For Seattle, the Sonics' victory is the saddest of happy nights
SEATTLE -- On their way out the door, the young SuperSonics upended the Mavericks 99-95 on Sunday night, but the celebrating ended as soon as it began. What had been won, really? A victory in their worst season on the court; a meaningless evening amid the bigger scheme.
The fans were slow to leave, knowing they might never be coming back and no doubt wondering why they should care. Why invest money and joy in a franchise that apparently would rather play in a smaller market without tradition, that is cashing out 41 years in one of America's great cities? I BLEED GREEN read a sign held high by one stubborn fan; SAVE OUR SONICS read many others. On and off the people chanted epithets at the owner while cheering on his players, and afterward a father and his two young children lingered at their seats in their green and yellow Afro wigs that they likely won't be needing any longer. Hundreds of others stayed as long as they could, like old friends unwilling to leave a college reunion.
This was the last home game of the last Seattle season, if Sonics owner Clay Bennett has his way. Before he relocates the team from Seattle to his hometown in Oklahoma City, the Sonics need to escape the remaining two years of their downtown KeyArena lease either by winning a court case with the city in June or by negotiating a buyout.
The league's owners are expected to approve the team's relocation this week in New York, though the vote won't be unanimous (only a majority is needed for approval). "I'll do what I can to keep them here,'' said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, standing on the court before the game. "It's not over 'till it's over. I'll vote against it.''
Cuban emphasized that Bennett was "doing the right thing'' for the fans in his home state by moving the team to Oklahoma. "But it's about Seattle vs. Oklahoma City, and which is better for the NBA. No question it's Seattle,'' said Cuban, measuring the revenues, visibility and franchise history that would be sacrificed by moving from Seattle to a financially inferior market. He made special note of the NBA's 41-year investment in Seattle. "There is an equity value that you can't quantify,'' he said. "But it should be quantified.''
Kevin Durant, the 19-year-old presumptive Rookie of the Year, sat in the cozy, green Sonics locker room and tried to say the right things before the game. He had been following the Sonics for as long as he could remember. "I watched the [1996 NBA] Finals series,'' he said, his hands clasped across his knees. "The George Karl era, Shawn Kemp, GP [Gary Payton], I watched all that.''
So what did he think of the impending divorce? "It's something I rarely think about, to be honest,'' he said. "I can't stress enough ... let me say this right ... I have no control over any of it. No matter what, I've got to continue to play. If we leave, we leave. If we stay, we stay.''
Much as players must play despite contractual disagreements or rumors of impending trades, so was Durant viewing the move to Oklahoma City as another "business decision.''
"It's part of the game,'' he said. "Everything is part of the game.'' Apart from the reduction in attendance, the community trauma had little effect on the players this season.
In the second quarter, Payton appeared from the visitors' tunnel and angled his way to his front-row seat in the corner near the Mavericks' bench. Screaming cheers around him spread quickly throughout the arena, and his formal introduction on the scoreboard video screen created a standing ovation that was the loudest and most sincere of the evening. The 16,272 were applauding what they had before seven years of arena squabbles swallowed up the franchise.
Slick Watts arrived without his headband; Downtown Freddie Brown showed up too. The Sonics recovered from an early 14-point deficit to build a brief nine-point lead as the crowd lost itself for a moment in the joy of the game.
"It was emotional,'' said Sonics forward Nick Collison, who lives year-round in Seattle and would like to stay. "That was the first thing I thought when the crowd went nuts: I really thought it would be a shame if this is it.''