In a remarkable week of sports news, the big story was the deal to re-do KeyArena on a grand scale — and discovery that new mayor Jenny Durkan goes back with the Sonics.
Has there been a week like this in Seattle sports?
The 10-2 University of Washington football team was booked into a New Year’s Day appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. The 8-4 Seahawks beat a top team in one of the most emotional prime-time games in the Pete Carroll era. The Mariners are in the hunt for one of the baseball world’s most remarkable players. The Western Conference champion Sounders are playing Saturday in Toronto for their second consecutive MLS Cup.
Another remarkable aspect? Unlike many of her predecessors, new Mayor Jenny Durkan was aware of nearly all of it.
Presiding Wednesday afternoon over the most significant sports development of the week– week? Civically speaking, the development of the decade — Durkan listed the sports successes as a prelude to declaring the $660 million plan to renovate KeyArena was “the best path forward to bring back our Sonics, recruit an NHL team, make Seattle a world-class music city and drive investment in the future of Seattle Center.”
Whether the path leads to the targeted opening of October 2020 hosting a new NHL franchise remains to be seen. But before she signed a memorandum of understanding at Fisher Pavilion on Seattle Center grounds with Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke, Durkan unzipped her jacket.
She revealed a Sonics T-shirt she said she had been saving a long time, declaring she was not neutral in her sports passions between hockey and hoops: “This is an original. I didn’t run out and buy one today like some people did.”
The theatrical gesture addressed a theme that was otherwise unspoken at the press conference/celebration: A sense of disappointment by many sports fans in the region.
Pro hockey fans locally and nationally were thrilled at the development. But pro basketball fans, whose wounds have yet to scab over from the misdeeds a decade earlier of Howard Schultz, David Stern and Clay Bennett that perpetrated the hijacking of the Sonics, are left with another round of abandonment.
Saying that Seattle is the only major metro market in the U.S. without the NBA and NHL, Leiweke declared, “We’re gonna fix that.”
But the truth is, for the moment as well as the foreseeable future, hockey is a “when.” The return of the Sonics remains an “if.”
Unlike her mayoral predecessors and most of the City Council, who gave Chris Hansen’s five-year bid for an arena in Sodo a crackling back of the hand, Durkan seemed to understand the sense of betrayal.
Hansen has been working the crowd in Seattle for five years. He tried with Steve Ballmer in 2013 to pull the Kings out of Sacramento, then in 2016 came within a single vote by the City Council to approve his bid to vacate a street for his project. Hoops fans lived and died with the drama.
Then Leiweke blows into town late, low and loud, promising nearly unlimited amounts of private cash to fix up a public building that most sports fans deemed unworthy of preservation in a location far more choked than when the Sonics left in 2008.
In the face of skepticism, Leiweke said the magic word: “Yes.”
Nearly every time questions were raised in the MOU negotiations, he used the word, supplemented by cash to mitigate the problem. As important, he had partners — investment banker David Bonderman and filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer — who are committed to owning the NHL franchise as well as 50 percent of of the arena equity.
Not only are both well known figures in NHL circles, Bonderman recently came to Seattle and lobbied individual council members.
To help further help close the deal for hockey from an optics standpoint, the NHL Board of Governors conveniently has a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday and Friday in Florida. While expansion is not on the agenda, it seems likely that some acknowledgement will be made that Seattle is set to become the 32nd NHL franchise.
But Leiweke did not say yes definitively to the NBA coming first, or at all. He couldn’t, because the NBA is not ready to expand anywhere, certainly not to Seattle, after all the problems. Only until a building has been built and operating.
According to Leiweke, during a meeting with Durkan, he explained how earnestly he was pursuing an NBA team. Durkan’s riposte: “Try harder.”
Underscoring the point, during her remarks Wednesday at Fisher Pavilion, Durkan mentioned Leiweke, turned around to spot him, smiled and said, “What are you still doing here?”
Durkan disclosed her fan chops by recounting one of the hallmark stories of the Sonics’ early years, when she was growing up in Seattle. Hoops prodigy and Olympics star Spencer Haywood demanded early entry into the NBA. With help of owner Sam Schulman, he sued the league and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They won, forever changing the NBA and U.S. pro sports.
Durkan said she confronted her father, legendary Seattle attorney Martin Durkan, and said, “You’re a lawyer. Why aren’t we representing Spencer Haywood?”
It’s a story likely unknown to the legions of council members and city staffers who’ve wrestled with the 55-year-old building’s functions and future, and the teams that have occupied and abandoned it.
Nearly 45 years later Durkan, a formidable lawyer in her own right, has her chance to represent the case of the Sonics. After all that has happened, she is the last, best chance.