BY Art Thiel 08:00AM 01/18/2014

Thiel: Why so much anxiety? One good reason

Sports fans in Seattle have never been in this place where the Seahawks have taken them. The anxiety is thicker than Puget Sound fog.

Symbol upon symbol. / Melissa Doroquez, Wiki Commons

Not heavily worn, this path from Seattle to a major pro sports championship.

As any fan dragging a 55-gallon drum of Seattle chagrin knows, the Sonics won once, in 1979. In 41 NBA years, they also made the Finals in 1978 and 1996. That’s it.

The Mariners made three American League Championship Series in one seven-year stretch. But in 37 years, they never made a World Series.

In a similar span, the Seahawks made the Super Bowl one time. If you don’t know what happened in Detroit in 2006, ask a friend, neighbor or co-worker. If immodesty permits, they will lift a shirt to show you the hole. It is unlikely to have healed so soon.

So yes, Sunday in Seattle is a big damn deal. It’s making some sick.

“I have to quit thinking about it,” said a friend. “But I can’t. It’s making me so nervous, my stomach hurts.”

Some variation on that theme was heard wherever I went in town this week. Certainly there are many who are confident and optimistic, and my encounters were a very small sample size, although the anxiety echoed on sports talk radio.

But the almost crippling civic bellyache, fueled by dread, makes perfect sense. Why?

Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC championship . . .





That has never happened. At least, not since the Sonics won.

The few times Seattle teams reached the pinnacle match, they were underdogs. Happy to be there. Surprised, even, to be there. Easier to be dismissed. The pressure was lessened.

This is different. The Seahawks were picked by many to be the NFC’s No. 1 badass the day after the Super Bowl, and here they are. No. 1 seed. At home to the best advantage in football, if not in all sports. A 3½-point favorite over the hottest team in the game, which has won eight in a row, including the past three on the road.

This is unknown. Terra (not Richie) Incognito. Thar be dragons. In space, no one can hear you scream.

To be expected to succeed is not in the Seattle pro sports psyche. I doubt the players share it; nearly all of them come from somewhere else, and most are too young to have any experience with the lamentable local history. Besides, they get to act on their emotions Sunday. But 99.9 percent of their fans will be chewing arms off chairs.

The 68,000 lucky ones who can act Sunday will stand on concrete for three hours and scream so hard they will separate ribs.

During an interview with a Chicago radio station Thursday, I was asked just what the hell the deal is with sports fans in Seattle.

“Pain,” I said. Emotional pain. But as my friend pointed out, it’s turning to physical pain.

Fans come by it honestly. Their skepticism is legit. In the middle 1990s, the Sonics of George Karl, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were a fearsome bunch. But they  unexpectedly flopped in the playoffs of 1994 and 1995. When they pulled it together in 1996 with a 64-win season and reached the Finals, they met the 72-win Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman — one of greatest teams in NBA history.

The previous two years, Jordan was off chasing his baseball dream, and the Houston Rockets became two-time champions. A team the Sonics could handle. Unfortunately for Seattle fans, the Sonics at that juncture couldn’t handle themselves.

In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, one of the most prodigious seasonal feats in sports history. “To this day,” manager Lou Piniella said years later, “I don’t know how we did that.”

But the postseason happened after 9/11. Nothing was ever the same anywhere, much less baseball. The Mariners were unable to handle the world.

In 2006, Seattle was the surprise Super Bowl entrant against the much-loved Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit homie Jerome Bettis. Even the referees regarded the Seahawks as brown shoes at a tuxedo event. The Seahawks couldn’t handle the most poorly officiated Super Bowl in history.

The peculiar breadth and depth of passion in the 12th Man phenomenon is an exertion of community will against what has happened, and what has not happened. Much pride is taken in influencing outcomes, because, well, the damn teams haven’t handled it themselves.

Prior to the 2005 season, the Seahawks won three playoff games in 30 years. Their most nationally noteworthy play was a failure, when the Raiders’ Bo Jackson nearly ran out of the Kingdome on Monday night after freight-training the Seahawks’ cartoonish doof, Brian Bosworth, the most erroneously celebrated player in team annals.

