It’s been 10 years since the Seattle SuperSonics left the Northwest to become the Oklahoma City (Stolen) Thunder. That’s 10 years of fans like me praying for a new NBA team and scoffing whenever ESPN shows the Spokane-like “skyline” of Oklahoma City.
But for just a moment, imagine what might have been if the jet-set team of Spencer Haywood, Freddie Brown and Gary Payton hadn’t been ripped away, if NBA commissioner David Stern hadn’t misplaced his loyalty and foresight, if Starbucks billionaire barista Howard Schultz hadn’t allowed the Jed Clampett of Oklahoma, Clay Bennett, to get his dolce-quad-mocha franchise to go.
Ten years ago, in their 41st season, the Sonics were 20-62, a once-proud franchise bottoming out. Seattle voters, having ponied up for new football and baseball stadiums, passed on renovating Key Arena and building a new facility. That’s when Bennett reneged on his wink-wink pledge to keep the team in Seattle.
In 2008, the Sonics were just beginning a rebuilding process, most evident in the green-and-yellow jersey that hung like laundry on Rookie-of-the-Year Kevin Durant’s narrow shoulders. The franchise was about to draft Russell Westbrook in 2008 and James Harden in 2009.
What might have been?
Right now, we could be talking about the Sonics as the team of the last decade (especially since the actual team of the last decade, the Golden State Warriors, Durant’s current home, is Seattle’s mirror image: West Coast cool, throwback logo, ’70s heyday, bustling tech capital.)
Right now, I could be looking for Finals tickets and counting how many cars I’ve owned that cost less than the courtside seats I’m too cheap to buy, even in a fantasy scenario. (For the record, that number would be “all of them.”)
Right now, hoops experts could be debating whether Durant, Harden and Westbrook (who, for the sake of this argument, learn to love funky Seattle and to share the ball) are the greatest NBA threesome of all time.
Right now, instead of a rerun NBA finals featuring the last two players to wear a Seattle uniform (the Warriors’ Durant and the Cavaliers’ journeyman Jeff Green) the actual Sonics could be playing. Right now, as sports fans in Oklahoma City debate who will win the State Fair calf-roping title, the Seattle SuperSonics could be gearing up to chase their fifth title in seven years.
What kind of pretentious twit puts epigraphs in a sports story?
The sports editor’s fancy brother, that’s who – a fiction writer who fogs up with middle-aged wistfulness every time he puts on his Seattle SuperSonics T-shirt.
Other people have the same reaction to my Supes’ shirt. “Old school!” a guy yells in an airport. “Shawn Kemp!” says a cab driver. “So sad,” a bartender says. (At least, I think that was about my shirt.)
One thing that makes sports so compelling is that it’s so rich with might-have-beens. “It’s a game of inches,” according to the cliché, but it’s also a game of sprained ankles and failed drug tests and busted draft picks. More than art, more than politics, more than just about any other human endeavor, sports seems to offer daily proof of the devilish and sly hand of fate, the win-or-lose cruelty of a bad bounce or an untimely injury or a superhuman effort, of the random breaks that make the difference between sports legend and Buffalo Bill.
Don’t believe me? Try these thought experiments:
It’s 1983 and the Portland Trail Blazers take a flyer on a raw talent named Michael Jordan instead of the next great big NBA man, Sam Bowie. It’s 1986 and Bill Buckner decides to take a yoga class to improve his flexibility right before game six of the World Series. It’s 1999 and Florida center Brent Wright remembers to block out Casey Calvary and keeps him from a tip-in that launches Gonzaga University into 20 years of college basketball preeminence.
These It’s A Wonderful Life moments happen every day in every game in every sport. A putt breaks left, a free throw hangs on the rim, a home run drifts foul, a coach late in the Super Bowl chooses to pass on the 1-yard line instead of running it. (Pass instead of hand it to Marshawn Lynch? Are you kidding me?)
Played out over years and decades and franchises, these butterfly wing flaps have changed lives, cities and fortunes. So imagine: it’s 2008 and Seattle decides to fight Clay Bennett’s redneck hostile takeover. What happens next?
