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Sunday, April 14, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Sonics to Sounders, 40 years of heroes

By Jayda Evans
Seattle Times staff reporter


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SCOTT TAKUSHI / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Members of the Sonics' staff look up at the leaky roof of the Seattle Center Coliseum on January 5, 1986. The leak caused the postponement of the game between the Sonics and the Phoenix Suns.
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Drip. Drip.

The puddle began to grow, reflecting confused faces staring at it.

Rainouts in baseball? Heard of that.

Rainouts in basketball? Only in Seattle.

The Sonics were set to host the Phoenix Suns in January 1986, but a drip, drip from the Coliseum roof delayed tip-off nine minutes while the puddle at halfcourt was mopped. The floor was ruled suitable for play, and the game started.

But the drip quickly became a flow.

The Sonics had a ball boy sit at halfcourt to daringly sop up the water. By the time the Sonics called a timeout with the Suns leading 35-24 one minute and four seconds into the second quarter, it was too much to mop.

Chants of "Halfcourt! Halfcourt!" were accented by umbrellas popping open and fans pointing to the court. Play never resumed due to the NBA's first "postponement due to rain."

The teams played the following day and the Suns won, 117-114.

The scene is one of many colorful stories the Seattle Center is remembering as it celebrates the 40th anniversary of the World's Fair this month.

Sports events were happening at the Center long before the Fair, however. There were prep football Thanksgiving Day games and minor-league baseball games at Civic Field in the 1940s, ice hockey at the Seattle Ice Arena in the 1930s, and college basketball in the drafty Civic Auditorium in the early 1960s.

But when the Coliseum was built in 1962 an influx of sports followed, starting with the Seattle Totems' Western Hockey League team in 1964. The Sonics hold the longest history on the 74-acre campus, but seemingly every sport from figure skating and handball to wrestling and boxing has had a booking at the Seattle Center.

First love

After the Mariners' 116-win season, this place is definitely a baseball town. But Seattle could have been a soccer town.

Or possibly a hockey town. Maybe Seattle could have remained a basketball town — if it weren't for the city's attraction to celebrations.

From the Totems' back-to-back championships in 1967 and '68 to the Sonics' NBA title in 1979, Seattle has flocked to whatever team was hottest.

In the early '70s it was the Seattle Sounders who grabbed the city's heart.

Debuting at Memorial Stadium, a sellout crowd of 13,000, most of them soccer newcomers, was mesmerized.

"They were expecting a bigger version of what their kids played on Saturday mornings," said Bob Robertson, a former broadcaster for the team who currently is a radio commentator for Washington State football. "A hush fell over the crowd as if thinking, 'What is this? What are we seeing?' as the players moved the ball."

Fans gave the Sounders a spontaneous standing ovation after they defeated Denver. The players, mostly Europeans, were stunned as they graciously waved back to the crowd.

Sure, the field was too narrow for soccer. It had artificial turf and football markings colliding with the soccer markings, but it didn't matter. Games sold out, pushing Memorial Stadium to be expanded. Still not meeting demands, the Sounders moved to the Kingdome, where the team averaged crowds of 30,000.

Players like defender Mike England were treated as hometown products, not international transplants.

But shortly after the Sounders finished their 1977 regular season at 26-14, losing to New York 2-1 in the Soccer Bowl, the love affair began to fade. The Sounders' North American Soccer League started to fail financially in the 1980s behind high player salaries.

Unable to lure big names with smaller paychecks, the original Sounders folded in 1983.

"Seattle had the makings of a great soccer town," Robertson said. "It was a fun ride, I'm sorry it's gone."

A woman's game

Glasses clink at McMenamins. Overheard in the dark bar in lower Queen Anne are stories that sound even drearier.

But intertwined with tales of shoddy equipment is the charming beginning of women's professional basketball in Seattle. While it didn't grab the same attendance numbers as the Sounders or Sonics, the Reign was the city's first women's professional basketball team in October 1996.

The Reign organization started in a small, window-less corner office in Mercer Arena with brick walls, moldy carpet, a worn picnic table and one phone. Things were so grassroots, surround-sound music in the arena was first played from a boom box with a microphone positioned at the speaker.

"That was our headquarters for the first few months," said Karen Bryant, former Reign general manager who currently is the Seattle Storm's vice president of operations. "We sat in chairs in the arena to interview coaches because we didn't want them in the office."

Opening night was emotional for the 4,591 fans that saw a dream materialize. The Reign defeated the Portland Power, 83-70, but the team never finished above .500.

In December 1998, one week after the Reign lost badly to San Jose at home, the American Basketball League folded.

A mournful Bryant and former Portland coach Lin Dunn helped the city mend the heartbreak with the WNBA's Storm in 2000. Although the then-defending champion Houston Comets beat the Storm 77-47 in the opener, 10,840 enthusiastic fans filled KeyArena.

