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Originally published April 17, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified April 18, 2010 at 8:05 PM

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Steve Kelley

It should be the Sonics playing the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs

This is what then-mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council took away from the region. This is the excitement they stole from Seattle's sports fans, when they caved, two seasons ago, to the NBA's hard-bargaining.

Seattle Times staff columnist

This town would be humming this week. The Sonics' flag would ripple from the top of the Space Needle. Kevin Durant's face would be on billboards and buses.

He would belong to Seattle. He would belong in Seattle.

The Sonics, the team of the future, would be arriving a season ahead of schedule, preparing to play their arch-rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

This is what then-mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council took away from the region. This is the excitement they stole from Seattle's sports fans when they caved, two seasons ago, to the NBA's hard bargaining.

They could have stood up to the league. Instead they played matador defense. They allowed Clay Bennett to skip out of town to Oklahoma City, practically unscathed.

Imagine the energy that would be in the city now. Imagine the countdown to Sunday's opener in Los Angeles. For almost 30 years, Sonics vs. Lakers was one of the league's best rivalries.

Imagine a couple of games next week in a smoldering KeyArena, the sold-out crowds sitting vertiginously on top of the floor, roaring like so many jet engines. The "Beat L.A." chants would begin before the doors opened. They would start in the bustle of the Seattle Center.

Think of the restaurants and bars swollen with Sonics fans. Think of the crowds on Lower Queen Anne partying like it was 1996.

There would be no Oklahoma City Thunder. The Sonics still would be in Seattle. The banners still would hang from the rafters of the Key. Kevin Calabro's voice still would be rumbling on game nights.

The Sonics, not the Thunder, would have won 50 games this season. Durant would be representing Seattle as he was winning the NBA scoring title.

Imagine as many as seven games this month of Kevin Durant-against-Kobe Bryant. Think about what might have been, what should have been.

This would have been the final year of the franchise's lease with KeyArena, but there is no way the team would have left town.

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This year would be 1995 revisited.

That was the year the Mariners were leaving; the season of the vote for a new baseball stadium. It was the year the Mariners had to win.

It was the season the Mariners showed how a team and a sport could unite all the disparate parts of a city. The season Edgar Martinez hit a double into the left-field corner and Ken Griffey Jr. ran the bases with geometric precision, slid into home and into a hive of celebrating teammates.

Those Mariners saved baseball by beating the most storied team in their sport.

Now, 15 years later, these Sonics would be saving basketball, just by making it into the playoffs and meeting one of the game's most decorated franchises.

And don't tell me you don't care anymore, because the only reason you say you don't care is because the Sonics are gone.

If they were here, you would be falling in love with them, the same way you did in 1979 and 1996.

You would have been smitten with Durant and Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Nick Collison and James Harden, just as you were with Gus Williams, Fred Brown, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf.

Coach Scotty Brooks would have been embraced the way Lenny Wilkens, George Karl and Nate McMillan were.

This latest Sonics team would have been just what Seattle needed now, a postseason team with a guaranteed future.

All of the angst over them leaving would be gone. The inevitable long string of sellouts that would have accompanied this 50-win run to the playoffs would have been impossible even for league commissioner David Stern to ignore.

The ill will would have disappeared as the region focused on post-ups and not politics. It would be paying attention to the league and not the lease.

These Sonics would have been too good to leave. The seismic activity around the team would have forced the powers that be to find the funding to remodel the Key and keep the team in Seattle.

The people would have demanded it.

My guess is Bennett's ownership group, stung by economic misfortunes, would have sold the Sonics to Steve Ballmer's group.

The Lakers and the Sonics. The series should have been ours.

And if Greg Nickels wants to know why he isn't mayor, he should check the playoff pairings. He stole these games from us. He took away these playoffs.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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