A reporter spends a day searching for reasons why many still want the NBA back in Seattle. He finds a range of perspectives and emotions as diverse as the region.
The day starts heavy on questions: What do the Sonics mean to people? Why do they still care when the city seems just fine without the team? Why does it matter? I set out last week to try to find these answers in the shadow of the NBA Board of Governors vote Wednesday, and to do so in 24 hours. The quest would take me from Capitol Hill to Lake Forest Park and, finally, to KeyArena.
Not all of Seattle wants the Sonics to return, of course. There are plenty who are either indifferent or happy that a team and new arena might not be coming. But they are also missing something.
They are missing what this is really about.
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The Sonic: “That hurts me …”
Henry Akin starts the morning with a story. Akin will rattle off plenty of stories the next hour, and there’s a certain charm to the delight he takes in each one.
You might not recognize Akin’s name, but he played on the first Sonics team in 1967-68. He’s still a giant man at 6 feet 10, with door-frame wide shoulders. His body is wearing down — he moves gingerly with a cane through the food court at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park — but his mind is sharp. Akin played for the Sonics for one year before returning to the team as a scout.
“Al Bianchi was our coach back then in 1969,” Akin starts. “We’re in Memphis, and there’s general manager Dick Vertlieb, myself and Al. We just watched a kid from La Salle named Larry Cannon. Bianchi loved him because he was from Philly, and he liked anybody from Philly.
“Vertlieb maybe has one drink a night usually, but he’s on his fourth Manhattan this night. Finally, Bianchi looks at him and says, ‘What’s wrong?’ Vertlieb says, ‘You guys can talk all you want, but we’re not drafting Larry Cannon. Sam (Schulman, the owner) has already signed Lucius Allen to a personal services contract, and he is our No. 1 draft choice.’
“Day of the draft, we draft Lucius Allen. Second round comes up. We’re talking about who we’re going to take. The commissioner says, ‘Seattle, it’s your pick.’ And Bianchi hollers, ‘Ron Taylor, USC.’ He was a 7-footer. Nice kid. Couldn’t play. That was Bianchi’s way of getting back. And then the next day he quit.”
Akin’s face lights up at the punch line. Then he lowers his voice.
“To be honest with you,” he says, “I miss being able to listen to stories and talk to people about what went on.”
The more Akin talks about the old days, the more I notice something. By the time his stories end, the smiling and laughter that accompanied much of the tale are gone. He looks down at the table, solemn, and I can see nostalgia wash over him.
In the past few years Akin has had open heart surgery and been diagnosed with diabetes and cancer. One thing after another, he says. But when he talks about the Sonics, he is young again.
“It was not even until less than a year ago that I totally stayed away from Starbucks,” Akin says. “It wasn’t like Howard Schultz stole a part of my life when he sold the team. But I have four grandkids and trying to explain to them what their grandfather did 45 years ago is tough now. That hurts me more than anything else.”
The owner: “Basketball was so much fun”
John Nordstrom draws a line connecting the Sonics and his interest in owning the Seahawks years later.
Seattle was a different place when the Sonics first arrived. The tallest structure was the Space Needle. Starbucks was still a few years from its founding, and the Seattle area’s population was about half of what it is today.
Nordstrom quickly became a fan of the Sonics, the city’s first pro sports team. He hurt when they lost. He was thrilled when they won. He still rattles off names of players from those early teams.
“I liked it so well that when it came time to step up and get in line for the Seahawks, I was tempted to do it because basketball was so much fun,” Nordstrom says. “If we hadn’t had the Sonics, I think it would have been a bigger mystery to get into football.”
The hippie: “My hatred has hardened”
Joel Schwartz was a hippie. Or is a hippie. Even he isn’t quite sure of the qualification at this point.
“I don’t know what you call me,” he says. “Once hippie. Ex and future hippie.”
The Sonics don’t hold a deeper meaning to Schwartz. He doesn’t have many hobbies now that he’s retired. The emotion he felt when the Sonics won or lost was a source of entertainment. A big source, maybe, but that’s all.
Schwartz moved to Seattle in 1971 and quickly became an active member of the hippie community. He played guitar. He smoked pot. He let his hair grow and didn’t have a job.
And he completely shunned sports. Part of the ideology.
As the decade progressed, so did Schwartz. He had a child, cut his hair and found a steady job. He also started taking notice of the Sonics with Lenny Wilkens and Fred Brown leading the way. By the time the team won the NBA title in 1979, he was hooked.
Before the Sonics left, he watched nearly every game from his living room, usually accompanied by a little pot. Many of Schwartz’s friends don’t get it. They are part of the group who shrugged, who still shrug, at the Sonics.
