In 1992, the Seattle-area publisher Positively for Kids released a book co-authored by Mariners star Edgar Martinez about his journey entitled Patience Pays. Long-time Seattle sports fans will know the title was appropriate for two reasons. Not only was Martinez known for his patient approach at the plate, he also willingly suffered through an extended run at AAA during the early part of his career that may ultimately have kept him from putting up the statistics necessary to reach the Hall of Fame.
For two decades, Martinez has stood as the paragon of patience in Seattle sports. That changes today, when the Seattle City Council is expected to announce agreement on a revised Memorandum of Understanding approving the financing for a new NBA/NHL arena to be built when a tenant for the building is found. The final deal is the result of the immense patience with the political process shown by Chris Hansen, the leader, driving force and public face of the group of investors that plan to build the arena and bring an NBA team back to Seattle.
While the deal came together quickly in the context of our local political scene, where replacing doomed and decaying roadways can take years if not decades, it was the product of months of negotiations. At first, Hansen worked with Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine to produce a Memorandum of Understanding that was in satisfactory condition to take public in February.
Over the last seven months, the arena plan was subject to public scrutiny that turned contentious at times. In the face of opposition from the Port of Seattle, the Seattle Mariners and anti-arena groups, among others, Hansen stood strong and patiently reiterated the unique nature of this deal and the value of bringing back the Sonics. When the City Council expressed its unwillingness to pass the MOU in its original form, Hansen was flexible enough to agree to changes that left all parties satisfied.
Now is not the time to dredge up past mistakes, but it’s worth noting how refreshing Hansen’s calm demeanor was in contrast to the way previous Sonics ownership groups negotiated in public and took offense when politicians did not simply acquiesce to demands much higher than the ones Hansen’s group made. At many points during the process, Hansen would have been justified in considering the conclusion that bringing the NBA back to Seattle was not worth the trouble. Instead, he stuck with his plan and has been rewarded with a completed deal where others failed time and again.
Of course, Hansen isn’t the only one who has been patient. The members of the former Sonics ownership group that have joined Hansen also put aside the bitter disappointment of the way the team left. The hidden hero in this entire process was former Sonics president and CEO Wally Walker, who advised Hansen behind the scenes and was responsible for introducing him to the influential local businessmen who lent his investment group credibility. Walker, who voted against the sale of the team to the Oklahoma City group as a member of the board in 2006, has since worked tirelessly to help bring back the Sonics. That, not any of his decisions as general manager, should be his enduring legacy in Seattle.
No group has been more patient than the fans. More than four years after the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, the Sonics have become arguably Seattle’s most popular sports team. Led by ArenaSolution.com’s Brian Robinson and Adam Brown and Jason Reid, the creative forces behind Sonicsgate, fans refused to let the team die. They kept sporting Sonics gear and showing up at public events.
Without the vocal, passionate support of fans, Hansen might never have tried to bring the Sonics back, and their role in the political process cannot be overstated. Fans from all walks of life and of all ages turned out in numbers too big to ignore at the public hearings held by both the King County and Seattle City Councils to explain to elected officials what the Sonics meant—and still mean—to them.
Realistically, this is still a time for patience. Aside from an Environmental Impact Study, the final hurdle to bringing the Sonics back—securing a team—is the most challenging. Everyone involved must be prepared to potentially wait years for a team to be forced to move. As unstable as the NBA’s landscape might feel, there has been just one move—the Sonics to Oklahoma City—since 2002. Relocation simply does not happen that frequently. The important thing is that Seattle is now ready and in position to take advantage should an opportunity arise rather than watch helplessly as a team moves to a city with no history of supporting NBA basketball and no built-in fan base.
I’ll be honest. There were dark moments, even within the last few months, where I never imagined we would get to this point until decades had passed since the Sonics’ departure. Had the City Council rejected Hansen’s offer, unprecedented in the history of Seattle sports facilities, I’m not sure any deal would have been possible in the current political climate. That is why, though this is a step in the process and certainly not the destination, today is a day well worth celebrating. We’re that much closer to returning the Sonics to their rightful home.
