Seattle fans organized protests at Oklahoma City Thunder playoff games in 2012, still pining after their departed Sonics. (Getty Images)
SEATTLE — I came here in search of pain, the kind that belongs to the perpetually defeated and denied, the kind that rends the heart of Cleveland. It must be hiding here in the upper-lefthand corner of the country, ignored by the Eastern media powers who acknowledge communal sports desolation only if it comes in the proper time zones, coated in rust, stalked by a tavern-dwelling goat or wallowing in fatalism.
Though there are no objective measures of anguish, Seattle spent three years at No. 1 on the Forbes list of most miserable sports cities before falling behind Atlanta in 2012. But who needs formal rankings to work up sympathy for the home of the only American League team never to reach the World Series? For the city that has won one major pro championship — the 1979 NBA title — since the invention of television? The city that saw Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez play together for two full seasons, then disperse? The city that watched its Mariners win a league record 116 games in 2001 and then dissolve in the playoffs? The city that barely got to know and love Kevin Durant before some Oklahoma scam artists made off with both him and the Sonics? The place that, when pressed to feel sorry for itself, will abandon its famed politeness and go off on the (expletive deleted) refs from the 2006 Super Bowl?
“The lower lip is not only stuck out; it’s dragging on the floor,” says Art Thiel, a longtime Seattle columnist now running the website Sportspress Northwest.
This week could add to the suffering if the NBA Board of Governors vetoes the sale of the bedraggled Sacramento Kings to a Seattle investor group. The vote could be postponed, but deliberations are expected to begin Wednesday. A month ago, approval of the deal seemed certain. But wouldn’t you just know that when lovelorn Seattle was able to make a commitment, the most eligible franchise would reside in a city run by a former NBA point guard who understands the art of the big comeback? Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, backed by public funding and his own set of buyers, made a last-minute play to hold onto the Kings at an NBA committee meeting two weeks ago. Seattle’s group did some swashbuckling of its own. Lead investor Chris Hansen announced that he was raising the original $525 million valuation bid for the team by $25 million .
Anything could happen in this poker game now. Pragmatism says choosing the Seattle bid puts the NBA in a market it should never have left. But sentiment against any more franchise moves, even one that restores a team to an abandoned city, could prevail, leaving Seattle to start anew its search for a hobbled franchise that wants to run away from home. That possibility, so near the brink of victory, must sting. So I set out in search of the pain, both accumulated and fresh.
At a bar in Tacoma, 39-year-old Kris Brannon (known as “Sonics Guy “) greets me with nothing but optimism.
“I look at this as a freight train and Sac-town is throwing shopping carts on the tracks to try to stop it,” he said.
A comedy-club manager and occasional stand-up act, Brannon joined the movement to regain an NBA team eight months after his beloved Sonics morphed into the Thunder. Since then, he has been showing up in team gear at all manner of gatherings, carrying signs or flags, reminding people of what their community had lost. His first gig was a Tea Party protest at the Washington State Capitol on April 15, tax day, four years ago.
He didn’t share the crowd’s politics, but as a tall African-American with a voluminous Afro, he knew he’d stand out. “I got some mentions in blogs and a couple of mentions on conservative radio,” Brannon says. “That’s how I got the mentions because they’re not a lot of brothers at Tea Party events.”
A man enters the bar, sees Brannon and walks over to the table. They’ve never met, but Brannon has achieved approachable celebrity status.
“Sonics Guy, you always knew, man” the man says, obviously sharing the freight-train theory. “You always knew.”
There is no misery to be found here, no sense of thwarted entitlement . “One thing you learn from being a Seattle sports fan,” Brannon says, “is how to be humble.”
Another faction of the movement inhabits a two-bedroom house in the Georgetown neighborhood, about four miles from downtown. The minds behind the documentary “Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team ,” reside here, two of them formally, the rest on a drop-in basis. The living room looks like a boutique Best Buy, with an array of video screens lined up on the periphery. Five men, mostly in their 30s, have gathered for a brainstorming evening.
It’s a fairly amiable house, but a suspicious anger hovers overhead. The first hint appears as the residents show me their espresso machine.
“We need that ,” says Jason Reid, the director of “Sonicsgate,” which lays out a case of larceny, hubris or incompetence against virtually everyone involved in the team’s departure.
“Because you’re boycotting Starbucks?” I ask, trying to sound as if I’ve done some homework.
“Yeah, but it’s also for all the nights we have to stay up working,” Reid says.
Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, owned the Sonics for five years and
tried in vain to get hefty public subsidies to build a new arena, then sold the team to the aforementioned scam artists in 2006. The new owners vowed to make a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle. In two years, they had wiggled out of their lease and left town. Because his stewardship ultimately begat the move to Oklahoma City, some fans may never forgive Schultz or touch another one of his macchiatos.
