After 10 Years, KD Returns to a Seattle Still Trying to Keep Its NBA Hopes Alive

Jonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagOctober 5, 2018

Tyson Mowrey, 9, looks over Seattle SuperSonics ballcaps as he shops in the team store Thursday, July 10, 2008, in Seattle. One week after the settlement allowing the Sonics to move to Oklahoma City, they remain in Seattle--at least all their belongings do. Banners are still flying at KeyArena. Their gift shop is still selling Kevin Durant jerseys. Equipment is still at their practice facility, awaiting moving vans. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Basketball in Seattle remains vibrant. One is just as likely to spot a throwback SuperSonics jersey in the city as much as gear for another current sports franchise. The WNBA's Storm just captured another championship. Jamal Crawford, one of the many pro players with Seattle roots, hosts an annual summer pro-am at Seattle Pacific University.

But there remains a civic-sized crater. 

"We're talking about NBA basketball," Kevin Durant said at a recent press event. "What the Storm has done is incredible. But everybody knows that Seattle sports is not complete without the Sonics."

The Sonics had been the staple of basketball culture in Seattle since 1967. They captured an NBA championship in 1979 with Fred Brown, Jack Sikma and Gus Williams, witnessed Gary Payton backing down and jawing at Michael Jordan, and hosted countless Shawn Kemp rim-benders and Ray Allen splashes. Then Durant came and won the Rookie of the Year award while offering the city a bittersweet glimpse of a future that was not to be. In the final home game of the 2007-08 season, he drove right, pump-faked and lofted a shot over Dallas' Josh Howard with less than 42 seconds left. The bucket secured Seattle's win, and more importantly, served as a curtain call to 41 years of the SuperSonics in Seattle. 

Seattle has been dealing with the fallout ever since, as well-chronicled in the 2009 documentary Sonicsgate, which delved into the organization's history and detailed diehard fans caught up in the crossfire between politics and professional sports as the Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City.

"This is a basketball-starved city," said Adam Brown, one of the documentary's creative forces. "It's always been a basketball city, and the Sonics were part of the heartbeat here. It's really clear that fans are hungry. The Storm just won the WNBA championship. It's always going to be a basketball town."

For a few hours this Friday, Seattle will be an NBA basketball town again, when Durant's Golden State Warriors play the Sacramento Kings in a preseason game.

There have been a number of false starts to get to this point, and the city will first try to entice an expansion NHL franchise. But there is hope that the NBA will also one day return to the city in a soon-to-be updated arena.   

"Hopefully, that's the start of something special there," Durant said.


As Durant completed his college pit stop at Texas, he began paying attention to the bottom of the NBA standings, envisioning his potential destinations.

Kevin Durant didn't expect to be drafted by the SuperSonics while playing at Texas, but he came to appreciate the outpouring of support he felt from the city as a 19-year-old rookie.
Kevin Durant didn't expect to be drafted by the SuperSonics while playing at Texas, but he came to appreciate the outpouring of support he felt from the city as a 19-year-old rookie.Marcus R. Donner/Associated Press

He narrowed his realistic landing spots to either Atlanta or Boston. He thought the Celtics felt right with their rich history of championships and Hall of Famers. The probable destinations eventually became a different pair of hard-on-their-luck franchises: Portland won the lottery despite holding only a 5.3 percent chance to claim the top pick, and Seattle wound up with the second selection.

Durant had worked out for the SuperSonics in Seattle before the draft, but he had never spent significant time in the Pacific Northwest. The thought eventually won him over. He'd be experiencing a new place. His agent at the time was based in Seattle. Spencer Hawes, a close friend and former AAU teammate, is a Seattle product. Durant knew he could rely on Hawes' family to help him acclimate. 

"I was 19 years old," Durant said. "I was just trying to play. I didn't really know too much about an NBA organization or how it was run or what I needed to do. I just enjoyed the love. Everybody embraced me from the beginning. They knew I was the new kid in town and I was trying to embark on something special."

The Sonics had bright spots, despite their poor performance the year before. There were a lot of moving parts: Durant and fellow rookie Jeff Green, a hodgepodge of veterans and veteran coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Durant settled into the city's groove. He hung out at Dick's Drive-In, a Seattle staple. Though on the whole, he preferred to stay in and watch television or movies. He bought a house on Mercer Island. ("I regret actually buying that house," he said. "It was too early. I learned from it.") He loved driving from the island along the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge, where he could see the water and the budding mountains off in the horizon when it wasn't raining.

In retrospect, he didn't see the signs that a move would happen. Not that fast. No player paid much attention to off-court happenings, because the majority of the roster always seemed to be in flux. No one beyond Nick Collison had spent much time playing for the franchise or living in the city.

