SuperSonics Forever

Why, after a decade and more, Seattle’s basketball team will always be important to the NBA

Shawn Laib
Nov 16, 2020 · 8 min read
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Most NBA fans think of either the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat when they first see or hear sharpshooter Ray Allen’s name. Fair enough. Jesus Shuttlesworth is the owner of the iconic shot of the last decade (the 2013 Finals lifesaver against the Spurs in Game 6) and he was donning C’s green the night he became the league’s all-time leader in made three-pointers. He won rings with both franchises, and that winning stuff is what people remember the most about a successful basketball player, as they should. But to me, Ray’s name will always invoke personal memories of him dragging my favorite basketball team to semi-relevance in their final years before they were stolen from me and sent to the midwest. Allen possessed scoring averages of 24.5, 23, 23.9, 25.1, and 26.4 in his four-plus seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, highlighted by the 2004–2005 season, in which he and Rashard Lewis spearheaded the team to the second round of the playoffs, eventually succumbing in six games to the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs. This was the final time the team made the playoffs, as they got continually worse until the 2008 relocation.

These teams in the middle of the 2000s were my introduction to the sport I’ve loved so much now for about 15 years. I remember more than just Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis obviously. There are a plethora of other unknowns that only mean something to Seattle fans. Antonio Daniels, Danny Fortson, Vitaly Potapenko, Damian Wilkins. And of course that ridiculous starting point guard battle between Luke Ridnour and Earl Watson. Only in Seattle. Those last years before the team moved are all I can remember, so all of the losing and irrelevance in that period means something more to me than to older fans who got to see the Sonics’ heyday and younger fans who only know them as the historical precursor to the Thunder who got a mere single season from Kevin Durant. The losing didn’t frustrate me because I was so new to the sport. Kids have a very egoistic mind, one which can’t imagine any other opinions than the ones they possess. But that’s okay, because every Sonics fan of any age has their own personal story and could write it down, just like I am here.

The combined memories and stories of so many Seattle fans create a sort of NBA historical library of knowledge, fun, frustration, and hope. That’s why the Sonics endure 12 years after their extinction. The people who were a part of the journey, whether it be long like my parents’, or short like mine, represent the Sonics as an idea and as a culture. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve lost count at the number of people around the Pacific Northwest who have decided to shield themselves with a Sonics mask when out in public, their motivations irrelevant to the fact that they are contributing to a way of life which lives on without a single game being played for about 151 months now. Stunning because it feels like they could start right back up again for the 2020–2021 NBA season and give fans the feeling that they never left, inside and outside of Seattle.

That’s what is so special about the legacy of the Sonics. They remain in the ethos of the NBA’s fabric outside of their place of geographic origin, mainly because of the way former players, coaches, and media members from the team have stayed loyal to the green and gold. Gary Payton is one of the best players in basketball history to still not have his famous #20 retired by any team, and he wants to keep it that way. The Glove has consistently stated that only the SuperSonics would be allowed to lift his fabrics to the rafters. Shawn Kemp has hosted numerous parties in the Seattle area open to all Sonics fans throughout his retirement. My favorite has to be when he threw a bash celebrating the elimination of the OKC Thunder from 2015 playoff contention. Bitter? Yes. Thrilling to see that an icon shares in this bitterness with the fans like he’s one of us? HELL YES! And these guys don’t have to feel this way, as they aren’t even from the Seattle area. It demonstrates the special connection between the athlete and the team as well as fueling the legacy of the franchise for years to come.

The list keeps going on. Kevin Durant famously emerged wearing a Kemp jersey during pregame of an exhibition while playing with the Warriors a couple of years back. It was the first NBA game played in the city in a decade. He spoke passionately to the crowd about the impact the team still has on him, despite only playing his rookie campaign with the team. It’s not difficult to figure out why the Sonics are part of who Durant is. He’s come off as a very impressionable and emotional person, not afraid to speak his mind on the internet and in the media. The Sonics clearly gave him an outstanding first home in the pros, and in return, he’s been the one shining beacon that connects the Association to the franchise from the remaining players in the league (I won’t forget to mention that Jeff Green is still active, but obviously not the icon that Durant is). If you see a Sonic jersey in any street around the country, there’s a great chance it is Durant’s. Those threads are something of a collector’s item, part relic and part reminder of what type of legendary talent was ripped from the community. If the Sonics never move, who knows how Durant’s career arc would have taken shape. He should have been next in a long line of superstars to claim the city’s throne, and him not shying away from those fond contemplations gives fans all the credence in the world to continue pursuing those narratives and what-ifs.