“I consider myself an extremely liberal person politically,” Schwartz says. “And part of the liberal cant in Seattle is to poo-poo sports, and I break off with that.”
He has always looked at the NBA with suspicion, and that only intensified when the Sonics left for Oklahoma City. The latest round of back-and-forth with the Kings was the tipping point. He’s done.
“My hatred has hardened,” he says over breakfast inside the Coastal Kitchen on Capitol Hill. “I’m very militant now.”
It’s more nuanced than that. Schwartz wants to hate the NBA. He wants to boycott the league, like he did for a year after the Sonics left. But he has also thought about a possible Sonics return — maybe this year, maybe years from now — and he’s not sure he can stop himself from caring again.
“I’m really so equivocal about it,” he says. “I’m so rived by the two points of view. I hold both points of view simultaneously. It’s real. The schizophrenia is real.”
The hip-hop artist: “My heart was being ripped out”
George Quibuyen is smiling the kind of smile polite people deploy in conversation to say, “I hear you. I do. But I don’t agree with a word of it.”
The man across from him at The Station on Beacon Hill is explaining how awesome Oklahoma City fans are — he even says, “They deserved a team” — and Quibuyen, better known as MC Geologic from the hip-hop group Blue Scholars, isn’t buying it.
This is personal for him. It always has been.
Geo and his family moved to Seattle from Hawaii in 1990 when he was 10. He hated the weather. He looked different. He talked different. The food was different. And his classmates at Esquire Hills Elementary School in Silverdale made fun of him for being an outsider.
“But the Sonics were one thing that made it easier,” he says. “Beyond just being a fan, it was a way for people not to see me as a weirdo.”
The Sonics are part of Geo’s life, a fabric of who he is as an artist. He writes extensively about the Seattle area and has a song called “Slick Watts,” named after the former Sonics guard. It’s why, when the team left, he says, “It felt like my heart was being ripped out. But slowly.”
On the day the NBA’s relocation committee voted to keep the Kings in Sacramento two weeks ago, Geo picked up his oldest son from school and tried to explain what it meant. He couldn’t help but see a little of himself in his 8-year-old.
“That whole thing about, ‘When you’re a fan of a sports team, you’re a part of community’ can get really corny and reaching,” he says. “But personally it’s meant that to me.”
The pastor: “We’re missing out”
Jamie Greening is a pastor and not much of a sports fan.
I stumbled across a blog post written by Greening in which he said, “I’m not a big NBA fan. I never have been. I think the game moves too fast for me. I can’t even follow the college game very well. But, I am a big fan of Seattle.”
I needed to understand how a man whose line of work revolves around a higher calling, and who isn’t a sports fan on top of it, can lobby for the return of an NBA team when so many better things could be done in the community.
“But better things sometimes are just going to see a game together,” he says, his Texas drawl still evident after nearly 15 years in Port Orchard. “If more people just sat and watched a ballgame together and talked, maybe we could solve more of the real problems.”
Greening would not own season tickets if the Sonics came back. He would probably watch games on TV and maybe attend a couple, but that’s it. Later in the day, he will talk with a man from his community who will soon be deployed to Iraq, and the gravity of the situation will carry far more meaning than any sport ever could.
“You can’t always be pedal-to-the-metal serious about everything,” he says. “My belief system is the Lord made us to be whole people and part of being a whole person is having enjoyment, entertainment. We need that. By not having that in town, we’re missing out.”
The mayor: “It really matters to them”
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn needed a little convincing.
He wasn’t opposed to the idea of supporting a new arena and the pursuit of an NBA team. He met with members of the Seattle Center and the former administration early on to find out how and why the Sonics left.
But in perfect political form, he straddled the line. He told Chris Hansen that he would support his interest for building a new arena and acquiring a team within certain constraints — budget, public funds — but he wasn’t a zealot advocating for a team to return. It had to happen on the right terms.
First, and most important, McGinn said the city and Hansen worked out an arena deal that “protected our public funds.” McGinn points to the jobs and outside interest the new arena and team will create, and that aspect is a key cog in all of this. But the other part involved what he heard at town hall meetings and walking tours, of which McGinn estimates he has done more than 120.
“I can tell you when I’m in front of young kids, particularly young kids from communities of color, it’s usually the first or second question I get,” McGinn says between meetings in the afternoon. ” ‘Hey Mayor, can you bring back the Sonics?’
“Frankly that changed my attitude toward the project. That really made a difference to me as I approached it. Because if all I listened to is what people said in City Hall or around downtown board rooms, they may or may not pick that as a high priority. But I hear from a lot of members from the public that it really matters to them.”