Clay Bennett led an investment group that bought the SuperSonics in 2006 for $350 million, only to move the franchise to Oklahoma City two years later after he couldn't secure the building of a new arena.
Clay Bennett led an investment group that bought the SuperSonics in 2006 for $350 million, only to move the franchise to Oklahoma City two years later after he couldn't secure the building of a new arena.TED S. WARREN/Associated Press/Associated Press

"When [new owner] Clay Bennett came in at the end of the season, we talked about where we might move to," Durant said. "That came up. But he didn't tell us the timetable or anything, just know it's going to be a lot of noise around us moving and the franchise relocating. But we didn't really know too much. Nick was the only one who kept his eye on things the whole year."

When the move happened, Durant was surprised. He found out while he was back at the University of Texas attending summer classes after the season. During a drive, a Texas assistant coach called and informed him the Seattle SuperSonics were no more.

First, Durant was filled with excitement. Texas and Oklahoma are close geographically. He was no stranger to bouncing around—he had done so frequently as a youth—and quick transitions felt natural. He thought the franchise would remain in Seattle for at least four years, but he would be fine. Unfortunately, he did not have a chance to experience Seattle as much as he wanted. But this was the job. He would go on to star in OKC and later, Golden State.


After Durant and Seattle parted ways, hoops in the city laid dormant for a while. Efforts to revive the NBA have failed, although not for lack of trying. In 2013, an investment group led by Seattle native and hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer attempted to lure the Kings away from Sacramento. But after the NBA's board of governors rejected the bid, the Kings' owners, the Maloof family, sold the team to a group led by Vivek Ranadive, and the organization remained in Sacramento.

Other efforts have fizzled out. When Ballmer purchased the Clippers in 2014, Hansen pressed on in his efforts to bring basketball back to Seattle without him. The NBA has no current plans of expanding. It will almost certainly take a new arena, or KeyArena with a makeover. A $700 million overhaul of KeyArena is underway, which calls for the arena's size to nearly double and a 360-foot-long glass atrium. But it's unclear if that would be enough to satisfy the league. The project is being headed by Oak View Group and Tim Leiweke, the former president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment and Anschutz Entertainment Group.

After his efforts to bring the Kings to Seattle were unsuccessful, Seattle businessman Chris Hansen has been trying to build a new arena in hopes of bringing an NBA team back to the city.
After his efforts to bring the Kings to Seattle were unsuccessful, Seattle businessman Chris Hansen has been trying to build a new arena in hopes of bringing an NBA team back to the city.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Hansen still hopes to build an arena of his own south of downtown. He continues to purchase land in the area. But a memorandum of understanding between Hansen, the city and King County expired last year. The city hopes to host an NHL team in time for the 2020-21 season, but a renovated KeyArena could be a legitimate option for the NBA in the future.

"Seattle politics is kind of complicated," Brown adds. "Everyone was fired up about the SoDo arena deal. And now everyone's fired up about KeyArena, but some fans still wanted SoDo. Really, ultimately Seattle fans just want whoever can actually bring a team."

Durant agreed. "Just think about the people that come to those games that need that outlet for an hour or two," he said. "They just need to release for a little bit and enjoy the game. One night you might have Kobe [Bryant] come to town or LeBron [James] come to town. Carmelo [Anthony]. Just to know those guys are in your city playing basketball. Just a cool feeling. I felt that way as a kid, and my friends as well. ... It just felt good knowing you had that in your city. I kind of sympathize with the fans and just know that it's tough not having basketball there, especially as a deeply rooted basketball city."

Many of the Sonics' familiar players still live in the city, like Detlef Schrempf and Lenny Wilkens. Kemp once ran a popular restaurant here.

But if there's one player who plays the role of Seattle's foremost ambassador, it is Jamal Crawford. The 18-year NBA veteran attended Seattle's Rainier Beach High School, which also produced Doug Christie, Nate Robinson and Terrence Williams. He took over running the Seattle Pro-Am summer basketball league from Christie nearly 15 years ago. Crawford takes the job as seriously as he does an isolation play with little time on the clock. He corrals players who are in Seattle, enticing them to at least come out and watch, as he did with Bryant a few years ago.

"All-Stars, All-NBA legends come support the pro-am, and even then, when they come, they think they're just playing in the pro-am, but then they see the connection to us not having the Sonics and the connection to the kids and how important it is to them, they're like, 'Wow,'" Crawford said. "It means even more to them when they actually come play."


This past September, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony served as a reminder of the SuperSonics' impact on basketball culture. 

