As the third season without an NBA franchise in Seattle begins, a visit to see the 1979 NBA championship trophy at the Museum of History & Industry helps fill the void.
The NBA season began Tuesday. In Seattle, that’s a good time to visit a museum.
It’s not just because we need somewhere else to go for entertainment. One local museum also stands as the best place to visit for a reminder of what we lost when the Oklahoma Raiders ran off with the franchise formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics.
The Sonics’ 1979 championship trophy rests at the Museum of History & Industry, encased in glass, with a mustard-colored baby carrier to its left and a red Gore-Tex jacket to its right. It stands, as dominant as a big man, among a random collection of items that take you through the years of Seattle history. The closest wall has an image of Bill Gates and an explainer of his impact. There are nearby posters of the 1973 Bumbershoot festival and the Seattle Opera’s 1983 presentation of “The Ring.” But nothing is more striking than that gold trophy.
“1979 NBA World Champions,” it reads. “Seattle SuperSonics.”
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Visitors left Post-it notes by the explainers of items at MOHAI, and on this day, there were two notes about the trophy.
“That’s the best time of the Sonics in history,” reads one.
“I was a kindergarten student in ’79 and remember the Sonics — Downtown Freddie Brown,” reads the other.
Spend 15 minutes with the trophy, and all those suppressed feelings surface. Pride. Joy. Rage. Confusion. Nostalgia. Seldom does a trip to a museum become so impassioned.
“It excites a lot of emotion,” MOHAI executive assistant Kimberly Jacobsen said. “Some of our employees will be working, and they’ll hear the visitors’ noise level rise and know they’re talking about the Sonics’ trophy.”
MOHAI is kind of like the foster parent for the trophy and hundreds of other artifacts, ranging from banners to team photographs to old VHS tapes, that aren’t on display. Shortly after Clay Bennett and his Raiders settled with the city and moved to Oklahoma City, the items were given to the museum. In early 2009, MOHAI and the Raiders signed an agreement that essentially says the museum will take care of these precious Sonics’ memories in perpetuity. At any time, Bennett could take them back, but he isn’t expected to do so.
Therefore, the Sonics and the franchise it became, the Thunder, are likely to remain connected only by those two strange years of limbo that preceded the move. The Thunder has the right to use all of the Sonics’ statistical history, but in terms of promotion, they’ve used very little of it. In every way, this remains an ugly divorce.
But at least MOHAI wants to preserve some of the most important parts of Sonics history. The Sonics remain the only Seattle team from the Big Three professional sports — NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball — to win a championship. The Storm has won two WNBA titles, including the one it claimed this past summer, so pro hoops is still alive and thriving. But those 1979 Sonics started it all.
“Winning a trophy of this magnitude really was important for the city,” Jacobsen said. “In 1979, we were accused of being a cultural dustbin. We had a lot to prove back then. This championship was, and still is, a reason for Seattleites to have pride. And look at what the city has become since then.”
Seattle is an unquestioned world-class city now. It will continue to be so, even if the NBA never returns.
Still, there’s a void. This is the third NBA season since the Sonics vanished, and it will be the toughest one to date. Kevin Durant, the rookie star of the last Sonics team, has blossomed into a superstar and might be the league MVP this season. And with LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami, there’s a buzz about the league that has been lacking for some time.
NBA commissioner David Stern is already hyping the year as one of the most exciting in league history, and though we fully understand his talent for deception, his words might not be hyperbole. It’s going to be a tough year to stomach, as the Thunder develops into a true contender and the national media squawks endlessly about the NBA.
Thirty-one years ago, the Sonics owned this league. Lenny Wilkens, Fred Brown, Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams, Jack Sikma — they provided an unforgettable season. They captured the trophy that you’re hearing every current player from LeBron James to Dwight Howard to Carmelo Anthony scream that they’re desperate to win. Even Bennett is wise enough to let the city have its glory.
On opening day in the NBA, it felt good to be reminded of the great feat. And it felt infuriating all over again to know that the Sonics have been stripped down to artifacts. The Supes have become a collection of things, sadly. The league has left Seattle behind, but at least it can’t expunge its imprint on NBA history.
The trophy is safe. If nothing else, the trophy is safe.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer