There was no naivety, however. Every fan in the building that night had an inkling the team could be moved in the offseason. But the prevailing thought was that they’d stick around, that the legal system, if nothing else, would bestow at least one more year of Sonics basketball unto Seattle.
Still, the audience took no chances.
In the waning moments of the season’s final contest, the capacity crowd began chanting “Save our Son-ics.” It was a murmur, at first. But then it grew, as all good chants seem to, spreading from section to section, filling the cheap seats and skyboxes alike, covering each crevice and corner inside Key Arena until every last basketball fan in the building spoke in unison.
At the epicenter, atop the hardwood floor that gave the room its heartbeat, there stood a young man, still a teenager, who heard every word the crowd shouted.
He was far from ordinary, this youngster. A 19-year-old rookie whose baby face belied his nearly seven-foot-tall stature, he had emerged as a once-in-a-generation talent amid the backdrop of a situation that was far from fair. Anointed the savior of an all-but-doomed franchise upon his selection as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, he became the face of a team that was slowly being extracted from its roots in the heart of Seattle Center.
There was nothing he could do to save them, of course. He was a new employee whose boss was determined to bring an NBA team to Oklahoma City – the town the owner, himself, called home. The owner would stop at nothing to see his plan to completion, famously watering down the ambiance and atmosphere at Key Arena to make for an unpleasant fan experience, going so far as to switch the stadium pizza from the more coveted name brands to the frozen, it’s-not-delivery option, DiGiorno – DIGIORNO! It was an ugly divorce in the heat of its court proceedings, and the young man who now donned a green-and-gold jersey with 35 on the front and back was simply the child who lingered nearby as mom and dad fought to the bitter end.
And what responsibility did he have to a town he had called home for a mere six months, anyway? He was a D.C. native, by way of Austin, Texas, who had yet to even enjoy a spring or summer in Seattle – hardly the experience any wayward work traveler would relish. He could have trotted out the final minutes of a meaningless victory, walked to the locker room, waved a simple good-bye, and no one would have batted an eye. He owed the city nothing. Owed the fans nothing. And they would have loved him anyway.
The plea wasn’t directed at him. It wasn’t directed at the owner, necessarily, either. It was aimed towards no one in particular and everyone all at once. Save our Sonics. Someone. Anyone. Just save them.
A break in the action. The volume in the aging arena rose as play stopped. And as it did, the rookie raised his right arm, palm skyward, and urged the onlookers to a roaring crescendo.
“SAVE OUR SON-ICS! SAVE OUR SON-ICS! SAVE OUR SON-ICS!”
The spectators hit their forte and the young man, consumed by a moment, clapped his hands emphatically. Everyone in that building loved him for it. And he reciprocated their emotion with just as much fervor. It was a genuine connection, the kind you don’t often find in professional sports. It brought them together in that instant, the thousands of ardent Sonics supporters and the otherworldly athlete who spent a season wearing their colors.
They would never see him play up close again. Nor would he ever again be attired in a Seattle jersey. But as a tragedy wound down to its conclusion, the player and the fans forged a bond that would not easily be broken. Even as he moved on to the foretold destination in the middle of America’s central plains, they found it hard to root against him, in particular, in spite of the team for whom he now played. And who could blame them, really? The young man’s talent was rivaled only by his charisma. He was likable, authentic, and among the game’s elite ballplayers.
Then there were the moments he acknowledged how much they meant to him, those fans. The Sonics hat he wore before games and in his social media avatar. The words that permeated Twitter – “I lowkey miss Seattle and Key Arena” – some two years after he’d left the city behind. He paid homage to them, and they, in turn, managed a complicated relationship as best they could. Because what else would you call it when you lowkey root for a guy who plays for a squad and an owner you unequivocally hate?
For eight seasons, they managed. Then finally, on the eve of season number nine, a surprise breakthrough: he left Oklahoma City. Who would have believed he’d depart for another team after all this time? Yet he did, for the vaunted Golden State Warriors, no less. There was joy in Seattle. One could openly root for the last great Supersonic once more. And do so at the expense of those unrequited zealots in Oklahoma, too.
It would have been enough just seeing him leave behind enemy territory; that alone made Sonics fans giddy. But then he went out and won a championship in his first season with a new team. The city that poached Seattle’s oldest pro sports franchise never managed a title with him in uniform. Then, as soon as he left, he earned a ring elsewhere. It was serendipitous. And in Seattle, they celebrated what he had achieved.
He was a rookie who became an icon. The final – or, perhaps more optimistically, most recent – superstar in a long line of Supersonics legends. Haywood, Wilkens, Brown, Williams, Johnson, Sikma, McDaniel, McMillan, Kemp, Payton, Allen… and Durant.