The only previous NFC Championship game in Seattle, a 34-14 win over Carolina, was a sleigh ride after a season that began 2-2 without portent of championship. It was 90 percent giddiness, 10 percent anxiety. Yet it was washed away by the semi-sinister Super Bowl outcome.

This time, the emotional metrics may be flipped. Compounding the anxiety is the opponent, the 49ers, who in a few years of NFC West play have become something Seattle, because of its geographic isolation, almost never has had — a true sports rival, also playing at a peak level. A defeat Sunday will have a multiplier effect because insufferable coach Jim Harbaugh will be happy. The villain gets the whiskey, the horse, the girl and shoots the piano player.

Team oracle Richard Sherman was asked this week to explain Seahawks-49ers from his perspective as a hired gun.

“There is no love lost; there is no love found,” he said. “It’s going to be intense. It’s going to be physical.  I don’t know if there are going to be handshakes after this one.”

An apt assessment describing the participants. Above him in the stands, there will be hands, shaking. From the unfamiliar, unbearable heaviness of being good.


  • joe fan

    Another great article Art. I’m not trying to be too cocky about it, but l feel this team has the will and focus to win this game. All of Seattle will be urging them on.

    • cocktaildave

      Art, you are the must read sportswriter of this Seahawks thrill ride.

      • art thiel

        Thanks for the good words, Dave.

    • art thiel

      All could be true, and the same (except for the cheering in Seattle) is true for the 49ers. On paper, it’s a remarkably dead-even match, which heightens Seattle’s anxiety.

  • Richard Crumbliss

    Wow, It is like he wrote this article with me in mind, he pegged it so perfectly. Art you put into words exactly how I am feeling, the stress, the anxiety, the emotional bottleneck coming out in physical pain. You sir, know what you are writing about. Could it be that you are truly a fan, just like the rest of us…. of course you are. GO HAWKS!!!!

    • art thiel

      Let’s just say I have always admired doctors who can have genuine empathy without letting emotions mess up their judgments.

  • Geoff

    Don’t forget the 93 NBA playoffs when the Suns/Refs jobbed the Sonics.

    • art thiel

      That was a large reason for my low view of the NBA as a sports-business operation. Thanks for the reminder.

    • oldfan

      Ugh! You had to remind of that! Game 7 of that series is half the reason I stopped following the NBA.

    • Diamond Mask

      Mentioned that game to my husband while I was reading the article. That was a total Ref job just like the Super Bowl. Our angst is compounded by the sometimes obvious national need to not have Seattle win whether it’s Barkley or Bettis. It’s discouraging enough to make you yell your eardrums out.

      • art thiel

        The woods here abound with conspiracy theorists. The mind can handle only so much coincidence.

  • Mike G from Alaska

    Great stuff, Art. Keep em’ coming, I am enjoying the hell out of this. May explode tomorrow. GO HAWKS!

    • art thiel

      Don’t a-splode on us, Mike. Don’t want your entrails ending up in a Bristol Bay fish processor.

      • Mike G from Alaska

        Go to your favorite quality resturant, order the top of of the line Red King Crab. It’s really good.
        GO HAWKS!!!!!!

  • oldfan

    I think you nailed it on this one. I have a 23 year old son who I can’t convince the Hawks have a chance only because (according to him) “Seattle teams never win big games.” He’s only even seen the disappointments you listed above.
    The only argument that has any weight with him is that the Hawks could win this game and still lose the Super Bowl.

    • art thiel

      Deep cynicism for one so young. I forgot to lighten his burden by telling him the Seattle Metropolitans won the 1917 Stanley Cup.

  • Another gem, Art. Excellent synopsis of Seattle sports history. We’re almost ready to give Cubs fans a reason to be sympathetic. At least they have Bears and Bulls to fall back on. This year, though, for the first time ever, many of us truly have faith that our Seahawks are one of the best teams, at least defensively, to ever play the game – and that they will manhandle everyone on their successful quest for the cities first Lombardi Trophy.