Soon after I arrive, another visitor stops in. He is delivering T-shirts with an image of a St. Christopher’s medal on the front; the canonized figure in the middle is Hansen holding a basketball.
The leader of the investment group is a 45-year-old San Francisco hedge-fund manager who grew up in Seattle and vowed as a young man that he would own the Sonics someday. Hansen and his partners, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and the Nordstrom brothers, knew better than to beg for subsidies in their arena deal. Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 91 in 2006, requiring that public investments in sports venues return a minimal profit to taxpayers. Upon receiving City Council approval of his arena plans last fall, Hansen invited supporters to meet a Pioneer Square bar and then bought a round of beer for everyone .
“Hansen probably wouldn’t like this,” Reid says of the T-shirts. “We’ve heard that he doesn’t want to be idolized.”
Tyler, the distributor, is wearing another model of T-shirt. It has a huge number 95 on the chest, with names from that year’s Mariners team written inside the numerals.
That was the first MLB playoff team in Seattle history. A Capitol Hill sports bar opened last year under the name 95 Slide — an homage to Griffey’s dramatic sweep across home plate to beat the Yankees in the playoffs.
Say this for Seattle fans. When a team gives them greatness, they treasure it.
That revelation does nothing to advance my search for misery. These “Sonicsgate” guys seemed to be my best hope. Their film dug up the kind of details that feed misanthropy, and the work required a level of obsessive angst that pre-2004 Red Sox fans would salute.
But they let me down, too. Yes, they are extremists who spent thousands on trips to NBA arenas to publicize their plight. They haunted the Thunder during various playoff runs, raising money via Kickstarter to support some of their journeys. A brand-new credit card with a $10,000 limit allowed Reid to grab two front-and-center $4,000 seats for Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals in Miami.
He and longtime friend Colin Baxter found a makeup artist to transform them into zombies, the undead fans of Seattle. They got the kind of attention they sought. They could barely walk through the parking lot; every step, they encountered someone who wanted an interview or a photo.
“Colin was on the home page of NBA.com for the whole first half until they realized,” Reid says.
And they had better seats than Thunder owner Clay Bennett, who had absconded with the Sonics five years ago.
But as they gleefully project images of that day on the wall, I find it hard to see their pain. They’ve turned the loss of their team into something creative, with a distinctly Pacific Northwest character.
“So we get mad. What do we do? We protest,” Baxter says. “This is Seattle. WTO riots. It’s what we do.”
Actually, their endeavor calls to mind the fruits of another itinerant team in the city’s history. In 1969, eight years before the Mariners’ birth, the Pilots brought major league baseball to Seattle for a single chaotic season. They ran out of money and ultimately were sold off to a Milwaukee car dealer named Bud Selig. But out of that crazy year sprang a literary gem — Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four.”
No hard-living night owl who reads it will ever forget the scene where the team is told of a morning start time, and catcher Jim Pagliaroni recoils. “10:30? I’m not even done throwing up at that hour.”
“Sonicsgate” won’t be as timeless, but it is an excellent expose and the winner of a Webby Award. (See the two-hour cut here.) The crew went to New York to collect the Webby with an assist from Gary Payton, who delivered a five-word acceptance speech: “Bring back our Seattle SuperSonics.”
Because the NBA has made it clear that there will be no expansion teams, the filmmakers and Sonics Guy have resigned themselves to the fact that Seattle must do to another city what Clay Bennett did to them. They empathize with Sacramento and the Reid communicates regularly with one of the leaders of the movement to keep the Kings.
Accused of hypocrisy, the filmmakers will tell you that their motto has always been “No Team is Safe.” They have honestly warned other cities that they want their franchise, and they refuse to pull back on their advocacy, fulfilling the Seattle stereotype of overly polite passivity.
“The classic thing in Seattle is you get to a four-way stop and, someone has the clear right of way, but no one goes,” says Colin White. “… I’m at work the other day and a semi was trying to slow down to stop for me at a crosswalk. I was like: ‘No please, just go. I will find a way to get across the street.’”
This sounds familiar. I’ve been on a Seattle street corner late at night with other pedestrians and not a car in sight, yet everyone waited dutifully for the “Walk” sign to come on.
Maybe that’s why I can’t feel their pain. The civil Seattle-ites don’t seem to have the crazy-fan gene, so I dismiss the fact that the Seahawks’ stadium is certifiably the loudest in the NFL. I look around downtown and see the beauty of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and can’t imagine that people here care as deeply about their teams as those in Cleveland do. Maybe I’ve got it backward and the next time I’m in Ohio, I need to look for the sports fans making art of their agony.
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