The answer, it turns out, has been there all along, sitting right on our desktops, if only we had seen it: Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.
After tapped-out voters and state officials rejected a $200 million renovation of KeyArena and a misguided attempt to build a new arena in Renton (because, well, it’s Renton), by early 2008, Clay Bennett’s Oklahoma City ownership team was all set to move the team to OKC. That’s when Ballmer made a real, last-ditch effort to keep the team, pledging $150 million toward a remodel of KeyArena.
Just imagine Ballmer’s half-court shot had gone in, or if he’d taken another dribble or two by securing more money.
Like a frustrated movie villain, Clay Bennett shakes his fist and realizes Seattle won’t give up its franchise that easily. He has no choice but to sell the team back to Seattle ownership and drive his fancy Cadillac with the bull-horn hood ornament back to Oklahoma.
Ballmer (who wanted an NBA team so badly he actually bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014) puts together an ownership group that buys the Sonics in late 2008 for $500 million. With the NBA’s fortunes and Seattle’s economy just about to take off, KeyArena gets a fancy luxury-box makeover and Ballmer’s investment pays off handsomely.
On the court, things go even better. Harden, Durant and Westbrook blend perfectly. The Beard, the Beanpole and the Ball-hog begin to gel and play a high-scoring brand of basketball that makes the Golden State Warriors look like they’re playing with peach baskets.
KD, Harden and Westbrook bond so well, they end up living together in an unassuming triplex in Belltown. In Seattle, you see them everywhere – dancing at clubs on Capital Hill, leaning out of windows of the Duck Tour boat-buses, throwing Frisbees to their dogs in Discovery Park, at authors’ readings at Elliott Bay Bookstore and the Hugo House (hey, a guy can dream.)
When Coach P.J. Carlesimo retires, he is replaced by Gary Payton, and later, the Sonics draft not only Gary Payton, Jr., but also Shawn Kemp, Jr., too.
After winning 55 games in 2010, the Supes can do no wrong, winning their second NBA title in 2011. Sixty wins follow, then 70, and then an NBA record 76-6 record in 2017. By this time, the MVP trophy has begun to look like a Seattle relay race, Durant handing it to Westbrook who hands it to Harden who hands it back to Durant.
Seattle goes into the 2018-19 season with Durant announcing that, to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of Seattle’s first title (the 1979 Jack Sikma/Dennis Johnson team), the team plans to win its first 40 games, each by 40 points.
After sneaking just one title from the Seattle juggernaut, LeBron James left Miami for Cleveland, but has given up on that, too, his agent sheepishly inquiring about LeBron coming to Seattle, as a backup to perennial backup Nick Collison.
When the Sonics politely decline, LeBron has no choice but to sign in Portland for the league minimum.
Even Seattle’s minor league team, the Spokane Commuter Jets share in the success, winning a 2018 G-League title with a team made up mostly of old Gonzaga stars and a player-coach and former high school benchwarmer player-coach-author-with-too-much-time-on-his-hands (yes, still dreaming here).
Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma City, Cooter Pyle of Krum, Texas, wins his third straight bareback bronc-riding title.
The problem with these thought experiments, of course, is that there are no guarantees that the might-have-been world turns out any different than the real one.
In reality, Seattle couldn’t keep the Sonics from moving away. And in reality, the Thunder couldn’t find enough money or basketballs to keep Sixth-Man-of-the-Year James Harden from going to the Houston Rockets. Then Kevin Durant decided he’d rather play with Steph Curry in Golden State than with Russell Westbrook in Oklaboring City.
These things might’ve happened in Seattle, too. In sports, franchises come and go and nothing lasts forever.
In fact, I put on my old Supes T-shirt the other day after the news broke that the oldest of the 2008 Sonics, Nick Collison, was finally retiring. I guess even Collison, who managed to play 14 seasons with the franchise (the first four in Seattle) without ever averaging in double figures, saw that eventually you have to give up the dream and move on.
Spokane author Jess Walter has written eight books, including the best-selling novel, “Beautiful Ruins.”