BY Art Thiel 11:49PM 10/05/2018

Thiel: A party for Seattle’s half-century of hoops

Kevin Durant returned to his one-year home of Seattle, as did a number of Sonics legends in the final event at KeyArena. Lots of wonderful nostalgia, but no certainty of a Sonics future.

Kevin Durant rocked a Shawn Kemp jersey as he was introduced Friday. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Upon the same KeyArena basketball floor at the same time Friday night stood Spencer Haywood and Kevin Durant.

You have to be of a certain vintage to appreciate the hoops majesty of the moment. As Haywood, in suit and tie, stood along the sidelines watching Durant warm up, I realized I was looking at the two greatest Sonics in the NBA’s half-century in Seattle.

A few hairs rose on the back of my neck.

The basketball later in the evening was exhibition-game vanilla. But the gathering of the Seattle hoops regency for the town’s first NBA game in 10 years was a splendid party, bookended by a superstar of the Seventies and a superstar of the Tens.

The team has been dark a decade. In the final event of 56-year-old barn in its current form, the memories came back into the light.

Bill Russell. Lenny Wilkens. Fred Brown. Jack Sikma. Slick Watts. Gary Payton. Detlef Schrempf. All brought together by the latest Seattle member of the basketball Hall of Fame, Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts.

You know, the one-time Sonics ball-boy made good.

“When we got Kevin, I started thinking about how we might get him back to Seattle,” Welts said on the court pre-game, where some in the sellout crowd swarmed the lower bowl taking photos and pursuing autographs. “I think this works.”

Durant was the last great Sonic, but only 19 in his lone year in Seattle before the heinous piracy. Now 30 and astride the NBA with the defending champion Warriors, he was greeted with a wild ovation that grew louder as he peeled off his warmup to reveal a green Shawn Kemp jersey.

The wardrobe high-function was a secret: “I’m not big into surprises, but I thought I should honor past legends.”

Said his coach, Steve Kerr: “I didn’t know. I got chills.”

Believe it or not, Durant, a four-time NBA scoring leader, nine-time All-Star and a participant in 127 playoff games, said he woke up after his afternoon nap and felt nervous about his Seattle return.

“I never felt that before a game, especially for preseason,” he said after the 122-94 win over the Sacramento Kings. “It was a crazy feeling.”

He admitted all the attention surrounding his return threw him off early.

“Everything being about me was definitely weird,” he said. “I wouldn’t want that any other time. I definitely didn’t feel like I was in the game until second quarter.”

He did stir once. Early in the first quarter, Durant was 20 feet out on the wing, faked his defender into the orthopedic-surgery ward and blew down the baseline for a two-handed reverse dunk. The crowd also left its collective feet.

He fired up later, finishing with 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 30 minutes. Strictly from a scoring standpoint, he was overshadowed by teammate Klay Thompson. He had 30 points in 23 minutes, including 15 in the first six minutes as a salute to his Washington State hoops heritage.

“I saw a lot of Cougs in the building,” said Thompson, who grew up in Portland when his dad, Mychal, starred for the Trail Blazers. “It motivated me to come out and give them a show.

“To feel the love from the crowd . . . it didn’t feel like a preseason game. You could almost put your hand on the energy and feel it.”

The energy was generated in part by the return of numerous Sonics legends, including Haywood, Seattle’s first pro sports superstar. A 6-foot-8 power forward whose five Seattle years included a 1972-73 season when he averaged 29.2 points and 13 rebounds, his story is lost on many fans. But not to Durant, who met him pre-game and knew his story of  winning a ground-breaking legal fight for the right to play in the NBA before his college class would have graduated.

“He’s one of the those guys who waved the players’ flag,” he said. “He paved the way for us.”

Durant’s play dominates now as Haywood’s did then. But Durant did his best elsewhere, not in Seattle. His return Friday was a fine gesture, but a reminder that the return of the NBA, despite the apparent resolution of the agonizing saga of the arena, is still several years away at best, and certainly not guaranteed.