But even as the Storm enters its third season in May, Bryant still drifts back to the days of the Reign when she meets up with former co-workers Melinda Williams and Migee Han at McMenamins.

"We tell the same stories every time we get together," said Bryant, who remembers the "hold" button was actually Williams covering the phone receiver with her hand while searching for Bryant.

"It's our roots. And the Storm is another step in the evolution of women's basketball in our city."

Local heroes

It was the first player introductions, for the first professional team in Seattle.

And Sonics center Bob Rule tripped.

In the shadow of the Space Needle, fans have seen their hometown players bobble, or grow into national legends.

There was Seattle University's Elgin Baylor, who played in the raggedy Civic Auditorium in the 1950s as he led the school to the NCAA Tournament. Later came "Downtown" Freddie Brown, captain of the 1979 NBA championship team, who scored 58 points against Golden State in 1974. It remains the best single-game scoring total in franchise history.

In the middle on the Sonics team was Jack Sikma, a curly blond tower of rebounding and blocking power. And while Sikma was playing the twilight of his career in 1991, a young, steadily-yapping Gary Payton started to become the next Seattle icon.

Payton scored 23 points in a Game 5 victory against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during the 1996 NBA Finals at KeyArena. Seattle lost the championship series, 4-2.

On the women's side, Australian star Lauren Jackson and Semeka Randall are growing fan favorites, taking the place of Reign stars Kate Starbird and Shalonda Enis.

Black eyes

Sonics guard Brent Barry is a fan fave. His father Rick wasn't.

A warm beer bath was the regular treatment from Sonics fans for Rick Barry when he played for Golden State in the 1970s. Just one of the less memorable acts woven into the Seattle Center's sports history.

Before mega contracts and mega fines, the NBA at the Coliseum might have had better fights than the ones booked with George Foreman or Boone Kirkman.

There was Barry and the crowd during a playoff series against the Warriors in 1974. Then there's the Sonics' Tom Meschery decking Wilt Chamberlain in an otherwise boring loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1968. Or the bench-clearing brawl that had seven players ejected during the Sonics' first season in 1967.

"Oh, yeah, there were some pretty good fist fights back then," said Bob Blackburn, legendary broadcaster for the Sonics from 1967-1992.

Scheduled fights had low points, too.

In 1999, Bremerton's Margaret MacGregor and Loi Chow of Vancouver, B.C., made history as the first sanctioned man vs. woman boxing match. A month of moral debate and national uproar was capped with a sellout crowd of mostly 20-somethings seeking blood, only to receive a dud four-round bout proclaiming MacGregor victorious.

An emotional low (for Mercer Island fans, anyway) was the Islanders' controversial loss to Shadle Park of Spokane in the 1981 boys Class AAA state basketball final at the Coliseum. And the "championship that never was" when the Sonics lost the NBA Finals in seven games to the Washington Bullets. Guard Dennis Johnson was 0-for-14 in the final game, which the Bullets won 105-99 for the title in 1978.

"He shoots his normal average and we would have won easily," Blackburn said. "It was just one of those games."

Celebrity sports

So Seattle doesn't have Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee sitting courtside. And there's no real stargazing hotspot among our coffeehouse-saturated city.

Unless you count the Seattle Center's athletic complex.

The early days treated fans to performances by the young Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Satchel Paige in 1930s at Civic Stadium, which is now Memorial Stadium.

When baseball moved to Sicks' Stadium, hockey dominated the sports culture at the Seattle Center Ice Arena, now Mercer Arena. But it wasn't until the Coliseum was built as part of the World's Fair in '62 that a flood of celebrity athletes to gawk over infiltrated the city.

Seattle-ites watched a budding Oscar De La Hoya defeat Ivan Robinson for the 125-pound boxing title at the Goodwill Games in 1990. De La Hoya was a no-name 17-year-old at the time.

And Seattle fans still adored performances by figure skaters Scott Hamilton, Tara Lipinski, Katarina Witt, Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan, past their prime as Olympic medalists.

In basketball, fans at the Coliseum saw Chamberlain score 53 points and grab 38 rebounds in one game in December 1967. Later, they witnessed Lenny Wilkens transform from NBA player to NBA championship coach in '79 with the Sonics — back when it was rare to make the jump.

A revamped Coliseum became KeyArena in 1995 where Jordan (NBA) and Lisa Leslie (WNBA) used their craft to spellbound the crowd, positively and negatively.

An improv, late-night doubles match between Bjorn Borg, John Lloyd, Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis at Mercer Arena in 1994 was played four days before Gerulaitis died.

From Chris Evert to Pele, numerous household names have strutted their talent at the Seattle Center the past 40 years. And the memories continue.

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