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NEW YORK — Doug Baldwin didn’t understand until the bus ride to the airport. As the Seahawks departed for Super Bowl XLVIII, he looked out the window last Sunday and saw thousands of fans lining the streets near the Seahawks’ practice facility in Renton. Closer to the airport, there was a bigger, more boisterous crowd.

Baldwin, a wide receiver in his third NFL season, watched in awe. Some fans patted the side of the bus as if it were a player’s back. Some cried. Many more screamed. Finally, Baldwin got it: This Super Bowl is even bigger than he anticipated.

“These people need a championship,” Baldwin said. “The city deserves to be world champions.

“Watching the support, it’s a surreal feeling, and then it makes you realize how important this moment, this experience is, not only to the players but to the fans and the city of Seattle. You don’t always think about it that way because we’re so heavily focused on the team. But this is an opportunity for us all to unite and make history.”

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This is an opportunity the Seahawks can’t waste.

This is the most important game in Seattle sports history.

I’m not one who makes bold, breathless declarations for reaction. Let me repeat: This is the most important game in Seattle sports history. That’s because this Seahawks run represents the perfect way to expel the misery that often burdens our sports scene.

Now is the right time. It’s beyond the right time; the city couldn’t be hungrier for a champion. It has been 35 years since the Sonics claimed the 1979 NBA title, the last time a Seattle team won a championship in one of the four major professional-sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL). Yes, the Storm delivered championships in 2004 and 2010, which is a source of pride. But in the myopic sports world, only a Big Four championship can capture a city’s imagination and earn widespread recognition.

These Seahawks are the right team to change the losing perception. They’re young, brash and unrestrained. They’re the ego of an understated city. No Seattle team has risen this quickly, and if the Seahawks can win a Super Bowl while still on the ascent, it’s delightful to imagine the future possibilities.

And this is the right situation. If you want to announce change to the sports world, it’s best to do it in the Super Bowl. It’s the most coveted of all the championships because of the NFL’s wild popularity, and it’s the one major sport in which the United States has no peer. A Super Bowl champion can truly claim to be a world champion, and it brands the city in a way that no other American sports league can.

The local teams have some momentum now, with the Seahawks’ dominance, with Robinson Cano leaving the New York Yankees for the Mariners, with the University of Washington hiring Chris Petersen as its football coach. A championship would illuminate the positive.

“I think it would mean everything,” former Sonics star Shawn Kemp said. “It’s exactly what the city needs and has been needing.”

Kemp played in Seattle from 1989 to 1997, and after his playing career ended, he returned to make the area home. He owns a restaurant and bar — Oskar’s Kitchen in Lower Queen Anne. He understands the joy and pain of playing for a Seattle sports team. During their run in the 1990s, the Sonics were the city’s sporting passion. They had a six-year span of averaging 59.5 wins per year and never won fewer than 55 games in a season. But in the great era of Kemp, Gary Payton and George Karl, the Sonics didn’t win a championship. They made the NBA Finals just once, losing to Michael Jordan’s record-breaking, 72-win Chicago Bulls in 1996.

“It’s 18 years later, and I still feel it,” Kemp said of losing in 1996. “It still lingers inside of you. The worst part was the confetti. I remember walking off that court and feeling it hit me. It was awful. It’s something that lasts a lifetime.”

There have been too many bitter disappointments for this young sports city. Remember the pain when the 1994 Sonics, the best team in the NBA, lost to Dikembe Mutombo’s Denver Nuggets in the first round? Or when the 2001 Mariners, after a 116-win regular season, failed to make it to the World Series? Or when the Seahawks’ first Super Bowl appearance turned into an officiating disaster eight years ago?

The list goes on, but I’ll spare you. If Seattle teams aren’t suffering from mediocrity (or worse), then they’re experiencing heartbreak.

But now the reinvented Seahawks run sports in this town. They’re as colorful as their coach, Pete Carroll. They’re as rugged as their running back, Marshawn Lynch. They’re as stately as their quarterback, Russell Wilson, and as punishing as their No. 1-ranked defense. And they’re a collection of overlooked athletes who refused to be defined by limitation, a motley crew with moxie.

“The thing that’s so unique about them is they started from the bottom and believed in themselves first,” Kemp said. “That’s why I like this football team. They convinced us they were going to play great defense. They convinced us they were going to be a good offensive team. Their greatness rubbed off on us.”

The city needs this Super Bowl victory. To obstruct the past. To redefine what the future can be. To eliminate the can’t-do assumption that plagues local sports.

But what if they lose?

If this victory could be Seattle’s greatest sports triumph, then a defeat could be its most painful setback.

Kemp broached the topic when talking to fans in his bar a few days ago. They barked back at him, “We’ve not even going to go there. We’ve been down that road.”

He left the subject alone, but he worries. He can’t imagine how damaging a loss of this magnitude could be. On the other hand, he admits there’s something about these Seahawks that inspires incredible faith.

“For whatever reason, it feels safe to dream big with the Seahawks,” Kemp said.

So he’ll keep dreaming about a parade. And fans will keep displaying their 12th Man flags, raising them high and blanketing the city in Seahawks blue.

“Imagine the party, when the clock strikes zero and the blue-and-green confetti comes down,” said Lawyer Milloy, a former Seahawks safety who also played college football at Washington. “Imagine the party we’ll have for the rest of our lives.”

As the Reign Man walked to his car last week, he heard two male fans talking. They were pretending to be announcers calling the Super Bowl.

“It don’t get no better than that,” Kemp said. “That lets you know how serious fans are right now.”

When the two fans described Marshawn Lynch rumbling through the Denver Broncos defense, Kemp laughed.

The Seahawks’ task is clear: Make the confetti fall anew on the city.

Even Kemp would bathe in it.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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