AIN'T NO SUNSHINE WHEN SHE'S GONE – THE BITTERNESS OF A SONICS ENTHUSIAST

“… anger harms no one more than he who harbors it…”
– Dean Koontz, “Sole Survivor”

As the Oklahoma City Thunder wrapped up its seven game battle with the Memphis Grizzlies in their Western Conference semifinals series, ESPN/ABC play-by-play man Mike Breen set the stage for the next round with a phrase that seemed to mean nothing more than its surface-level message:

“… the Thunder will now move on and head to Dallas to face the Mavericks…”

Move on, eh?  Funny… I wish I could do that.

To most of the NBA faithful throughout the world, OKC is considered to be an exciting, young team that has bonafide superstars, a wise and aggressive front office, and a passionate fanbase that provides an atmosphere more akin to an NCAA basketball crowd than that of the usual, largely passive professional fare.

Come ask a sports fan from Seattle what they think of the Thunder, and you’re likely to be met with obscenities and other sorts of colorful language and unmistakable venom.  I fall into that category.  See, I was born in Seattle and was christenend in the green and gold of the Supersonics.  Almost literally a fan since birth.  Don’t believe me?  Observe the stats:

(a young Wes)

SINCE BIRTH. My parents had season tickets for a time. Wally Walker came to my house. I’m serious. It was part of some sort of half-sincere/half-mocking “Wally Walker Fan Club” that my mom and dad came up with. Walker came over to thank them. I was alive and I don’t remember any of it.

(As you now know, Walker emerged as a certifiable buffoon in his leadership days, but this was long before that. I’m sure he was a buffoon back then, but by all accounts, he was a nice enough guy)

The point is, the NBA and the Seattle Supersonics were/are in my DNA. It was passed down.  My dad talks of his days of watching Spencer Haywood, Fred Brown, Slick Watts, the Championship, etc.  He also launches into a vitriolic diatribre when it comes to discussing the team’s departure, their bright future, and how he won’t even watch the NBA anymore.  It’s a remarkable, simultaneous display of unbridled passion and somewhat alarming anger.

Once I was old enough to comprehend the world, the ball was placed firmly in my court (PUN INTENDED!).  I started playing basketball as soon as my body would physically allow it.  My early favorites were Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers.  I had a bunch of sweet merchandise.  Shirts, pennants, posters, you name it. 

By the time Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton were in town, I was in full-on hoops mode.  If I wasn’t playing basketball, I was watching it.  If I wasn’t watching it, I was recreating it via video games.  At school, if there was any room for personal interest when it came to a project, I focused on the Sonics.  I even got written up for tearing a Kemp article from a magazine in the school library and attempting to steal it.  99% of my friends were basketball players/fans.  Girlfriend?  Forget it… it only would’ve worked if she’d been able to run the point (and even then, she’d better have gotten me the damn ball).

I had the jerseys of Kemp, Payton, and even KENDALL GILL, for Christ’s sake.  I wore these shoes.  I even had my mom cut my hair like Kemp’s, back when he was doing that sort-of flat-top fade thing.  She did about as good as job as possible, but you know what happens when a white guy tries to do a black dude’s hairstyle, right?

Regardless of execution, my love was undeniable.  Some of my fondest memories, period, involve rushing home from school, shooting around for about a half-hour, and then getting inside to catch the live, 4:00 PM, West Coast feed of the Sonics on the road against the Bullets or the 76ers or some other Eastern Conference team.  For me, it didn’t get any better than watching the Kemp/Payton duo go on the road and electrify crowds to the tune of the phenomenal Kevin Calabro and his memorable calls.  Dig a sample of it – this used to happen on, essentially, a nightly basis:

Accordingly, I suffered miserably when they lost.  I violently cried when they collapsed and lost to the 8th-seeded Denver Nuggets in the 1994 playoffs (for what it’s worth, I was 12 at the time, but still).  I had some sort of post-traumatic stress thing going on when they lost to the Bulls in the 1996 finals.  When Kemp got traded away, I think a part of me basically got traded to the grave.

Still, I kept going.  Suffered through the Calvin Booths and the Vitaly Potapenkos, while thoroughly enjoying Ray Allen in, in my opinion, his absolute prime.  The team certainly struggled, but if you stuck with it, you got performances like this:

And, of course, the down times looked like they would certainly be turning around with the arrival of Kevin Durant.  A new era.  People in Seattle had reason to believe that things would be very different in a few years. 

Of course, they couldn’t have been more correct.

I’m not getting into the specifics of what went down because everyone knows about it.  If you somehow don’t, or if you need a refresher, view this.  Once you have, you’ll certainly be able to understand how any Sonics fan pretty much hates everyone involved.  The NBA.  David Stern.  Howard Schultz.  Clay Bennett.  The elected officials of the city of Seattle, and the leaders of the state of Washington.  You can blame them all.  I do.  It died, and and it died quickly.  So quickly that, by the time I got down to the team store the day after it was all officially done, the only thing left of a massive sale were Luke Ridnour
jerseys an
d Durant t-shirts designed for females.  I just walked away.

