NBA fans rekindle Sonics memories at KeyArena
H206 Charity Basketball Classic helps fans, local players maintain connection, remain hopeful NBA could return one day.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The T-shirts and uniform tops told the story of the day.
On a rare sun-soaked Saturday, basketball fans — real basketball fans, about 5,000 of them — came inside KeyArena to celebrate the game and cheer the players who no longer get to play in Seattle.
For a brief afternoon, NBA players were back in uniform, inside the Key, playing basketball.
And the fans came in their Sonics green and gold. They wore green jerseys honoring various generations of Seattle players — Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Lenny Wilkens, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis.
They came with clipboards full of loose-leaf paper for autographs. They brought notebooks full of pictures to be signed. They wore T-shirts that expressed their anger, still smoldering three seasons after the Sonics left for Oklahoma City.
"Sonics RIP." "Our Team Stolen." "Robbed." "Renton: Future Home of the Sonics." "Sonicsgate."
"Look at all the old Sonics shirts and jerseys," said Philadelphia center Spencer Hawes, a product of Seattle Prep and Washington. "The passion for basketball isn't going anywhere. It's always going to be here. It's good to be reminded of it on a day like this."
The game still matters in Seattle. Even a small event like this, a loosely promoted charity basketball game, attracted people who care about the game.
And all of the players who represented Seattle in this H206 All-Star Game agreed that growing up with an NBA team in town helped give them the confidence to pursue a life in the game.
"Having an NBA team here made me feel like I could reach out and touch a Gary Payton or a Shawn Kemp or a Detlef Schrempf. It made my dreams more real to me," Atlanta Hawks guard Jamal Crawford, a Rainier Beach product, said. "Those guys laid the foundation for me and all of the Seattle guys who are playing now. They passed the torch to us."
Brandon Roy, Crawford, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, Hawes, Martell Webster, Terrence Williams, Will Conroy and Michael Dickerson gave up an afternoon to honor the city that taught them the game.
And they came to support A PLUS, an academic and competitive athletic program for boys in grades 4-9. Next year A PLUS will begin a similar girls program.
Before the game, these players talked about how important the line of succession from Wilkens, Spencer Haywood and Slick Watts, to Fred Brown, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams to Nate McMillan, Payton, Kemp, Perkins and Schrempf, to Allen and Lewis, was to them.
"Watching those guys definitely motivated me," said Minnesota guard Martell Webster, who played at Seattle Prep. "I remember being in tune with every minute of the 1996 Finals. And after the games I'd go out to the park by my grandmother's house and bring those games back to life, pretending I was Michael Jordan or Gary Payton. That right there, those games, those players is what gave me motivation and is still in there, firing me up today."
This latest line of players doesn't play in Seattle, but these players still represent the city and still pay homage to the Sonics.
"We're tied to the older generation," Crawford said. "They kind of passed the torch to us. All of the guys from here, we're all like family. And we got that from guys like Gary and Shawn. And we want to help the generation that's coming along after us."
Seattle needs a team, whether it's in the 206 or 425 area code. And in the past few months, there have been more closed-door meetings and discussions about building a privately owned arena and bringing the NBA back to Seattle than at any other time since the Sonics left.
At an informal roundtable talk Saturday morning, former Sonics All-Star center Jack Sikma talked about the connection the team always felt with the fans. He said the importance of having a team here "can't be overemphasized."
"It spawned great hoops programs," Sikma said of that connection. "It spawned great coaching."
It also spawned great community involvement. The players from Seattle not only learned the game from watching the Sonics, they learned the importance of staying involved in the city.
"This city doesn't have a team anymore," said Detroit Piston Stuckey, the former Kentwood and Eastern Washington star, "and we all play for different teams now. But when we get back to the city, we always want to give back. It's always nice for us to get together and do things for the community. It's all about the 206, 425 and 253, baby."
From generation to generation, for 41 years, there was a sincere connection between the Sonics players and their fans. Now, in their absence, a different group of local players is trying to keep alive that connection with these same fans.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
email@example.com | 206-464-2176