I’ll never forget the first time I ever witnessed one of my favorite sports teams endure a bitter, unexpected defeat. The date was May 7th, 1994. It was a Saturday and I was at a friend’s house. He was the catcher on our Little League team, the Orioles, and I was one of two pitchers on the squad. We’d played a game that morning, and immediately after we went back to his place to watch basketball.
Our beloved Sonics played the Denver Nuggets that afternoon, game five of the NBA’s Western Conference First Round Playoffs. The series was tied at two games apiece. Seattle had taken an early 2-0 series lead with the home court advantage. Games three and four, however, went to the Nuggets in the altitude of the Mile High City. A return to the Pacific Northwest signaled the final bout of the five-game matchup. As the number-one overall seed, the Sonics should have easily dispatched the lowly Nuggets, winners of just 42 contests in the regular season. And yet on this particular day, it wasn’t meant to be.
Nearly 21 years later, everyone has seen the image by now. Dikembe Mutombo with eyes clenched shut on his back against the floor of the Seattle Coliseum, a basketball held tight above his head, trembling within his viselike grip. A four-point victory for Mutombo’s Nuggets, who withstood a Sonics-team-high 22 points from Kendall Gill, of all people, to move onto the next round. For many onlookers, this image represented all we love about sports: David thwarting Goliath, the underdog overcoming all odds to triumph over a heavy favorite. And yet for those of us who called ourselves Seattleites, it meant something much different.
We were losers. Not just in the frame of that moment, either. Short of these very same Sonics winning the 1979 NBA title some 15 years earlier, our local pro teams had done nothing but lose throughout their respective histories. But I was only nine years old, which meant that over the course of my lifetime, this was the closest any one of my teams had come to doing something of consequence. The Sonics were the overwhelming favorite that year, a frontrunner for the NBA Finals in the first season of a (temporary) post-Jordan era. And they blew it in epic fashion. I sat there in the basement of a home I would never return to, yet never forget, and was a mix of tangled emotions.
When you’re nine, losses are hard to comprehend. All we really know about winning and losing when we’re that age is that winning feels a lot better. As we get older, losses start to teach us things, build character, all the important silver linings we try to uncover in the wake of defeat. But as grade schoolers, losing is more or less incomprehensible. How? Why? We ask questions in our minds with little elaboration, rhetorical if only because they can’t seemingly be answered. We might feel cheated, robbed, but we aren’t yet warm to those sentiments. So instead we just hurt a little bit, for reasons unknown, until we don’t hurt any longer.
When the Seahawks coughed up the Super Bowl on Sunday, the same emotions I felt on that Saturday afternoon back in 1994 washed over me. How? Why? It just didn’t make sense. My team had all but locked up a sure victory. And then, in an instant, that opportunity went away. I was nine again. Silver linings were hard to unearth.
Age brings with it wisdom, I suppose, or something close to it, at least. In the aftermath of the world’s worst play call, I reflected back on those two decades that separated my first bitter defeat from the most recent.
A year-and-a-half after the Sonics fell to the Nuggets on that fateful spring day, the Mariners gave me one of the best experiences of my entire life when they vanquished the New York Yankees from the Divisional Series playoffs with a double down the left field line.
Eight months after an entire roster’s worth of ivory-clad baseball players pig-piled atop Ken Griffey, Jr. and his grinning mug, the Sonics jettisoned memories of a playoff series two years in the rearview mirror and made it all the way to the NBA Finals.
And a mere (“mere” used loosely here, but just go with it) 17 years after that, the Seahawks brought home the city’s first major championship in over three decades.
The chronology wasn’t perfect. The rise to the top wasn’t as speedy as we would have liked, perhaps. But upon reaching the summit, we could look back upon all it took to get there and truly appreciate the climb.
One year ago, we were celebrating something we weren’t sure would ever arrive. We hadn’t won much here in Seattle. Our teams had let us down more frequently than they had picked us up. But given the chance to rejoice in a moment of pure exultation, we did not disappoint.
Twelve months later, we sit here embittered and embarrassed. For the first time in our collective lives, we expected another title. We were foolish to think it’d be that easy. And as a result, we, as fans, didn’t get to enjoy what we thought our team would almost certainly achieve. We were naïve. We were entitled. We won’t make the same mistake again.
Pain in defeat is fleeting. It leaves as soon as the next season begins, if not sooner – just ask any blindly optimistic lifelong Mariners fan, myself included. When August arrives and brings with it the NFL’s first preseason games of 2015, every single fan who may have spent this week cursing their beloved Seahawks will be doped up on green-and-blue Kool-Aid.
We’ve been through quite a bit as Seattle sports fans. More bad than good, to be sure. But if back-to-back Super Bowl appearances aren’t enough to stoke the charred embers of your burnt and broken heart, maybe nothing ever will.
For everyone else, though, I encourage you to dig through the archives of your memories and remember how you felt the day Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, and a host of other Supersonics slunk off their home floor and left a cavalcade of visitors polluting their city with unwanted elation. We’ve been through some shit. That isn’t the case any longer.
In a time of mourning, just remember that there’s always next year. Plus the year after that, the year after that, and so on and so forth. Whether you ride and die with the Seahawks and the Seahawks alone, or dabble in the fanaticism of Seattle’s baseball team, as well, there is so much to look forward to. And don’t think for a minute that the Sonics won’t return, because they will. There are far too many people invested in the fight to bring our basketball team back that it will absolutely happen.
There are positives here. There will always be positives. And it’s a great time to be a Seattle sports fan.