What is left here is a city of indifference.  The general citizen couldn’t care less about the NBA.  Local sports media barely touches it.  A group of die-hard Sonics fans stay true to the cause and yearn for some glimmer of hope, for the chance that we might once again see professional basketball back in town.  However, anybody who is realistic knows that it certainly isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, because nothing has changed.

You can find Sonics merchandise out there, but you REALLY have to look for it.  You can talk about the team and the league with people, but you most definitely have to know who those people are, because the average sports fan (let alone, person) is so completely disconnected from the current state of the NBA that it might as well not even exist.

And what about Key Arena these days? Essentially, it’s a tomb. I’ve most definitely seen cemeteries with more life than the Key. Sure, you get your concerts and mini-festivals that roll through from time to time. Oh, and we cannot forget the Seattle Storm and the team that was announced as the initial replacement for the Sonics, the men’s basketball team of Seattle University…

… assuming you’ve calmed down, I’ll continue. When it was first announced that the Sonics were going to be allowed to break the from the existing lease that would have kept them playing at the Key for at least another year, the obvious questions revolved around what exactly would replace the business and the attraction that the Sonics supplied for over 40 nights per year. That inquiry, and the corresponding answer of “the Seattle University Redhawks” is akin to the following exchange:

Car Dealership: We’re taking your Lexus away.
Customer: What? Why?
Car Dealership: Just a business thing.
Customer: But I’ve had it forever. I love it. It’s not without its issues, but I wouldn’t trade it for a thing…
Car Dealership: Yes, we know that. Some things have changed, though. Fortunately, we’re gonna hook you up…
Customer: With what?
Car Dealership: A slick, exciting Chevy Aveo!
Customer: What.

Not to disrespect the Aveo at all. In essence, it does the same thing and it will do its best and all that, but COME ON NOW.

I will say this about Redhawks basketball: if you want to sit courtside at a major arena and never got the chance in the past, well, you’ll have no problem securing that ticket now.

I found myself just outside the Key Arena last Friday, mere hours before Dallas and OKC were set to hook up for the third game of their series.  In my mind, I imagined Seattle hosting that game, as if they never had left.  I imagined the buzz and the sea of green and gold.  That, of course, was all just a fantasy.  Reality looked more like this:

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how it would be okay for the people of Seattle to get behind the Thunder.  It seems reasonable to the outsider that none of this involved the players and that it wasn’t their choice/fault.  That’s certainly valid.  Unfortunately, it’s just slightly difficult to get behind a franchise that was stolen away from you by spineless liars.  How reasonable is it that I’m going to start supporting an organization run by a group that hijacked the history and now trumpets it as its own.  It’s a bit tough to watch the rabid Thunder fans jump up and down in ecstasy, knowing full well that they haven’t paid their dues for any of it.  I’m not saying those people don’t deserve an NBA franchise – I’m saying they don’t deserve the one that they
got.

Seriously, here’s that logic in a different light:

You had a beautiful, multi-year relationship with a lady (or whatever you’re into).  Of course, like any relationship, there were ups and downs, but the good unquestionably outweighed the bad.  Then, one day, she’s gone.  She didn’t want to leave you.  You didn’t want her to leave.  She didn’t have a reason to leave.  In fact, she was basically kidnapped.  Outside forces wisked her away to be with another man.  A less attractive man in every way, by the way (sorry Oklahoma, but you know it’s true).  She’s different now, and she’s doing okay.  She and her new man actually look to have a really nice future together, and their union is really lovely, according to most.  So, you should be happy for her and support her, right?

Fucking seriously now.

That’s the bare bones of it.  Now, of course, there was the involvement of the largely fucked NBA business model and standards that came into play, not to mention the idiots who made the decisions on both sides, but that’s all beyond control of the fan and the team.  And I’m talking about the actual team – the core, the blood, and the spirit – not the idiots who run it from afar.

You get my point.  I’ll never root for the ghost of my past, of which I hold near and dear, to succeed.  I celebrated when Dallas knocked them out, even though I know that it’s realistically only a matter of time before the Thunder get it done.  I don’t have any ill will towards the players on that team because, quite frankly, the only two real links left are Durant and Nick Collison, and they sure as hell didn’t want to leave (Collison still lives here, by the way, despite being FROM THE MIDWEST).  But, I can’t do it.  I can’t support ’em.  It’s the principle, ya know?

If Seattle does get some NBA action back, and it’s the result of the “relocation” (a more pleasing term than any variation of “stolen”) of another team, believe me, it won’t be lost upon my conscience that we took somebody else’s woman.  Trust me, if, say, “Chris Paul and The New Orleans Hornets” suddenly became “Chris Paul and the Seattle Supersonics,” I’d feel really bad about it…

… for about 30 minutes.  Then, I’d go out and buy a green and gold, “PAUL, #3, SONICS” jersey.  ‘Cause, god damn it, it’s in the DNA.

– Wes Lilliman can be reached at weslilliman@aol.com or on Twitter @WesDestiny

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