Sportspocalypse Now

November 10, 2008

AS YOU may know, the Oklahoma City Thunder held its first-ever home opener last week, against the Milwaukee Bucks. Me, I headed to the only place to be on such a historic night: Floyd's Place bar in Seattle.

Strange thing, though. When I showed up just in time for the 5 p.m. tip-off, ready to watch the Sonics—oops, I mean the Thunder—Floyd's was cold and empty; it was like walking into a Kafka novel. The walls of the venerable Sonics hangout were still painted yellow and a green foam finger made its pointless boast behind the bar, but there was no game on the TV and not a fan at the rail. The only patron was a white-haired gentleman mumbling incoherently into his beer, and he didn't look much like a sports fan. Though, on second thought, maybe he was. That's how bad it is in Seattle these days.

Think your city's suffering? Imagine if your favorite team bolted town after 41 seasons, not for some cosmopolitan burg but a dusty outpost where oil derricks qualify as urban skyline. Now imagine turning to your city's other teams for solace only to find each to be avert-your-eyes abysmal. Welcome to Seattle, home of the Sportspocalypse.

Don't take it from me, though. Here's Sherman Alexie, the brilliant Seattle writer and National Book Award winner, summoning all his powers of eloquence. "It is," he proclaims, "the worst f------ year ever."

To recap: Last season, the Mariners lost 101 games despite a $118 million payroll, which is sort of like splurging for gastric bypass surgery only to get fatter. They had a designated hitter who couldn't hit (Jose Vidro), a high-priced pitcher who couldn't pitch (Carlos Silva) and a general manager (Bill Bavasi) who, judging by his record, seemed better suited to philanthropy. "A terribly misevaluated roster," says David Cameron of the blog ussmariner.com. "Probably one of the worst baseball teams of the last 40 years." And Cameron is an M's fan.

Football provides no refuge. The Seahawks were supposed to contend, but through Sunday they were 2--6, and lame-duck coach Mike Holmgren has begun to resemble a walrus with acute acid reflux. Beloved U-Dub is even worse. After an 0--7 start Washington announced it would let coach Tyrone Willingham go at the end of the season; the Huskies are 0--1 since. "It's so bad around here," laments longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel, "that people turn from sports to the financial pages to cheer up."

This is epic, once-in-a-lifetime badness. Don't even try to compare your city. Sure, the Bay Area's got it rough, and yeah, Cleveland is going through a dry spell of, oh, two generations or so. But to lose like this, on so many levels, is unprecedented—hey, even Philly is all sunshine and rainbows right now—not to mention bewildering. "We're not the Vanderbilts of losing, like Chicago with the Cubs," says Alexie. "We're like the nouveau riche of losing. We don't know how to react."

Everywhere there are cruel reminders. Instead of a Sonics game, Key Arena is hosting Disney's High School Musical on Ice. (What's worse, it'll probably draw twice as well.) Even the Seattle clichés are in the cellar. Coffee? If Starbucks were an NBA franchise, it would be clearing cap space; the company is closing hundreds of stores in the U.S. Grunge? Grunge got sent to the minors years ago, and only its bastard progeny like Nickelback remain in the Show. And rain? Well I suppose rain never loses—only those who slog through it day after day do. Like, you know, the people in Seattle.

Brent Barry, the former Sonics guard who considers the Emerald City a second home, is so bummed that he wrote a poem called When It Rains, which he recited on Seattle sports radio last week. ("A chapter left unwritten, a generation with a gap/Forty-one years of NBA action, and now no one can clap.") Says Barry, who's now with the Houston Rockets, "I know there are more important things in life, with the economy and the election, but it's like a black hole up there."

Alexie, an actual poet who was involved in the failed Save Our Sonics campaign, admits that he's cried 20 times in the last year. How many men do you know who've cried 20 times in their lives? "The other day I tried to watch [the Thunder]," says Alexie, "and I saw Earl Watson take a stupid jumper, and I missed him so much."

Now that is grief. Still, there has to be somewhere to turn. Cameron, the blogger, considers his options. "I don't know," he says. "Who are we supposed to root for? Go Boeing?"

Not a bad idea, though he shouldn't get too attached. I hear Little Rock is looking to land an airplane manufacturer.

TALK BACK
If you have a comment about Seattle or want to read Brent Barry's poem, go to SI.com/pointafter.

"It's so bad around here," laments Seattle columnist Art Thiel of his city's athletic fortunes, "that people turn from sports to the financial pages to cheer up."

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)