Durant felt an appreciation for the lingering affection for him and the Sonics tradition. Before the game, he was asked about all the green-and-gold gear that popped up around town Friday and throughout the arena.

“They’re holding to their culture of basketball,” he said. “You see so many great basketball players make it to the NBA.  To not have an NBA team to watch those guys when they come back home . . . We want to keep the name alive and make sure nobody forgets about Sonics basketball.

“I can’t wait to see another team come here and call this city their home.”

Kerr chipped into the sentiment by attending his pre-game chat in a Sonics T-shirt.

“This is my way of supporting that cause,” he said. “Kevin represents the final season of the Sonics, and their return someday. I know he’s going to get a huge ovation. It’s fun to be part of this.”

Kerr, part of the 1996 Chicago Bulls team that beat the Sonics in the NBA Finals, who also played under Wilkens when he coached the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1989 to 1992, lamented post-game the absence of the Sonics from the NBA landscape.

“Everybody who’s been around the NBA has a soft spot for Seattle, its basketball history and the beauty and brilliance of the city,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem right that the Sonics aren’t part of the NBA.

“Naturally (the event) brings out a lot of nostalgia and sentiments. They brought together former players and coaches, showed (video) highlights on the board . . . It was very different from anything I’ve experienced.”

Wilkens, who during a third-quarter timeout brought out the 1979 NBA trophy to center court with Brown and Sikma, also evoked the tradition gone.

“Tonight brings back memories of what basketball means here,” he said. “Winning a championship leaves a legacy. It’s a legacy I don’t feel we ever should have lost. To get this  reminder, to see this talent . . . this is what it would have grown to.”

It could have grown with Durant, along with the final No. 1 draft choice in 2008, Russell Westbrook. But no. For painful reasons well known to Sonics fans, the NBA presence is reduced to a party wrapped around a pretend game.

But for one night, seeing Haywood and Durant connect the historical hoops narrative for Seattle over half a century made for a thrill that was legit.


  • Husky73

    I held a personal moment of silence for my favorite, Tommy “Crash” Kron. He was also a favorite of Bob Blackburn.

    • art thiel

      A deep pull, my man. I really enjoyed his teammate, Bob Rule.

      • Husky73

        The Golden Rule. I have a ruler that they gave out on Golden Rule Night. He played some of his best games against Bill Russell. I once asked Lenny Wilkens if he knew of Rule’s whereabouts? He just shook his head. There was a rumor Rule was homeless in Vancouver, BC, but nothing to verify.

        • jafabian

          If it was possible Bob Rule should have been a part of this.

        • art thiel

          Haven’t heard a thing in years.

  • bevdog

    Over the years you have written some wonderful stories covering the Seattle sports scene. You got me this time…You have brought tear to my eyes. Nostalgia, sentiment, memories and history all coming together in one moment! My roots in Seattle basketball and its history run deep. You have rekindled many fond memories. Seattle is a great basketball city.
    I attended the historic Seattle U Texas Western game and witnessed the Chieftains beat the eventual NCAA champions winning against Kentucky in the finals. Was a member of the SU team that beat UW in the Coliseum on Jan 4, 1970 that set an attendance record for a regular season game that stood for 40 years. Worked as a camp counselor at the Elgin Baylor Basketball Camp in Black Diamond. Spent my summers with Elgin, Jerry West, Supersonic coach Al Bianchi and his son Mark, Lenny Wilkens and number one draft pick Bobby Kauffman.
    My father and I had season tickets to the Sonics for 30 years. We were number 101 on the priority list as we had tickets from day one. I have the tape, courtesy of the Sonics as a season ticket holder, of game 6 of the 1979 NBA championship. JJ was a friend of mine. He told me Gus Williams was coming to town and would be having lunch at a Bellevue restaurant, I brought the game tape along with my aging father to the restaurant the next day and had the privilege of watching this historic game against the Bullets with them both. A memory I shall never forget!!
    Thanks again for a wonderful story. Keep up the good work!

    • art thiel

      What a wonderful response, bevdog. That’s an impressive history with hoops. Thanks for sharing. Glad you enjoyed. It was a fine evening.

