It's been 10 years since the Sonics' final game at KeyArena, but Seattle made a lifelong impression on Kevin Durant. The player who was supposed to be the city's next superstar returned to give the Key one last hurrah — just like he did a decade ago.
Perhaps the sellout crowd that packed KeyArena on April 13, 2008 for the Seattle Sonics’ home season finale had some inkling that this might be the final NBA game played in their city.
Maybe that’s why the final minutes of a meaningless matchup with Dallas in a miserable 20-62 season still resonate years later as fans chanted, “Save our Sonics!”
On the court, Kevin Durant, a rail-thin 19-year-old Sonics rookie and future NBA MVP, clapped in unison as the chant grew louder.
“It was indescribable, man,” said Durant, now with the Golden State Warriors. “I can’t put into words the energy of the building and the amount of love. The support that was in the building was incredible.”
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Days after that final home game, the NBA approved Sonics owner Clay Bennett’s request to move the franchise to Oklahoma City. Since then, Sonics fans have mourned the loss of their team, and KeyArena has not hosted another NBA game.
That changes Friday night.
A decade after the Sonics’ departure, Durant returns to KeyArena with the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors for a 7:30 p.m. exhibition against the Sacramento Kings. Tickets are sold out.
It’s one last hurrah at the iconic 56-year-old arena before it undergoes a $700 million renovation. The NHL in December is expected to award a franchise to Seattle that could begin play at the arena in 2020, and the hope is that an NBA team eventually will return.
Perhaps it’s fitting that KeyArena’s final event is an NBA game featuring Durant, the player who was supposed to be Seattle’s next sports superstar.
Sonics greats Bill Russell, Spencer Haywood, Fred Brown, Gary Payton and Lenny Wilkens are expected to be in attendance Friday to relish the glory days with the fans, who have waited 10 years to once again witness an NBA game played in Seattle.
This game no doubt will bring back memories – good, bad and ugly – of a beloved franchise that was a mainstay in Seattle for 41 years.
Before we make one final NBA memory at the Key, let’s look back on that last Sonics’ game, and their final season in Seattle.
• • •
A FOREBODING FINAL SEASON
In retrospect, many of those who lived through that final Sonics season in Seattle can pick out numerous moments or events that pointed to the sad, inevitable ending: a beloved franchise’s departure from the Emerald city.
Somebody was hired, fired or traded seemingly every day during a tumultuous 2007 offseason.
Former Sonics great Lenny Wilkens, who had been vice chairman of Bennett’s ownership group, was named President of Basketball Operations on April 27. His tenure lasted 40 days and ended with his resignation. Gone too were coach Bob Hill and general manager Rick Sund, who were replaced by P.J. Carlesimo and Sam Presti, respectively.
Lenny Wilkens (former Sonics President of Basketball Operations)
“When I got back from the draft lottery, the thing that became obvious to me was Clay Bennett kept talking about (how) the model was broken and Seattle wasn’t going to build a building for him. So it was obvious he wanted to move the team. I wasn’t happy about that and I could see because I wasn’t happy about that they weren’t valuing my opinion at all. And I was not going to be a part of them moving to Oklahoma so I felt the best thing for me to do was to resign.”
The new front office traded Ray Allen, then a 31-year-old All-Star coming off a career-high scoring season, to Boston. Two weeks later, the team dealt Rashard Lewis, who spent nine years in Seattle, to Orlando.
Lorin ‘Big Lo’ Sandretzky (Sonics season-ticket holder)
“The feeling of losing Ray and Rashard was hard to take. Those two guys were just fun as human beings as well as competitors on the court. You could just tell things were different.”
Kevin Calabro (Sonics radio play-by-play commentator)
“The stars of the past, Ray and Rashard, had departed. It was pretty apparent what was going on there. They were trying to build for the future certainly and they were doing it from the ground up.”
• • •
A STAR IN THE MAKING: KEVIN DURANT
Kevin Durant was one of the only good things to come out of the Sonics’ final season in Seattle.
The Sonics acquired the 19-year-old phenom with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft and selected Jeff Green at No. 5.
Durant, a Washington D.C. native who spent one year at Texas, moved to Seattle in the summer of 2007 with his mother Wanda Pratt and two cousins. He bought a $2.8 million home in Mercer Island. The new kid in town quickly ingratiated himself with the Sonics fan base and the city’s hoops culture.
“(Seattle) was really chill for it being a big city. I thought it would be faster. But once I got out there, it was smooth sailing. I had friends that lived out there. Spencer Hawes is my best friend coming out of high school. We spent a lot of time together. His family was from there. I felt like I had a family with him as well. It felt natural, real and perfect.”
