On the afternoon of July 3, 2008, I walked across the street from my dead-end accounting job, climbed into my car, and flipped on the radio. The voice that greeted me was a stew of emotion: weary, righteous, disgusted, and calculated. It was the voice of then-mayor Greg Nickels, who was in the middle of declaring what we had long since known, if not admitted: The Seattle SuperSonics were no more.
I felt just as conflicted. The ugly battle over the fate of my basketball team had raged for a year, the earth already razed and salted. I remember the promises of funding, the siren’s song of potential investors, and the prideful leaked e-mails. I read every story as I pushed paper, counting off my twenties with every David Stern-imposed deadline. When the end came, I was almost too tired to be angry. It felt like getting laid off from a job you hated but also needed.
Losing a team is complicated. It puts an endpoint on a pastime, fandom, that should never have one. All that time I spent rooting for Xavier McDaniel, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, and Danny Fortson was finished. It severed me from a childhood when I used to listen to games while practicing my dribbling in the basement. It ensured that I would never be rewarded with the championship that every fan ultimately deserves. (I was one when the Sonics won their trophy.) It also reminds you, constantly, of the millions of things that are more important than sports, and makes you feel bad about feeling bad about it.
I swore to give up the NBA that day, even though throughout my childhood, it was perhaps my favorite pure sport. And of course, I didn’t. I watched new general manager Sam Presti build foundations out of the ashes of a decade of incompetence. It began before they left, while I knew they were leaving, and knew I was watching a future champion, my future champion, taking shape. And after they left, I continued to watch the pieces slowly assemble, pretending that they were still my team, or at least my players. Now my team has the best record in the NBA. Every week or so, I check the standings.
On the afternoon of February 16, 2012, I looked up from my homework and flipped on the radio. This time it was Mike McGinn, his speech a barely-cloaked triumph. He provided the details of the proposal like a State of the Union Speech: no new taxpayer money, private responsibility for cost overruns, a thirty-year city-controlled lease. He has, I admit, every right to his jubilance; the deal is quite advantageous for the public, and hopes have begun to stir on the radio stations. And yet I still feel torn.
Is it because Nick Collison is still grinding out minutes for the Oklahoma City Thunder? Is it because facsimiles of our banners hang from their rafters? Perhaps. But what stings to me is that this is no Cleveland Browns situation. There will be no expansion. Seattle has only known new teams, and has lived with the painful adolescent experiences that accompany them. A decade of losing does not faze us. It does not even surprise us.
What troubles me is the inevitable change that will undergo the fan base as its attention turns to the attendance figures at Arco and New Orleans Arena. The same pragmatic, corporate excuses that infuriated me before will be trotted out: the NBA is a business, owners have a right to make money, they simply don’t have the economic model to hold a team. The guilt will be there, but it will be shoved down beneath the excitement, until inevitably forgotten.
The next step is bargaining. I think about New Orleans, with its shorter history, second professional sports team, its history of relative mediocrity and, of course, its ownership situation. There wouldn’t be many banners to steal, and the framed glossy photographs of Larry Johnson have already been relocated once. But it’s still rationalization, and it’s one I don’t want to have to make.
With or without my support, Seattle will someday have a basketball team. More than likely, it’ll be somebody else’s basketball team. Will I be complicit in that crime? How would I even begin to avenge it? I don’t know. But I hope I never forget sitting in that parking lot, the car battery slowly dying, as I remember dribbling that basketball between my legs, over and over.