THE LONE REMAINING PROFESSIONAL HOOPS TEAM IN SEATTLE HAS NOT JUST SURVIVED IN THE WAKE OF THE SONICS' DEPARTURE, THEY HAVE THRIVED THANKS TO THEIR OWNERS' WILLINGNESS TO DREAM BIG
A pair of fire engines showering their plane upon touchdown at the airport, a victory parade downtown, a rally at KeyArena—just the kind of unbridled civic reception you'd expect for a professional team that has just won a championship. In the days following the Storm's second WNBA title, however, the city's euphoria ran a little deeper.
In a league that has been read its last rites more than once over the past 15 years, many figured the Storm's epitaph was all but written in 2006, when Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett acquired the team as part of a $350 million package deal for the Sonics, whose future in Seattle—for reasons tied to arena issues—was increasingly in doubt. "There was a frenzy of speculation and rumor," recalls team president and CEO Karen Bryant. "But Clay gave me positive indications early on that if the Sonics were relocated to Oklahoma, he was open to finding a way to keep the Storm in Seattle."
Bennett stayed true to his word, selling the team for $10 million to a group of four local businesswomen in 2008. Since then the Storm—one of seven independently owned WNBA franchises—has, thanks to the ownership group's strong ties to the Seattle business community, increased franchise revenues by 75% and transformed the team into the hottest ticket in town. Says Bryant, "Shortly after the team was purchased in '08, we stopped talking about whether we were going to make it and started to ask ourselves, How big can we be?"
The answer is huge—enough for players and coaches to earn the celebrity treatment themselves. "You're recognized the moment you leave your home to the time you get back," says fourth-year coach Brian Agler. "I've had people follow me down the street continually asking me questions about the team."
Last year the Storm wasn't just the talk of the town; it was all the rage of the WNBA. Seattle tied a league record with 28 wins (including a 17--0 streak at home) and swept through the playoffs, winning all seven of its games, including the Finals-clinching win over Atlanta on Sept. 16. Along with heavy contributions from MVP forward Lauren Jackson (20.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg), All-Star point guard Sue Bird (11.1 ppg, 5.8 apg) and do-it-all forward Swin Cash (13.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg), the Storm was fortified by a deep bench that now includes Katie Smith, a 12-year veteran who averaged 9.5 points for the Mystics in '10. "This team has such a history. They don't just want to compete. They want to be the best." This hoops-mad city won't settle for anything less.