Spencer Hawes (Seattle native who played basketball at UW and was the 10th overall pick by the Sacramento Kings in the 2007 NBA draft)
“We kind of started as rivals on the AAU circuit and during the course of every other weekend for a good stretch of 2-3 summers, we were at the same camps. We were lucky enough to get invited to an international tournament in France our sophomore year. … that was when a few of us hit it off … that was where we struck up a friendship and it continued. Then it was the AAU circuit, the Nike camps, the All-Star games. After a year of college together going through the draft process together and everything that entailed, his agent at the time (Aaron Goodwin) was out in Seattle, so he was out here the whole time before the pre-draft on his own and not really knowing anybody. We were hanging out and working out a lot and just introducing him to the city and to some friends to try to make him feel a little more welcome in a situation that can be intimidating.”
“Most of the guys from the NBA I would play from Seattle, it was so tight. … Jamal (Crawford), Will Conroy and all those guys that come from U-Dub. Nate Robinson. So I kind of felt like I was a part of that group with those guys. Just hooping with them every day and being around them and that community. It was deeper than just me playing for the Sonics. I had a little family there as well.”
Will Conroy (current Washington Huskies assistant coach)
“I was just getting into the league, playing for the (Los Angeles) Clippers when Kevin came to town. A lot of times when a guy of his stature comes to a new city, they can be kind of standoffish and you don’t know how to really respond to them. But with Kevin, we brought him in to our group right from the start. If we had pickup games going on, we’d make sure he was there with us.”
Durant easily won the 2007-08 Rookie of the Year award after averaging 20.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 80 games. Seattle came to occupy a special place in his heart.
“That drive across the bridge was always beautiful. It was rainy a lot, but you could see the water and then in the spring time, you could see the mountains as well. Everybody else lived in the downtown area. I was probably the only one to live that far out in a good community. I had a nice house. I was settling down there.”
• • •
DARK CLOUD DESCENDS
Unfortunately, Durant’s tenure in Seattle didn’t last very long. Two games into his rookie season, on Nov. 2, Bennett made good on his threat to move and announced plans to relocate both the Sonics and the Storm to Oklahoma City.
“That was not a surprise because of the comments I had been hearing. I just knew that first chance they got they were going to try to get out of Seattle.”
Adam Brown (Producer of the documentary “Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team”)
“People were devastated at that time. Most people knew when Howard Schultz sold the team to Bennett that we needed a miracle to keep the team at that point. Around that time you had Steve Ballmer emerge with a group of local investors trying to buy the team back. But at that point, the NBA wasn’t going to force Bennett to sell the team. We certainly weren’t giving up at that point, but we knew it would be nearly impossible to get the team out of Bennett’s hands.”
• • •
A LOST SEASON
Defeat clung to the Sonics throughout that final season. Seattle had its worst start in franchise history – 2-14 – endured a 14-game losing streak, and fell to a miserable 13-38 by the All-Star break.
This was a weak team leaning on a promising but inexperienced young star in Durant, and his versatility and raw talent wasn’t enough to compensate for their lack of quality depth.
“We were competitive, but it was just apparent we didn’t have the kind of firepower to contend with most clubs. The leading scorer is going to be Kevin Durant, a very young player who physically wasn’t quite ready to play in the NBA although this guy scored 20 a game. But we just didn’t have any other scoring and that’s the bottom line. You can talk about defense all you want and that’s fine and good, but you got to be able to put the ball in the bucket.”
Seattle hit rock bottom in Denver on March 16. The Nuggets destroyed the Sonics 168-116, scoring the most points Seattle had ever allowed in franchise history, and prompting Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley to christen the team the “Seattle Super Quitters.”
Kelley wrote: “This team that calls itself the Seattle Sonics quit like dogs on Sunday night. This team disgraced the city. Disgraced the league. And most important, the players disgraced themselves.”
But even though it felt as if the front office had called it quits, the coach and players say they never gave up.
“You can say the front office gave up on the season before it started. Those two kids (Durant and Green) gave it all they had, but they didn’t have a lot of help around them.”
“Guys were still playing hard until the end.”
“And the crazy thing was, the fans kept showing up. I had a feeling, the fans might have suspected we’d better come out and see them now because who knows if we’ll have another chance.”
On April 6, in their penultimate home game, the Sonics rewarded those dogged home fans with a thriller that avenged the humiliating defeat to Denver three weeks earlier. Durant scored 37 points and Green had 35 to lead Seattle to a 151-147 double-overtime win against the Nuggets at KeyArena.
“The last 3-4 games, the crowd was really into it. Me and the people that sat near me were all puzzled and like, ‘Where was this all season?’ If this would have been happening all season, I think we would have had a shot at saving this team.”
That day, even the Nuggets’ coach – former Sonics coach George Karl — had an opinion on the Sonics’ rumored impending departure from Seattle.
