It was bedlam. Unlike any moment the city had seen in more than a decade. When Kevin Durant, then playing for the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, came out onto the hardwood at KeyArena in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle on 5 October 2018, you couldn’t hear yourself shout in ecstasy. You could only hear the roar of the whole crowd, which included many Seattle luminaries, from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to the rapper Macklemore, deafening and raucous all at once.
Why? Because Durant came out ahead of that preseason NBA game wearing a forest-green Shawn Kemp jerseyNo 40. It was a reminder that the city has not had an NBA team since the SuperSonics left town for Oklahoma City (where they became the Thunder) in 2008.
“It was just a great moment,” northwest-native and longtime ESPN SportsCenter host Kenny Mayne, who was in attendance that night, tells the Guardian. “To give recognition to Seattle basketball, and the fact that so many of us had missed it.”
To date, the city of Seattle has not hosted an NBA game in 14 years – save the Durant/Shawn Kemp jersey night in 2018. That game pitted the Warriors and Durant, who was also the last Sonics’ first-round draft pick to ever play in the city, against the Sacramento Kings. It was a fitting contest given that the Kings were inches away from relocating to Seattle in the 2010s.
In truth, the 2018 preseason game was almost cruel for Seattle’s basketball fans. At least, it would have been had the city not been so joyous and enthusiastic, starved for NBA attention. “It’s a basketball city,” said Durant after that contest. But Durant’s statement may have taken some by surprise. A basketball city? Seattle?
A tech city, sure. Coffee and grunge music, yes. Sir Mix A Lot and the Space Needle, of course. But basketball? That’s the purview of New York City, right? Well, not entirely.
On 3 October this year, the NBA will return to Seattle for another preseason game. It will feature the Los Angeles Clippers (owned by a former Seattleite, Microsoft billionaire Steve Balmer) and the Portland Trailblazers (the only current Pacific Northwest team), and will most likely sell out. Perhaps Portland star Damian Lillard will come out in a No 20 Gary Payton Sonics jersey! Either way, locals will be thrilled.
The game will take place in the newly renovated Climate Pledge Arena (formerly KeyArena), a 17,500-seat venue perfect for hoops. When the Sonics left for OKC, the argument was that the city’s facilities weren’t modern enough. Now, as Mayne puts it, “[the NBA] certainly can’t complain about the facilities at this point.”
Seattle, which is home to nearly 750,000 people (and 4 million in the surrounding area), is well-positioned to support professional sports. This year saw the NHL expand and bring in the Kraken. Though new to the league, the Kraken were No 14 (of 32) in attendance, averaging 17,151 fans per home game. In addition, ever since the Seahawks and the “Legion of Boom” won the Super Bowl in 2014, football has felt like a religion in town. The Sounders, Seattle’s MLS team, have won titles and set attendance records. And the Mariners, the local Major League Baseball team, recently enjoyed a 14-game winning streak. Indeed, Seattle is a sports city, too.
And as rumors continue to swirl about a possible NBA expansion, with Seattle and Las Vegas on the tips of insiders’ tongues (like that of NBA podcaster and author, Bill Simmons), it’s worth remembering just how much of a basketball city Seattle really is . While NBA commissioner Adam Silver has thrown cold water on those rumors, perhaps for simple negotiating purposes, they nevertheless persist. (Seattle has been involved in many bargaining rumors before.)
While today’s Seattle may not be an NBA city, it is a basketball city. That reality begins first and foremost with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. The franchise, which didn’t leave with the Sonics for OKC thanks to its hometown owners, Force 10 Hoops, has won four WNBA titles (2004, 2010, 2018, 2020), with legend Sue Bird running point. The team boasts three of the league’s top-25 players, according to ESPN, from Bird to Jewell Loyd to former MVP Breanna Stewart. The squad is also one of – if not the most – socially conscious in professional sports. And though Bird recently announced her upcoming retirement, her presence will be felt both in Seattle and beyond for years.
