to come back, right? “We’re approved, and all the pressure is on the NBA,” says Reid. “I think the NBA wants to get back in this market. National writers and people we talk to in NBA circles, they miss coming to Seattle. Especially having to go to Oklahoma City.”
But the NBA powers haven’t talked much about Seattle lately. Daniels said he used to have a good relationship with the league office. They’re still cordial but they were a lot nicer, he notes, back when it looked like the Kings were moving to town.
So now Daniels must wait like everyone else, hoping for word from the front lines. When I first contacted him and Robinson about meeting up for this article, both were excited to hear from me. Maybe I knew something they didn’t. Maybe there was something afoot. It was tough to break the news that there was no news. In reality, it was worse than that. According to a source in the league office, “There are no plans to expand right now and it doesn’t appear any teams are going to move anywhere.”
Here’s the maddening part for the Seattleites: The longer it takes to get a team, the easier it is to accept not getting one. Robinson coaches a local YMCA youth squad and he says that, already, the kids have no sense of legacy. “They don’t know who Kemp and Payton are. You know who they love?” He pauses. “They love Kevin Durant. And it hurts.” Personally, he knows the best years are lost anyway. “My kids are 14 and 11 now. By the time we get a team, those prime years of bonding will be gone. I’ll never get those years back.”
Author Sherman Alexie, a National Book Award winner and hoops junkie who was part of the Save Our Sonics campaign, wonders about the long-term effect on a city that has produced more than a dozen current NBA players, including Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Wroten and Spencer Hawes. “I wonder if there was a golden era, with Kemp and Payton,” he says. “I live in a neighborhood that produced about 80 percent of our NBA players, so I’m very curious how the loss of the Sonics is going to affect our future as the birthplace of pro basketball players.”
Alexie also sees the city’s sports culture changing by the day. “I never, ever saw 10,000 people wearing Sonics jerseys like I see them now wearing Seahawks jerseys,” he says. “I see a thousand jerseys on a non game day!” He pauses. “We’re Green Bay now.”
The worst part, says Alexie, is the lack of a future. “I can watch NBA games and the playoffs and get excited,” he says. “But the thing I really miss, that hurts the most to lose, is following the draft. Because the draft is really the church of basketball, where you’re saying all these prayers, looking for your saviors, your messiahs.” He pauses. “That doesn’t matter at all anymore. I didn’t watch the draft this year, because it didn’t really matter, because I have no team that might get saved. So I guess I miss hoping….I’m a sports fan without hope.”
At least there is an upside, as his wife has pointed out: These days, Alexie no longer gets depressed during basketball season. Says Alexie, “I guess I’ve finally hit acceptance.”
Every era comes to an end, eventually. Walk through the lower Queen Anne area near Key Arena and you’ll come to a closed-down storefront at 521 1st Avenue North. This is where Floyd’s Place used to be. Part bar, part Sonics museum, it kept alive the spirit of the team. A Gary Payton tip jar sat behind the counter. Pennants lined the wall. Bartenders wore Sonics shirts. A magazine column about the team was tacked next to the dart board. The return of pro hoops would have revitalized the bar. Now it’s gone.
Down the street, Shawn Kemp’s bar, Oskar’s Kitchen, remains. Kemp can often be found behind the bar, telling stories, and the happy hour specials are good. Still, on this Monday night, a disheveled man slumps outside, blaring Pink Floyd’s “Time” on a boombox and asking for change. It is not even 10 p.m. but the place is empty. The bartender is already closing up. Sorry, he says. Come back tomorrow. It’ll be better.
Maybe this is all a generational thing. For those like me, who grew up appreciating the Sonics from afar, it seems wrong for Seattle to be without an NBA team. We remember Nate McMillan hounding opposing guards, and Kemp draping his shorts on one hapless power forward’s shoulders after another, and Payton doing that weird-but-effective backdown dribble, hunched over and yapping. We remember sleepy Sam Perkins bombing threes and Detlef and his crewcut and Bones Barry whipping passes.
But now it’s been six and a half years since the city had a team.
Maybe it’s time to let go of the past. To move on.
And yet...hope is a persistent bastard.
“Have you heard about the situation with the Bucks?” Daniels asks as he finishes his cup of coffee, outside the doughnut shop. And then he lays it out. Moribund franchise. New owners. Small market. “It’s almost playing out like Seattle,” says Daniels. “They want a plan in place within a certain time frame and need legislature to do it. There are rumblings in Milwaukee papers that the owners might consider relocation.”
It’s enough to make a Sonics fan intrigued. After all, there’s a lot of young talent on the Bucks roster. Jabari Parker. John Henson. Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Informed of this longshot possibility, Alexie lets out a sigh. “Milwaukee? Really?” Then he warms to it. “Well, that does sound intriguing.”
And then he pauses and laughs. “It’s such a weird thing, rooting for another team to implode. Rooting for other people’s pain.”