I could tell Thursday’s rally to back the arena proposal Chris Hansen has presented to the city of Seattle and King County was going to be something special before I reached Occidental Park. As I searched for a parking spot and walked toward Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square Thursday afternoon, a splash of green and gold was obvious amidst the business people and panhandlers who call downtown home. On every corner, there were Sonics jerseys, T-shirts and warm-ups worn over work clothes.
The funny thing is that description sounds a lot like the atmosphere in downtown Oklahoma City during the NBA Finals, which continued with Game 2 at the same time the rally concluded. While Oklahomans bask in the reflected glory of a Thunder team three wins away from a championship, Sonics fans are keeping the memory of 41 seasons of basketball alive and trying to bring the NBA back to Seattle.
One fear when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 was that the city would turn its back on basketball and forget about the team, focusing its attention on the remaining pro sports franchises. Instead, the Sonics have in some sense become more popular. On a cloudy weekday afternoon, more than 5,000 fans played hooky and battled rush-hour traffic to pack Occidental Park (renamed Seattle SuperSonics Park for the day by a proclamation from Mayor Mike McGinn), cheering on former heroes like Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf and Slick Watts and directing “Thank You, Chris” chants at the Seattle-born hedge-fund manager behind the strongest effort yet to return the Sonics to their rightful place.
The rally had a tangible purpose—to demonstrate to the Seattle and King County Councils, as well as the NBA, the depth of support for the arena proposal. The local radio hosts who emceed the event encouraged fans in attendance to tweet @SeattleCouncil and @KCCouncil to voice their opinions. The crowd cheered King County Executive Dow Constantine, who helped negotiate with Hansen the Memorandum of Understanding that the respective councils have been presented for approval, and the supportive local politicians Constantine welcomed on stage. With heavy coverage from the local media, the message surely reached the rest of the council members.
Yet more than anything, the rally was a welcome opportunity for Sonics fans to gather and reminisce about better times. We screamed “SUPER! SONICS!” and sang along to The Presidents of the United States of America’s 1995-96 Sonics anthem. We pulled jerseys out of closets, going deep into the archives. (Personally, I hadn’t worn the Nate McMillan jersey I chose in years, perhaps not since he left for Portland.)
There were plenty of Kevin Durant’s No. 35s, Payton’s No. 20s and Kemp’s No. 40s, to be sure, but also random jerseys from Earl Watson to Spencer Haywood to one brave soul who willingly sported his Jim McIlvaine jersey. Fans who came empty-handed had the chance to buy T-shirts, like one featuring the lineup of the ‘96 Finals team, and a Back to the Future parody supporting “Back to Seattle.”
Maybe renewed interest in the Sonics was inevitable after their departure. The painful moving process and Oklahoma City’s Finals runs have reminded fans how much the team meant to them. The Sonics also have the unique ability to avoid ever tarnishing good memories with poor performance in the present, a challenge for the city’s other sports franchises.
Most of all, though, I think the Sonics have found their nostalgic sweet spot in absentia. A whole generation of kids, myself included, who grew up knowing Seattle as a basketball town first and foremost have now come of age. YouTube has allowed fans to rediscover the highlight reels Kemp and Payton built on a nightly basis during the early 1990s, as well as play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Calabro’s matching soundtrack. Social media has made it easy to share those fond memories.
The hard feelings that once lingered from Kemp’s ugly exit have long since dissipated, and the former Sonics star has become a fixture in the community since returning to Seattle. The bar Kemp owns just blocks from KeyArena, Oskar’s Kitchen, has become a popular hangout for 20- and 30-somethings. Fans flocked from the rally to Oskar’s to watch Game 6 of the NBA Finals—and, yes, to cheer against the Thunder.
One of Hansen’s wisest moves was to work with the league to ensure that any team that comes to Seattle will bear the name Sonics and brand the arena effort accordingly. Unlike Charlotte after the Hornets moved, there is no interest in a fresh start here. Our support is not so much for NBA basketball in general as the Sonics in particular and a history that dates back to 1967, when the Sonics welcomed Seattle into the world of professional sports, for better or worse. While that history may technically belong to the Thunder now, jerseys, memories and legends can’t be relocated.
Some four years after the team moved, there are as many Sonics fans as ever. All we need is a team. The support shown at Thursday’s rally makes it all the more likely that Hansen’s plan will make that a reality and bring the Sonics back home.
- Kevin PeltonJun152012
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