Allen was an annual All-Star during his Seattle stint. Rick Welts, who orchestrated All-Star Weekend, began his winding and influential NBA executive career as a ball boy with the organization. 

Wally Walker, a player on Seattle's lone championship team and the executive who traded for Allen, decided to attend the ceremony to support the pair.  

When Walker greeted Welts and Raymond Ridder, Golden State's vice president of communications, Ridder noted: "OK, he's excited about getting into the Hall of Fame, but he's about as excited about the preseason game in Seattle as he is about this whole thing tonight."

Walker said a day does not go by without someone bringing up the Sonics with him. According to a recent report he read, the SuperSonics routinely hosted western Washington's most diverse crowd of any gathering. 

"That's hard to replace," he said. "It's not hard. It's impossible to replace what that brought to the community, where you have a diverse group of all kinds coming together and pulling for their hometown guys. There's just a void that the city is growing, but you can't replace that void. Not just because the sport is fantastic, but because of what it brings to the community."

The Seattle preseason game is largely the brainchild of Welts, who's now Golden State's president and chief operating officer. He started thinking of the possibility shortly after the team lured Durant in free agency two summers ago. 

"Probably about a year ago now, we all agreed it would be a good time and good place, and I think that it'll be a really great opportunity for the city of Seattle to show their love of the NBA," Welts said. "I'm pretty excited about it."

KeyArena will play host to the NBA for the first time in 10 years this week, a game many in Seattle hope will push forward the effort to bring a team back.
KeyArena will play host to the NBA for the first time in 10 years this week, a game many in Seattle hope will push forward the effort to bring a team back.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press/Associated Press

Teams schedule their own preseason games, unlike the regular-season schedule that the league sets. The Warriors hoped to stay in the West this preseason after traveling to China last year. The staff looked for cities with a built-in fanbase and quickly agreed Seattle would be a logical locale, given Welts and Durant's roots.

The NBA consented to the Seattle game, and the Warriors offered to pay the Kings to travel and play in it. There was concern that KeyArena's renovation would prevent the gameofficials briefly looked at the University of Washington as an alternate sitebut they were able to schedule it for the Friday before the overhaul begins.  

This won't be the first time Welts has brought the NBA to Seattle. A few years after he joined the league's office in 1982, Welts helped bring the NBA All-Star Game to the Seattle in 1987. 

"I think it'll be the same kind of feeling," Welts said. "It was really rewarding then to see the city rally around the NBA and the All-Star Game. I think this, while different, will definitely re-emphasize to the basketball world what a shame it is that we don't have a team in Seattle and hopefully focus some attention on how that might come about in the future." 

Welts said Durant eagerly agreed when he brought the idea to him.

"It'll mean more to him being able to see it full circle," Durant said. "I'm sure he thought of the idea to bring us out there to play. Rick has always been great about bringing something great together and having a good idea and putting it to life. For him to spend so much time there and for me to have a connection there was perfect that they put the game."

The preseason game sold nearly 12,000 tickets in its first hour on sale.

Durant estimates that he has returned to the city just a handful of times since the relocationto play in Crawford's summer league, to help refurbish a basketball court and to attend a Mariners and Seahawks game.

He can play the what-if game for plenty of moments in his career. The question of what if the Sonics stayed in Seattle and Durant blossomed there remains at the top of the list.

Durant said with time, he has come to understand what the Sonics meant to the people of Seattle and how much they have missed the game since the Sonics left.
Durant said with time, he has come to understand what the Sonics meant to the people of Seattle and how much they have missed the game since the Sonics left.John Froschauer/Associated Press/Associated Press

"But I just felt like I knew for sure the energy would've been crazy, and making our first playoff like we did in OKC, guys getting MVP, that would've been amazing," Durant said. "Fans would've been supportive. The energy would've been crazy around the city. When the Seahawks won the championship, we were a pretty good team. We were trying to win a championship as well. All of that energy, I try to think about that sometimes. It would've been really, really cool in Seattle sports for all of those teams to be doing well."

His perspective on the relocation of the franchise has evolved. He was still getting used to the city when the change happened.

"You started to realize what that meant to the fans and people in Seattle," he said. "You're seeing the teams and the Chargers move and you see the Raiders are thinking about moving. Even us moving across the Bridge, you know how much a franchise means to the community. Now that I got older, I understand what those fans have been going through a long time."

He believes his old Sonics gear is in a storage bin. Maybe, he said, it would be cool to dust them off soon and see what's actually in there. 

        

An earlier version of this story noted that NBA commissioner Adam Silver declined to comment through a spokesperson. That was incorrect. B/R regrets the error.

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wireavailable right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams 

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