An NBA game at Climate Pledge Arena on Monday felt more like a homecoming of Seattle basketball luminaries and old-school Sonics fans who converged on Seattle Center for a festive night to relive the good ol’ days and dream about a future in which these games are commonplace. 

The Los Angeles Clippers held on to win 102-97 over the Portland Trail Blazers in the first game between two NBA teams in Seattle since 2018. 

An otherwise meaningless preseason contest held a little more significance than most exhibitions because the Clippers unveiled a revamped roster, including a trio of stars Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and John Wall that makes them an NBA title contender. 

Leonard, who ended a lengthy layoff and played for the first time since suffering a partially torn ACL on June 14, 2021, looked rusty early and finished with 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting in 16 minutes. 

Wall tallied five points and three assists in his Clippers debut while George led the way with 12 points and seven rebounds. 

L.A. used its superior size and an array of scoring combinations to go ahead 52-44 at halftime. George, Leonard and Wall sat out the second half, which largely explains why the Blazers had their best moments after intermission and made it a relatively close contest. 

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Portland received 16 points from star Damian Lillard, who played 23 minutes, while Jerami Grant had 14 points and Jusuf Nurkic 13. 

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, a former Microsoft CEO, got the party started with a bombastic pregame address at midcourt. 

“I’m so excited to see Climate Pledge Arena, this fantastic building, light up tonight,” he said. “I’m so excited that we’re playing the Portland Trail Blazers. … I want to know whether you guys agree with me. I’ve watched thousands of basketball games in Seattle (from) CYO, little kids, AAU, pro, college, you name it. So, if this is a basketball city dammit, let’s hear it.” 

The capacity crowd of 18,440, many who wore No. 20 Gary Payton and No. 40 Shawn Kemp jerseys, roared with approval and the cheers didn’t stop for the next two hours. 

“Hopefully this is an indication of what basketball can be like in Seattle,” former Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf said. “The Sonics have been gone for a dozen years and we still have a great fan base. People still believe in the NBA even though they haven’t had a chance to root for their team.  

“You see that by people showing up and showing the colors. Having these NBA teams play here in a facility that’s top notch puts everyone on notice that if there’s a team that’s available this is the place to be.” 

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Climate Pledge was a who’s who of sports celebrities and the place to be for autograph seekers who swarmed Payton, Kemp, Schrempf, Lenny Wilkens, George Karl, Sam Perkins, Jamal Crawford, Eldridge Recasner, P.J. Carlesimo, Bob Whitsitt, Kevin Calabro, Walter Jones, Marcus Trufant and Quincy Pondexter.

The star-studded Climate Pledge crowd also included Gov. Jay Inslee, Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, who wore a green Sonics shirt. 

Before Monday’s game, Harrell honored Wilkens with a proclamation declaring Oct. 3 as “Lenny Wilkens Day” at Seattle Center. 

Initially, Wilkens was hesitant to receive the honor despite an extensive NBA resume that includes leading the Sonics to the 1979 NBA championship, three inductions in the Naismith Hall of Fame and a four-decade history of philanthropy with the Odessa Brown Clinic. 

But Wilkens believes nights like Monday help efforts to bring back the Sonics. 

“It lets people know Seattle has rich history,” Wilkens said. “I’m so happy to be a part of that history. This is basketball country. We should have never lost our team and I hope that this helps in some way get another team back.  

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“Everywhere I go, people talk about the Sonics and about that time when we won a championship. I don’t think that team gets the credit that it deserves. Gus (Williams), Fred (Brown), Jack (Sikma) and all of those guys became a part of this community and most of them still live here. It was a wonderful time.” 

So, what will it take for the NBA to return to Seattle? 

“I know that a group will have to come together to either go to the NBA or whatever,” Wilkens said. “I don’t know if it’ll be through expansion or a team in another city that maybe isn’t doing as well as we think. 

“The league hasn’t said it to me, but there are two cities that they will gladly come to and that’s Seattle and Las Vegas. That’s all I know.” 

Seattle and Las Vegas hosted two NBA exhibitions, which appears to put them on the top of the list of potential NBA suitors. 

“What I can say is we have Adam Silver’s attention,” Harrell said. “They realize how big a city and a market there is here in Seattle. Even when my friend and brother Jamal Crawford had LeBron (James) and others here this summer, the fans come out. And they come out in thousands of thousands in this great market. Quite frankly, we have the financing. We have the real estate. We have the fans. That’s what nights like this mean to me.”