Alongside Bird on the list of Seattle hoops emissaries is Jamal Crawford. Not only did Crawford have a distinguished NBA career (and now post-career), he is an ambassador for Seattle basketball. Crawford runs the annual local pro-am, The CrawsOver, which brings local talent together with local legends, and even Hall of Fame players such as the late Kobe Bryant, to play games in the summer for fans. Crawford, who took over the pro-am from another area standout, Doug Christie, helped guide the city’s best and brightest during his 20-year NBA career, which included three Sixth Man of the Year Awards. Local NBA stars (and CrawsOver alums) like Michael Porter Jr, Dejounte Murray, Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson owe a debt to Crawford’s stewardship.
“A lot of this is home-grown through people like Jamal throwing his pro-am,” says Mayne, who remembers going to Sonics games in the late 60s and seeing visitors like Wilt Chamberlain and later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “Part of it, with the loss of the Sonics, I think everybody has assumed a little bit of responsibility to put your hand up and say, ‘Look at us, we play pretty good ball up here.'”
But Crawford owes a lot to the people who came before him, too, from Christie to 2011 NBA champion Jason Terry, to SuperSonics standouts like Kemp, Payton and Detlef Schrempf. And later, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and 2001 NBA Slam Dunk contest Victor, Desmond Mason. Speaking of the Sonics, the squad has an illustrious hoops pedigree. The NBA team, which kicked off its first season 55 years ago in 1967, won the NBA title in 1979 and later played in the NBA finals against Michael Jordan in 1996, losing in six hard-fought games. Sadly, for locals, the team was sold in 2006, by then-owner and Starbucks co-founder Howard Schultz to Oklahoma-native Clay Bennett, who moved the team to OKC in 2008. Schultz later called it one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
“The Sonics were my childhood,” hooper-turned-musician, Cedric Walker, tells the Guardian. “To watch your childhood get shipped off to another city, it sucked.”
For the Seattle born-and-raised Walker, 33, who was introduced to the game in elementary school by his mother Gaynell, a now-retired public-school educator, the Sonics were his inspiration. As a teen, he starred at Summit High School. And Walker and his mother would go to Sonics games during the week, sometimes sitting in the nosebleeds, catching a glimpse of the Payton/Kemp-era squad. He remembers attending the playoffs against the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz, the “electric” crowds.
Walker remembers the protests in town as word spread regarding the Sonics’ likely departure, fans hoping to keep their cherished home team. “Seattle is one of the best basketball towns in the country,” Walker says. “We just had the No 1 pick in the NBA draft [Paolo Banchero]. We have a rich basketball history, dating back to the 70s. Even though the team doesn’t exist anymore, I’m pretty sure we have more playoff appearances than some still in the league.”
Perhaps the biggest feather in Seattle’s basketball cap, however, is its association with the great Bill Russell, who died on Sunday. The centerpiece of the original Boston Celtic dynasty, Russell boasted more championship rings than fingers (11) and after his stint as a player/coach for the C’s in the late 1960s, Russell migrated to the Pacific Northwest to helm the young SuperSonics as the team’s coach from 1973-1977. Russell, the namesake of the NBA Finals MVP trophy, lived in the area until his death.
But it’s not just the professionals. In Seattle, the roots of the game go deeper, from high school through college. Christie, Crawford and Murray are graduates of Rainier Beach High School, a perennial Washington state champion located in the south-end of the city. Smack-dab in the center of town, there’s Garfield High School, which graduated Roy. There’s O’Dea High School, which produced the No 1 pick in the 2022 draft, Banchero (now also a CrawsOver album).
Even prominent local musicians have gotten into the mix. Pearl Jam originally named itself Mookie Blaylock after the former New Jersey Nets All-Star point guard. In 2009, Seattle’s Grammy-nominated rock group, Band of Horses, released a popular song, Detlef Schrempf. Maclemore’s recent music video features Crawford and Thomas hooping. And the Grammy Award-winning rapper (and Garfield High School alum) Ishmael Butler was a Division-1 baller under coach John Calipari at UMass.
Perhaps, too, given Kevin Durant’s recent trade request to get out of his obligations with the Brooklyn Nets, the “Slim Reaper” will again become the face of the Seattle SuperSonics and fast-track expansion (maybe one day he’ll suit up against a LeBron James-led Vegas team). Now, that would really be cause for unabashed applause.