    • art thiel

      A test of faith,then, on Sunday.

  • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

    Pete told these guys in Atlanta after that gut wrenching loss “this is why we NEED to work to achieve home field advantage”!
    This squad will not be intimidated. I love Doug Baldwins audacity to want the hottest team in the NFL coming to our place. Its the same brash attitude that the Giants employed taking on the undefeated patriots in the SB. They were loath to admit on paper trouble was a brewing to have to play this sizzle hot team in the AZ desert for the NFLs biggest prize.
    The 49ers are going to be a tall order. The winner of the NFC finals will have a great chance to be SB winners.
    Like Arts friend its enough to make you ill waiting for this thing to come to fruit.

    • art thiel

      Only seems reasonable to want the best for Thunderdome: Two men enter, one man leave.

  • What a great article. Art kills it again. Loved the bit about shooting the piano player!

    • art thiel

      Thanks. Nothing beats anxiety better than a laugh.

  • Doug

    You could also add the NASL Sounders to this list. They reached the old Soccer Bowl twice and lost both times.

    • art thiel

      Then there’s the Houbregs Huskies in ’53 and the Baylor Chieftains in ’58 at Final Fours . . . believe me, I could go on. I’ll save it for Super Bowl week.

  • ll9956

    Absolutely a great and perceptive article, Art. Like Richard Crumbliss and others, I’m feeling the angst. I just can’t bear to think of what the scene will be if the Hawks lose. I sure hope that turns out to be an academic question.

    GO HAWKS!!!!!!

    • art thiel

      Monday at work would be, um, bleak.

  • jafabian

    Storm have won two championships.

    • art thiel

      So they have.

  • Diamond Mask

    Simply superior Art. If the Hawks play like you wrote this article……it’s in the bag!

  • PokeyPuffy

    Art thanks for opening up the anxiety forum, i’m sure feelin it. The pangs come in waves. The last time we were in the super bowl my daughter was one day old, i remember watching the game and being completely frustrated, and at the same time not knowing what on earth to do with a day old kid. She turns 8 this year on the SB.

    The references to the George Karl-era sonics is interesting, as i’ve always felt the current version of the Hawks reminds me of them i.e. heavy swarming defense, thriving on turnovers, team focus, etc. Carrol and Karl have similarly novel approaches to pushing defense to its limits. Lets hope our 2014 Hawks can take it further than they did..

    And Art, not sure the Rockets of yore would have been pushovers. They played some clutch ball, and no one had an answer for Hakeem, Super Mario and Sam Cassell. True they were not the Bulls but they were the best of the rest.

  • Tim

    This belongs in best-of Art Thiel collection. Well done! And to think I’ve been going to a shrink for 34 years trying to figure this bi-polar sports-obsession stuff out. (Not really, but….)

    I’m predicting a rout by the Seahawks, but I’m nervous as hell.

  • dinglenuts

    Eloquent and accurate assessment of why, even after leaving Seattle 13 years ago, I have anxiety about this game. I live in the Bay Area now and like to see the ‘Niners win—when they’re not playing the Seahawks. Childhood (and early adult) allegiances die hard.

    I see it happening in my own house, in the next generation. My 8-year-old daughter is rooting for the ‘Niners today (along with everyone else that we’ll be having over to watch the game). She thinks Mom and Dad are quite possibly out of their minds rooting for the SeaChickens.

    It’s going to be a fun, weird, anxious day. I’d really rather not have to listen to obnoxious 49er fans if they do win, so please, Seahawks, pull this one out today.

  • Steven

    I ask this question of folks around the country, if they can name the last Seattle professional sports team to win a championship. Most get close and guess the 1979 Sonics. However, nobody ever guesses the Seattle Storm who have won it all in 2004 and 2010 in the WNBA. Nobody knows this because nobody watches the WNBA (I say this without meaning to be disrespectful though some will take it that way).

    Point is, we need a major championship for Seattle that has national exposure of weight behind it, and the Storm can’t do it but the Seahawks have the opportunity to do it on Feb 2nd. Go Hawks!