Matt Pitman (Sonics PA announcer)
“The thing I remember about that game was George’s tie. He wore the Space Needle tie. He was really reflective before that game (about) what the place meant to him, and pretty unfiltered about his thoughts (that) ‘this is wrong, what the team is doing.’ He said, ‘This is a great NBA city that deserves a team, but deserves to be treated like a city that won a championship.’ ”
• • •
LAST GAME AT THE KEY
The Sonics entered their final home game after a treacherous three-game road trip through Texas that included lopsided losses at Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
A sellout crowd of 17,072 fans packed KeyArena on a Sunday night. The Dallas Mavericks were fighting for a playoff spot. The Sonics were just trying to tune out the noise about a potential move and close out the season strong.
On the court and in the stands, there was a surreal mix of anxiety and uncertainty. Before the game, even Mavs owner Mark Cuban said he was not in favor of the Sonics moving to Oklahoma.
“I don’t recall any concern that it was going to be our last game. Maybe there was apprehension. Maybe we were aware there was stuff going on, but I remember we were business as usual. My recollection may be inaccurate, but I don’t remember at all thinking this could be our last game at the Key.”
“That game was packed. We played Dallas that night. Dallas was trying to get a playoff spot and we wound up beating them that game. We didn’t know this was our last game in Seattle, but the fans had an idea. They showed out.”
“The electricity and the crowd was so energetic. It just felt like a city that did not want to lose their team.”
“There was so much extraneous stuff. The uniformed Seattle Police presence was significant, and probably the biggest I’ve seen in KeyArena for a basketball event. They didn’t know if people were going to run on the court or what was going on. It was kind of awkward from the perspective of a lot of us working. We were basically told not to treat this like it was the last game even though everyone in their right mind knew it could have been the last game.”
Gary Payton (former Sonics great)
“I felt it was important for me to be there just to give my support to the fans who supported us for so long. There was so much negative stuff going on at that time and there wasn’t a whole lot to feel good about.”
Down 95-89 with 3:14 left, the Sonics ended the game with a 10-0 run and held the Mavs to 0-for-8 shooting the rest of the way. Earl Watson led Seattle with 21 points and Nick Collison had 18.
Durant, who scored 19 points, delivered the go-ahead basket – a midrange jumper – with 41.6 seconds left. After his layup gave Seattle a 98-95 lead, the fans began to chant, “Save our Sonics!”
“I got chills just thinking about how this might be the last moment. It definitely felt like a playoff atmosphere even though we were cheering on a franchise-worst 20-win team.”
“Kevin’s backpedaling after making that bucket, going back on defense and waving his arms and just imploring the fans and encouraging that ‘Save our Sonics’ chant. The emotion of a rookie player, just a young man at that point of his career, it was very real and you could tell that he appreciated the moment beyond just what was going on the court. He saw this was a really important moment for this city and these fans who have cheered this team on for 41 years.”
“It felt like a primal scream in this world where we were beholden to the whims of billionaire team owners and politicians who are ultimately looking to protect their own interests and not necessarily the interests of the people or the fans. It felt like everyone was just screaming their heads off trying to will the team to not only win that night, but to stay in Seattle.”
“The passion that you felt that night, that final night of the KeyArena. It tugged at your heart. I know I had tears in my eyes that night and I know everybody around me had tears in their eyes because they knew this was possibly the end of what’s been so many years of enjoyment for all of us.
In the end, nothing mattered. Less than three months later, the Sonics’ 41-year run in Seattle ended: Bennett paid the city of Seattle a $45 million settlement and took his team to Oklahoma City.
• • •
TEN YEARS LATER
Since the Sonics’ departure, the Seahawks, Sounders and Storm have won titles and the NBA has moved on without Seattle.
Investor Chris Hansen nearly brought the Sacramento Kings to town, but the NBA overwhelmingly rejected his bid in 2013.
NBA basketball made a cameo in Seattle with Friday’s nationally televised ESPN exhibition game between the Warriors and the Kings, but there’s no telling when the NBA and Seattle will reunite for real.
At age 30, with two NBA titles and Finals MVP awards, Durant returns to the city where he began his pro career, but this time he’ll be dressed in the blue-and-yellow of the Golden State Warriors instead of the Sonics’ green-and-yellow.
It’s another reminder of what Seattle lost, and what Durant could have been to this city’s sports culture.
Durant feels the city’s longing. And he shares one belief with thousands of Sonics fans still mourning the loss of their team: Seattle needs an NBA team again.
“We’re talking about NBA basketball. What the Storm has done is incredible. But everybody knows that Seattle sports is not complete without the Sonics. The Seahawks had some success. Now the Storm have had some success. Everybody in the basketball world and NBA coaching knows the Sonics need to be back in Seattle. I’m looking forward to going out there and playing. Hopefully we give them a show.”