SEATTLE – Sports fans love a good debate. There’s absolutely no debate about that.
Who is the best at this one thing or the greatest of all time? Who is most valuable or most overrated?
Which got us to thinking – who are the most important athletes in Seattle sports history?
There was really no impetus, just a random thought one day.
So we decided to try to answer the question – even if there is really no right or wrong when it comes to subjective topics like this.
First, we settled on a few parameters to make the debate a little clearer.
We’d confine the list to athletes who played in the post-World War II era, when all professional sports began to take off in ways they hadn’t previously – the NBA, for instance, considers its official beginning as 1946.
We also decided we’d confine it to team sports based on the idea that importance is based in part on the impact a person made on future events as well as establishing a lasting legacy.
Not that individual athletes don’t make an impact or create a legacy. But the thought here was to recognize athletes (and not coaches or owners or politicians) whose influence in some way transcended their own accomplishments by impacting a larger whole.
On to the list:
1. Ken Griffey Jr.
Seattle Mariners, CF/DH, 1989 – 1999; 2009-10
What he did: Saved baseball in Seattle.
OK, lots of others played a role in keeping baseball alive in Seattle through the time the Pilots left in 1970, to the time Safeco Field was finally built in 1999. (Again, only those who played between the lines were considered for this list.) But if there’s any athlete in the history of Seattle sports whose presence so vividly altered the future of a franchise, it is Griffey. The Mariners were an afterthought when Griffey was drafted in 1987, regularly drawing crowds in the thousands, fourth on the Seattle sports food chain behind the Seahawks, Sonics and UW football. His arrival gave the team its first true calling card and national figure. And while he missed much of the 1995 season that was the make-or-break year for the franchise in Seattle, his playoff heroics were vital in sealing the deal. Without him, the team may well have been gone before 1995 even arrived.
2. Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks, QB, 2012 – Present
What he did: Played the most important position for the city’s only Super Bowl winner.
True, the Seahawks fielded a defense from 2012-16 that will go down as one of the greatest in NFL history. And true, in the traditional sense of what a quarterback is asked to do, the Seahawks didn’t lean on Wilson the way the Patriots do Tom Brady, though to say that, undersells Wilson’s impact on the running game. It’s always been most accurate to say Seattle leans on Wilson in somewhat different ways than, say, the Patriots lean on Brady.
But despite the defense and Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks were floundering until Wilson – selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft – quickly came of age late in the 2012 season.
Any idea that Seattle could have accomplished what it did in those years with just anyone playing QB is conjecture that’s not readily accepted by anyone close to the team. And while all Seattle pro sports championships are worth celebrating – and sadly there have been too few – the NFL is king right now in a way few sports have been. It’ll take a lot for anything to ever quite match the feeling in the city on Feb. 5, 2014 – the day of the Seahawks’ Super Bowl parade.
3. Lenny Wilkens
Seattle SuperSonics, PG: 1968-72; Coach: 1969-72, 1977-85
What he did: Helped legitimize the Sonics and set the stage for the team’s only NBA title.
OK, so Wilkens allows us to cheat just a little on the parameters. It is as a coach that he had his biggest impact on the Sonics, hired early in the 1977-78 season and turning a 5-17 team into one that advanced to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. That remarkable turnaround probably still doesn’t quite get the national appreciation it should, and the next year, the Sonics won the 1979 NBA title. But Wilkens likely never becomes coach if he hadn’t been traded by the Hawks to the Sonics prior to the 1968-69 season. Wilkens, a point guard, gave the team one of its first great moments when he was named MVP of the All-Star Game in 1971 (a pretty big deal back then), and then he delivered again as player-coach, leading the Sonics to their first winning season in the 1971-72 season.
4. Steve Emtman
Washington Huskies, DL, 1988-92
What he did: Was the best – and the most defining – player on the most dominant major sports team in city history.
In the modern era, no major sports team has battered through a schedule as decisively as the 1991 Huskies. They were so good that it’s hard to say any one player would have meant that much of a drop off in anything. But if one player stood out the most it was Emtman, a dominant defensive lineman who was the key to a then-revolutionary attacking eight-man front defense. And if “swagger” is really a thing that matters in sports, Emtman had that, too, typifying a team that seemed to have even more fun than the punishment it was doling out.
