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Larry Stone: It often goes sour for superstar athletes in Seattle. Could the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson be next?

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 12, 2021

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reacts on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reacts on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The Russell Wilson saga, with apparent friction growing between athlete and organization, may seem faintly familiar. Or depressingly common.

There’s good reason for that. In the history of Seattle sports, it seems like its superstars are almost predestined to have messy exits. That’s not to say Wilson is going anywhere – at least not right away. But it doesn’t take much of a brain stretch to see this current unpleasantness greasing the skids for the Seahawks quarterback’s departure down the road, if tensions aren’t eased.

That’s also not to say that all Seattle sports icons have a falling out. You can point to Baseball Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, who played all 18 years with the Mariners and remains a beloved civic treasure. Ditto for Sue Bird, who is preparing for her 19th distinguished year with the Storm. Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy and Walter Jones were all Seahawks from start to finish (Largent after being traded from the Houston Oilers during training camp as a rookie). And happily so, a training-camp holdout or three from Jones not withstanding.

But you could randomly throw out names of other megastars who once ruled our local sports landscape. It seemed like the mutual love affair would last forever – until it went sour.

Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez with the Mariners – unseemly departures, all. With the Sonics, you can obviously point to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp as Exhibits A and B of how a seemingly eternal relationship can lurch off course and careen out of control. That was two decades after something similar happened to their first superstar, Spencer Haywood. The Seahawks in recent years have seen the likes of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett win hearts, win titles and then leave under less-than-pleasant circumstances.

This goes back a ways, too. One of the first pro sports idols in Seattle was Lenny Wilkens as a player-coach with the Sonics in the late 1960s. But Sonics management decided Lenny needed to commit to playing or coaching. He chose the former – not surprising considering he was still an All-Star en route to the Hall of Fame – and the Sonics hired Tom Nissalke as coach.

Nissalke decided it would be a bad mix, so the Sonics traded Wilkens to Cleveland. Big mistake. The Sonics went in the tank, Nissalke was fired midway through the next year, and the Seattle crowd rooted thunderously for Wilkens – not the Sonics – when he came back to town with the Cavaliers.

One pattern that emerges is that superstars tend to be more sensitive than the average player, which leads to problems. They also earn higher salaries, which leads to bigger problems. In researching this article, it became clear that the source of the vast majority of fallouts boiled down to some combination of love (usually in the form of “respect,” or lack thereof) and/or money.

From a column in the Seattle Times by Steve Kelley after Payton was traded to Milwaukee in 2003: “Something happened between Payton and his bosses. Their business relationship got personal. His wish for a contract extension became a threat to (then-owner Howard) Schultz’s authority. Last summer the owner acted as if the contract-extension demands made by Payton’s agents were a declaration of war.”

Kemp never got over the massive contract the Sonics gave to Jim McIlvaine that exceeded his own, with far lesser credentials. The resentment festered until he was dealt to Cleveland in 1997. The story about the trade in the New York Times began: “Shawn Kemp’s desire to be traded from an organization he did not trust anymore was fulfilled last night when the Seattle SuperSonics sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team deal.”

Griffey was dealt to Cincinnati in February 2000 after requesting a trade and eventually limiting the Mariners’ options to one partner: the Reds. The roots of this breakup are particularly poignant, complicated – and hard to fathom after so many years of watching Griffey’s joyous play.

Wrote the Seattle Times’ Bob Finnigan in analyzing the trade: “It started years ago, rooted in Griffey’s dissatisfaction with the Mariners and Seattle, his perception of being underappreciated, which seemed to grow with the years. … Throughout the 1999 summer, Griffey seemed to show his hallmark grin less, battling with his unhappiness. As the season progressed and the team’s prospects regressed, he seemed even to withdraw from most of his teammates.”

Johnson’s dissatisfaction, and ultimate trade to Houston in 1998, emanated from a contract dispute that got nasty, but some believe he never forgave the organization for a perceived slight after his father died a few years earlier.

“I never felt I was treated as well as I should have been here,” Johnson would tell reporters in the spring of 1998.

The Mariners had concerns about giving a lucrative long-term contract to a pitcher who had back issues – and watched Johnson win four Cy Young Awards in the next four years for Arizona.

These rifts, though raw and intense at the time, don’t have to be eternally irreparable. Griffey would return to the Mariners, with all forgiven, and so did Ichiro Suzuki, after requesting a trade in 2012 that the organization honored by sending him to the Yankees.

Wilkens would return to Seattle to coach the Sonics to their first and so-far only title. Lynch came back to Seattle last year to bail out the Seahawks when they ran out of running backs. Hall of Fame safety Kenny Easley – who had sued the Seahawks, claiming the pain pills they gave him led to severe kidney problems – re-embraced the team when new owner Paul Allen put him in their Ring of Honor in 2002.

Now Wilson sits, unexpectedly, at a fraught point in his once-smooth relationship with the Seahawks. It certainly is a repairable situation, and it might eventually be remembered – if at all – merely as a blip in an otherwise blissful partnership.

But if it all falls apart, you can add Wilson to a long list of disenchanted Seattle superstars for whom the luster didn’t last.

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