- Kevin PeltonSep112012
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
Sad news today with the passing of longtime NBA guard Walt Hazzard at age 69 due to complications from heart surgery. While Hazzard is best remembered for his time at UCLA, both as a member of John Wooden’s first championship team and later as the Bruins’ head coach, he also holds a special place in Sonics history.
Hazzard was a member of the expansion 1967-68 Seattle team and the first Sonics star. He made the 1968 All-Star Game on the strength of averaging 24.0 points and 6.2 assists per game, both team highs.
After the season, the Sonics had an opportunity to parlay Hazzard into established star Lenny Wilkens, a deal that obviously worked out well for decades to come. However, Hazzard would rejoin the Sonics for his last season in the NBA, 1973-74, after converting to Islam and taking on the name Mahdi Abdul-Rahman.
There’s a remarkable Sonics trade cycle that begins and ends with Hazzard. When the Sonics foolishly traded Wilkens to Cleveland after removing him as coach in 1972, they got Butch Beard back from the Cavaliers. After the Sonics flopped and Beard struggled with the pressure of replacing the popular Wilkens, he was traded to Golden State for … Hazzard. So, ultimately, the Sonics traded Hazzard for himself.
Our thoughts are with Hazzard’s family after their loss.Nov182011
“Swift is an NBA veteran with great footwork and leaping ability. He will be a dominant inside presence for the Apache this season. His grandmother is Japanese and he is very excited to experience all Japan has to offer.”Aug272010
I never saw the settlement coming.
Looking back, the signs were there. A senior Sonics executive was in Oklahoma City to set up a call center, but that seemed like covering all the bases just in case Marsha Pechman ruled in the Professional Basketball Club LLC’s favor. No, I awoke last July 2 expecting Pechman to find for the city of Seattle and steeling myself for the unprecedented scenario of two ugly lame-duck seasons.
In the office, our first inkling of a settlement came when we heard Mayor Nickels wanted to meet with Brian Robinson. From there, it was a matter of following the same rumors and leads in the newspapers as everyone else. By the time word came down officially, so we could begin preparing the Web site, we already knew. It was all over.
In general, I hate comparing the Sonics’ departure to a death, which seems to be overstating the impact of a professional sports team. However, I see no better analogy for the day of the settlement than the passing of an individual after a long illness. We had known it was likely coming for the better part of two years, since that day in July 2007 when the PBC first purchased the Sonics. There was time to consider how we would feel when the inevitable happened — and certainly plenty of people asked — but ultimately you don’t really know until that moment comes. The strongest emotion, despite that long period, was still disbelief. I remember going to the following night’s Storm game at KeyArena, more or less the scene of the crime, and trying to come to terms with what happened. It felt like the whole thing was a dream.
As with a painful death that plays out over an extended period, my sadness (and whatever bitterness I feel) is more about the illness — the process that led up to the Sonics’ departure - than the death itself. I wasn’t especially angry about the settlement, and I’m still not. I know there are smart people, including Robinson, who believe that had the city not settled, the Sonics might now be in the hands of local ownership. I am not one of those people.
Even had the PBC been forced to sell because of the economic downturn, they would have been in no mood to do any favors to Seattle by that point. We have a pretty good sense that there were other interested parties when the Schultz group sold the Sonics, potentially even others who offered more money than the PBC but were unwilling to commit to the same kind of one-year good faith negotiating period that the PBC ultimately skirted. The trucks might not have headed to Oklahoma City, but they would have gone somewhere.
Above and beyond that, the simple reality of the NBA in Seattle remains the same as it has been for the last five years. Everyone involved save the extremists agrees that KeyArena is an inadequate venue for the NBA without significant upgrades. Barring an unlikely private solution, the only way to make those changes or replace the Key is to go through the Washington State legislature. And if the state was unwilling to move on a bill addressing KeyArena this past session, with $30 million on the table and no firm commitment to spending any money, it is not going to happen any time soon. Everything else is irrelevant.
The saddest thing about this process is that, despite a couple of articles in the Seattle Times, for most Seattleites this will just be another day. What the Sonics once meant to this city now seems largely lost. For a handful of us diehards, however, July 2, 2008 will be a day we will never forget.
- Kevin PeltonJul022009
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