Seattle Supersonics and David Stern: Paradise Lost and Found Again
On a recent trip to Seattle, I came face to face with an NBA relic. There was Key Arena, former home of the Seattle Supersonics, standing no more than a block from our hotel in an unassuming area of downtown.
Arena staff were preparing the concourse for a WNBA game that night between the hometown Storm and the Phoenix Mercury. Posters of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson lined the windows and walls of the pro shop. A few young girls loitered the area, donning Seattle Storm jerseys that featured the ridiculous Bing logo across the chest.
If it weren't for the faded paint on the wall where the Seattle Supersonics logo was once perched, you'd never know that this was a building steeped in NBA history.
That Supersonics logo—and the history that comes with it—is currently the property of Clay Bennett and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Seattle is a city stuck in basketball purgatory.
As I walked around Key Arena towards the Space Needle, it became depressingly obvious why the NBA had to move on. The building was charming and quaint, designed with a nod to the culture of the Pacific Northwest, but it was noticeably small.
It was set right on the edge of a beautiful entertainment complex lined with trees, an art gallery, a science center, large parks and the aforementioned Space Needle. The path led to a monorail station that looked and felt every bit of the 50 years old that it was. The train was something straight out of The Jetsons, complete with a futuristic hiss from the doors as they opened and closed. It was fun, but honestly it felt like I was walking through a museum.
Seattle seems intent on preserving this antiquated part of the city exactly as it was conceived, but the fiscal landscape of the NBA has evolved past the limitations of Key Arena. And so I came to understand why the NBA had to move on. The value of history and nostalgia have no weight in David Stern's grand global scheme. The hipsters will tell you that basketball is an intimate game that is best viewed in an intimate setting, but the NBA needs to appeal to the one percent just as much as it does the 99.
When Seattle erected two behemoth-sized stadiums for baseball and football and completely neglected basketball, the NBA took note. It is a jealous league, and it would not sit idly by as a city so brazenly slighted it. Seattle took its NBA team for granted, and now it is paying the ultimate penance for sins committed.
But life goes on at Key Arena. The area is still alive and bustling with people, even on an average weekday. While any physical trace of the Sonics' legacy has been removed for the exterior of the building (that I could see), the spirit lives on through its people.
Everywhere, there are reminders of the former NBA franchise. We spoke to a couple of local sports merchants, and they were eager to plead their case. They were spitefully gracious to the people of Oklahoma City and admitted that they have attended many rallies for the 'Save Our Sonics' movement. As I listened to these two locals rant about the arena upgrade clause in the CBA and cursed the name of Bennett, I realized that, sooner or later, a team would have to come back to this city. They care too much.
Former Sonics guard Gary Payton predicts that Seattle will have an NBA team as early as next season in an interview with SLAM:
The NBA has already given us an OK to go look for a team. So the pieces are in place to make moves now, and we’re working on having a team for next season. In 2015, the new arena is gonna be ready. So if everything goes as planned, we’re going to revamp Key Arena and play there for one year, while the new arena is being finished.
So when news of plans for a downtown Seattle arena officially broke, I was excited. I was excited because I understand that these people want their damn team back. They understand the error of their ways, and they intend to make amends. And this new deal is Seattle's way of standing on Stern's front lawn with a boombox over its head, seeking forgiveness.
Now entering the twilight of his tenure as commissioner, there are reports that David Stern intends his swan song to be the reuniting of Seattle with its beloved Sonics.
Even Bennett and the Thunder have declared that they intend to return the history, the banners, the records, the colors, the name and everything Sonics when (and if) Seattle has a team again.
All of the pieces are in place for a happy ending.
Perhaps what Seattle needed to truly appreciate what it had was to lose it for a moment. You can bet that the city will never take it for granted again.
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