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Originally published May 21, 2011 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 21, 2011 at 10:16 PM

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Thunder's playoff run reminds Sonics fans of what they're missing

Sonics' departure to Oklahoma City left a void in Seattle that is obvious now with the Thunder in the NBA's Western Conference finals.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Don Tremblay had moved past all the anger, he really had.

He's a co-owner of T.S. McHugh's in Lower Queen Anne, the largest bar in the neighborhood that was the biggest victim of the Sonics' departure to Oklahoma City. Tremblay — like his business — had gotten past the franchise's exodus. Call it closure or even acceptance, but he was over the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands.

"I was kind of done with it," he said. "I just don't get worked up about it anymore."

But now with that team in the midst of a playoff run that has reached the Western Conference finals?

"It's all back again," he said. "When I see Oklahoma and that team and think about where it should be? I try not to think about it, but I tell you, it drives me nuts."

He's not alone.

This isn't a story about what Oklahoma City has; it's about what Seattle is missing. There is a void in town, and it's located directly beneath the Space Needle that is the signature of our city's skyline. That absence is made more pronounced by the thought of what it would be like if the Sonics were still playing, with a chance to be best in the West and not the Thunder. That as much as anything is the reason that a 94-year-old former Sonics GM just can't cheer for Oklahoma City. And it's the reason that man — Zollie Volchok — can't go to the Bellevue Athletic Club or the Glendale Country Club without someone asking him about the NBA.

"There isn't a person that I run into that the conversation doesn't end up about the Sonics," Volchok said.

Forty-one years of history turned out to be more than 786,000 pounds of freight, which was hauled away three years ago in 61 truckloads to the flatlands of Oklahoma. About 50 of the franchise's 125 employees made the move from Seattle.

The franchise is gone, right down to the hair-suited Squatch, the team's mascot from 1993 until 2008, replaced by a bigheaded bison named "Rumble." The Squatch suit is apparently in Oklahoma City, perhaps in a closet somewhere, and it's enough to make you shout: Free the Squatch.

The local owner who sold the team to Oklahoma buyers has covered his ears, taking a hear-no-evil approach even as he's reinserted himself into the public spotlight. Howard Schultz has a new book out, you might have noticed. No talk of professional sports teams as a civic trust like his first book. No talk of the team at all, in fact, even after he emerged from his hidy-hole to promote the book. There was a New York Times feature, a Q&A in The Seattle Times' business section and a coffee-shop meeting for a "Men's Health" feature.

But when asked if he would consent to an interview on the team's departure, his public-relations contact declined, saying that was a personal investment by Schultz, who is focused now on Starbucks business.

But as much as the principal players have tried to move on, there's still something missing. Take it from Volchok, the Sonics' general manager under original owner Sam Schulman. As one of this city's showbiz pioneers, Volchok knows a little something about giving people what they want.

"I can only feel just as most of the people feel," Volchok said. "It's a void that you wish you could fill."

He's about to turn 95, lives on Mercer Island and he's watching as much of these NBA playoffs as he can. In fact, when he was interviewed on Thursday, he had just written down the start time for Game 2 of the Thunder-Mavericks series: 6 o'clock. So who's he cheering for?

"I'm neutral," he says.

Wait. That's not quite right.

"I'm certainly not cheering for Oklahoma, to tell you the truth," he says.

Hard for anyone in this city to do that. In a strictly basketball sense, this couldn't have worked out any worse for Seattle. The city's final season with the franchise was the first of outright rebuilding when the roster was stripped down and sold for parts as Ray Allen was traded to Boston and Rashard Lewis left in free agency.

Now, three years later, Kevin Durant is a two-time league scoring champ, the team is championship caliber, and Oklahoma City didn't have to endure watching Jim McIlvaine, Jerome James or Calvin Booth to get there.

It's hard to get too carried away romanticizing the franchise, because the Sonics spent their last 10 years in town high-centered in the middle of the league. They won exactly one playoff series from 1999 to 2008, and the result of all that mediocrity was that receipts for a bar like T.S. McHugh's on Sonics game nights were down about 20 percent from the mid-1990s.

The bar — like our city — has survived the team's departure. McHugh's celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The Oklahoma exodus wasn't any sort of tipping point in civic history, but it's a weekend like this when the Thunder is in the midst of a playoff run that you catch a teasing glimpse of the excitement generated by an NBA team on a playoff run.

"It wasn't just that we were doing all the business and sales were great," Tremblay said. "The atmosphere. It was wild, so much going on."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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