5. Gary Payton & Shawn Kemp
Seattle SuperSonics, PG, 1990-2003
Seattle SuperSonics, PF, 1989-97
What they did: Teamed to propel the Sonics to their greatest extended run and seemingly assure the NBA would stay in Seattle forever.
We’ll cheat just a little here, too, to make this one a combo entry. But how do you really separate Payton and Kemp, who arrived one after the other (Kemp in 1989 and Payton in 1990) to revive a franchise that had slogged into mediocrity following the 1979 NBA title? While they never won it all, the Sonics’ return to relevance in the early ’90s, and the accompanying renovation of the Seattle Memorial Coliseum looked at the time as if it would guarantee NBA basketball in the city forever. That it didn’t, is no fault of theirs.
6. Sue Bird
Seattle Storm, PG, 2002 – Present
What she did: With Lauren Jackson, proved without a doubt that women’s pro basketball could make it in Seattle.
There should have never been much doubt about Seattle’s passion for women’s basketball. (Need proof? Go check attendance records for the good UW teams of the 1980s and ’90s.) But the Storm actually got off to something of a rocky start. Seattle was awarded an expansion team for the 2000 season following the demise of the ABL, and it went 6-26 and 10-22 in its first two seasons, with attendance dropping off a bit in year two. The back-to-back No. 1 overall draft picks of Lauren Jackson in 2001, and Bird in 2002 turned everything around, with the Storm winning the WNBA title in 2004 – Bird’s third year – and securing the franchise’s place in Seattle sports.
7. Steve Largent
Seattle Seahawks, WR, 1976-89
What he did: Became Seattle’s first homegrown superstar and first Hall of Famer to play his entire career in the city.
Largent wasn’t necessarily Seattle’s first pro sports superstar – you can argue that Spencer Haywood holds that title. But he was the first who felt like the city’s own, coming to the Seahawks shortly before they played their first game in 1976 and retiring in 1989 as the leading receiver in NFL history, among a number of other records. Largent, a seven-time All-Pro receiver, also helped make the Seahawks almost immediately relevant – the team’s five wins in year two, and nine in year three were NFL records for expansion teams at the time.
8. Clint Dempsey
Seattle Sounders, F, 2013 – Present
What he did: Gave further validity that the Sounders were the crown jewel of MLS franchises.
In a move that MLS commissioner Don Garber said at the time ranked “right at the very top’’ of player acquisitions in the league’s history, Dempsey signed a four-year, $32 million deal with the Sounders in August 2013, and is tied with Fredy Montero for the franchise career goals record. The Sounders had already taken MLS by storm with their record-breaking crowds. But luring Dempsey only further validated the franchise locally, nationally and internationally and proved that the team’s on-field and in-stands success had staying power.
Seattle Mariners, RF, 2001-12; Special Assistant to the Chairman, 2018 – Present
What he did: Helped stabilize the Mariners’ franchise after the potentially shattering losses of three superstars in three years.
Arriving in 2001, two years after the departure of Ken Griffey Jr., and one year after the loss of Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro immediately turned in one of the best seasons in team history to lead the Mariners to an MLB-record-tying 116 wins in 2001. Three years later, in 2004, he set an MLB record with 262 hits in a season.
Losing Randy Johnson, Griffey and Rodriguez in consecutive years led to low expectations for the 2001 Mariners and some questioned how the team was going to fill all the seats in its still-new stadium on a nightly basis without three of the most identifiable players in team history. No worry. Ichiro became a nightly reason to watch for more than a decade, even if the Mariners made only one playoff appearance during his tenure.
10. Warren Moon
Washington Huskies, QB, 1975-77
Seattle Seahawks, QB, 1997-98
What he did: Kickstarted the longest sustained run of success for a major college football team in the state’s history in the post-World War II era.
Like Emtman, the pick of Moon here is in some regard simply a way to recognize a memorable era in Seattle sports. The 1977 UW season was regarded by many at the time as among the most critical for the school. The Seahawks and Mariners had arrived recently and there was some worry UW football – which hadn’t been to a bowl game since the 1963 season – could get lost in the shuffle. But Moon helped lead UW out of the ashes of a 1-3 start in 1977, to an improbable Rose Bowl victory. Just like that, the Don James era was off and running.