There’s also a significant bond between the team and the players who grew up in the Seattle area, but who never played a game for the Sonics. It’s truly special the way Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Spencer Hawes, Zach Lavine, and so many more have taken the time to invest their pull in keeping the dream alive to bring the Sonics back to their hometown. Crawford famously holds his annual pro-am tournament in the offseason each summer here, always participated in by the aforementioned stars from the area. Roy coaches a high school team in the area, Garfield, returning all the love the Northwest has shown him through his years playing college ball at the University of Washington and then starring for the rival Trail Blazers in the mid to late 2000s. I know that places like Chicago and New York still reign supreme as hoops hotbeds when compiling a list of player origin stories, but the Emerald City has quite the collection of names itself. This makes basketball such an ingrained cultural trademark of the area that continues to build year after year. It extends beyond players and fans too, with media personalities and other extraneous figures of importance living on every day in the NBA’s culture to represent the Supes.

Recently retired Portland Trail Blazers announcer Kevin Calabro spent two decades as the voice of the Sonics, gifting fans with phrases such as “Flying chickens in the barnyard!” and “Let’s get on a magic carpet ride!” He forever connected his love to the city of Seattle when he refused to relocate with the team to Oklahoma City, and waited years to take another job in the league to see if the Sonics would finally return. It was bittersweet to see him finally accept a position with the rival Blazers, but he forever kept his original team at the tip of his tongue, no more so than this beautiful moment just last year. An ode to the Seattle Mariner’s iconic announcer, Dave Niehaus, thanks to Dame Time.

This moment was special in Sonic lore for a myriad of reasons, Calabro’s call being one of the main ones. The fact that it came against OKC was the other big one, and Lillard rubbed salt in the wounds of the Thunder by saying that he made the shot for Seattle. The Thunder are the horrible reminder for the Sonic fans that the team does not have a tangible existence any longer. Every time a player does something special on the Thunder, they say “it’s the first time someone has done this on the Sonics/Thunder franchise since so and so”. And while they are still technically the same franchise, they are absolutely not the same team and do not share the same historical references. The colors, naming rights, and memorabilia remain in the place of origin, a rarity in the sports world after a relocation. I’m obviously a very biased source of information, but anybody who lived through the team’s move remembers the ethical questions and motivations taking place behind the scenes. The incredible film, SonicsGate, endures as appointment viewing for any basketball fan who needs a touch up on the history of the event.

The SuperSonics move feels like a wrong which must be righted by the NBA and their owners, and that is an enormous part of why they grow on in continual references amongst the basketball fandom. This sentiment reached a boiling point during the spring of 2013, when local investor Chris Hansen, now a hedge fund manager located in the Bay Area, attempted to purchase the Sacramento Kings from the Maloof brothers. The ownership team, which included current Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, were not able to complete the sale, as it was shot down in a vote by the NBA’s Board of Governors. This induced even more heartache, to come so close to getting the Sonics back, only to lose it at the last second. The feeling was as if the team was lost twice. The only silver lining was that the Sacramento community did not have to experience the same scenario that the Sonics did. In the years that have followed, Hansen’s efforts to get a team back have been overshadowed by the Key Arena remodel project that is now underway. This stadium will house the new NHL team, the Seattle Kraken, making the NBA the only league of the major four that will not be sending their product to the Puget Sound.

That’s what it boils down to the most. Seattle is a booming sports town, one which has every major sport imaginable, yet their original love of a basketball team still breathes just as heavy as any of the outfits currently operating. There are only so many words you can come up with to figure out why the SuperSonics endure, because there too many reasons to name. 41 years will do that to people. They’ve been an enriched part of the majority of NBA history, therefore removing them physically from the league does not rid them emotionally from the conscience of the fans’ psyche. The Glove, the Reign Man, the Slim Reaper, and Sugar Ray will always be riding those magic carpets for eternity, whether the Sonics ever tangibly return or not. Spiritually, they never left.

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Shawn Laib

Written by

University of Washington Class of 2020 in English Literature and fan of video games and basketball. Twitter: @LaibShawn

SportsRaid

Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

Shawn Laib

Written by

University of Washington Class of 2020 in English Literature and fan of video games and basketball. Twitter: @LaibShawn

SportsRaid

Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

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