The dad: “Father-son bonding moment”
Mark Rigos looks out over the full-length basketball court in his backyard.
The court is crimson and gray — he and his wife are both Washington State grads — but it likely would have been green and gold had it been built before September 2008. That’s when the Sonics were still settling in Oklahoma City.
“I would bet dollars to doughnuts it would be,” Mark says.
Mark was a huge Sonics fan growing up in Bellevue. In fact, he lived just a few houses away from Lenny Wilkens. Mark and his friends used to sneak onto Wilkens’ lawn to see the trophies in his foyer. When the Sonics traded away his favorite player, Xavier “X-man” McDaniel in 1990, Mark nearly cried.
Now he has four boys of his own, none older than 10. Tyler, his oldest son, is the only one who went to a Sonics game, but he doesn’t remember going.
Mark and his sons go hiking and attend Seahawks and Mariners games. But basketball is their favorite sport, and the NBA is their favorite sport to watch.
“There’s a father-son bonding moment that can easily happen at those games,” Mark says, “and we don’t have that.”
The coach: “One big family”
Jenny Boucek misses the camaraderie.
Boucek was an assistant coach with the Storm for three years in the mid-2000s but spent much of her time in meetings with Sonics coaches Nate McMillan, Dwane Casey and Bob Weiss. One season in particular Boucek spent nearly every day at practices or in team meetings. She even used to scout in Portland for the Sonics despite not getting paid for it.
“I’d do anything for those guys,” she says.
Now, in her second stint with the Storm after returning in 2010, Boucek says it’s different. In fact, she still has an apartment in Seattle but doesn’t spend nearly as much time in the city as before because the Sonics aren’t here.
“It was one big family, one big team,” she says. “The guys were like brothers to our players and even to me. You feel that’s gone.”
The traitor: “That should be this city”
Eric Ross is Benedict Arnold, even to many of his friends. He roots for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“In some ways, I definitely am a traitor,” said Ross, a junior at UW. “But if the Sonics were to come back, I would root for them 100 percent. I want them to come back. It’s not like I don’t want them to.”
But he is also a fan of the Thunder. He owns a Kevin Durant Thunder jersey and another OKC shirt. When Oklahoma City big man Serge Ibaka hits a jumper in the first half of Tuesday’s game against Memphis, Ross quickly pumps his fist inside Oskar’s Kitchen, Shawn Kemp’s Queen Anne restaurant.
“It hurts even more that they’re doing so well,” he says, looking up at Oklahoma City fans on the TV. “That should be this city, this atmosphere. That should be us over there at KeyArena right now. It sucks, but what else can I do?”
The Sonicsgate guys: “We weren’t wasting our time”
How much is devotion to a team worth? How much money and, equally important, how much time? Jason Reid, Adam Brown, Darren Lund and Colin Baxter — the zealous Sonics fans who put together the award-winning documentary “Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team” — don’t have a clear figure. But they do have an official number.
“I calculated it for our insurance,” Brown says, “so the answer is close to $300,000, including our time.”
Reid, often the public spokesman for the group who estimates he has happily agreed to more than 1,000 interviews in the past six or seven years, says he thinks the number is higher.
“If you want to take what we charge Microsoft or other corporate clients,” he says, “then it’s been hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
This is an especially critical time for the guys behind the film, all of whom had different reasons for getting involved. Baxter hated seeing Queen Anne, his neighborhood, affected by the loss of the team. Reid couldn’t get over what he calls the lying and deceit that went into moving the team. Basketball is the only sport Brown played growing up, and it’s the sport he associated with the city. Lund became engaged with the story of the relocation.
For years they tried to keep the idea of the Sonics alive, but their grass-roots effort had begun to climax shortly before Hansen and his group stepped forward.
Reid and Baxter even spent $4,000 apiece to get front-row tickets at the NBA Finals last season in Miami just so they could sit behind the Thunder bench dressed as zombies holding Sonics signs.
“It’s worth sitting with that debt now,” Reid says late at night in Queen Anne. “And especially now that we have Chris Hansen. You could argue everything before that was a hopeless cause. As soon as Chris Hansen came on board, we had a candidate to get behind.”
Says Baxter, “We weren’t wasting our time.”
In our two hours together, I can’t get over their passion. How could anyone spend six years fighting for an NBA basketball team? On my way home, I wrestle with the idea that their energy is misplaced, that they could have done so much more with their time and money.
I’m exhausted, but as I wait to turn onto First Avenue, I find myself looking at a dark KeyArena. I’ve never thought much of the building since I’ve been in Seattle and have only stepped inside it a couple of times. But as I stare at the neon red sign and that goofy triangle roof, I realize what the arena means.
It’s not a building, really. It’s a memory.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org