      • bevdog

        Thank you Art.

    • Husky73

      bevog…Great, great post. Thank you. I was a fan of L.J. Wheeler. Did you play with him?

      • bevdog

        Thank you Husky 73. I did not play with L.J. Wheeler. I was an incoming freshman in 1968 and played for Jack Shalow and Bucky Buckwalter.

  • jafabian

    For one night it seemed as though the NBA never left. With so many historic local basketball icons in attendance one would think the Sonics were playing in the Finals. If only the Sonics old court could have been used! (Doubt the NBA would have allowed that.) KD statements to the crowd were short and to the point. He said everything right. Pretty sure the NBA has cringed at some of the statements that he, his coach Steve Kerr and even commentator Jeff VanGundy (My choice for Sonics head coach but only if Jack Sikma turns it down) made yesterday strongly supporting the NBA’s return to the Emerald City. Props to former Sonics ball boy, now Warriors president Rick Welts for making this happen. I’ve wondered if some sort of message was being sent with the Kings being the Dubs opponent? The team that David Stern said couldn’t be sold to Chris Hansen because of their “long established history” to the Sacramento community? I’d have thought the opponent might be that team from Oregon that I refuse to acknowledge to this day.

    Today reality returns. Key Arena has hosted its last event and prepares to be dismantled then rebuilt into a new state of the art venue. AGAIN. Third times a charm eh? The NBA has stated that expansion is not on the table until the earliest 2025 and no team seems to be a candidate for “poaching” as Steve Ballmer has stated is the only way the Sonics could return. However if one closed their eyes they could almost hear Bill Scott leading the Coliseum into a symphony of GO SONICS cheers.

    • art thiel

      My guess is the NBA rarely cringes anymore regarding remarks coming from Seattle about any return. The bosses didn’t care in 2008, and don’t care now. By 2025, who knows? They can make the excuse that they don’t want to be the third ticket in the building, and stay away.

      Sacramento was a coincidence, mostly because it was a short flight.

  • Husky73

    Two Tom Meschery memories…one, he tipped a jump ball (from the foul line) into the basket and two, he took a big swing at Wilt.

    • art thiel

      An original character of the highest order.

  • LarryLurex70

    I’m sorry, Art, but, there must be something wrong with my iPhone. I’m reading your article on Friday night’s game and it says – the version I’m getting – something about Durant being one of the “two greatest Sonics” and, “the last great Sonic”. Any way I can get a copy of what you REALLY wrote before your article was hijacked by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about regarding Kevin Durant and his 1 lone season in green and gold?

    • art thiel

      I knew someone would object. I presumed you understood it wasn’t about his “career” in Seattle. In terms of pure ability to play and produce, Haywood and Durant were the best I saw in green and gold, even if Durant’s apex came after he left.

      • LarryLurex70

        I think all his fanboys here have made it ALL about his “career here”, and have confused that with his career as a whole. I, too, miss the Sonics and want the NBA to return via expansion, preferably. But, not so much that I’m willing to indulge in revisionist history as it relates to the “career” of Kevin Durant in Seattle. Which, I really believe many Sonic fans have. I just fail to understand how so many people can feel so attached to a guy who played here for only 80 games a full decade ago. Sure, he’s among the Top-10 in the league. Maybe Top-5. But, he didn’t become that level of baller HERE. To each their own, Thiel, if you truly believe he’s one of the 2 greatest Sonics. But, that’s akin to stating that Franco Harris is the best RB the ‘Hawks have ever had. It’s disrespectful on so many levels to those who actually made a name for themselves IN Seattle, rather than before they arrived or after they left.

  • rosetta_stoned

    Sorry to spoil the memories – and I remember the glory years, too. Even hopping from home-to-home to catch glimpses of the Game 7 loss in 1978 while delivering the Trib when it was still an afternoon paper.

    But when the NBA left in 2008, it ceased to exist.

    • art thiel

      Actually, I think it struggled on without you. But you hurt it bad.