Seattle has been without the Sonics for six years now, but that doesn’t mean the pain has left the city.
“We all tend to focus too much on the ending. Not every day was July 2nd, 2008,” said Mike Gastineau, emphasizing the good times of the Sonics era in Seattle.
Turn on local sports talk radio any day of the year in Seattle and it’s a safe bet that you’ll hear about the Seahawks.
KJR AM 950 has been broadcasting sports radio in Seattle since 1989, back when Seattle was a three sport city. Now, KJR advertises itself as the “Home for the 12s”, referencing the Seattle Seahawks’ fanbase that identifies itself as “The 12th Man”.
The defending Super Bowl Champions dominate the airwaves in Seattle, because radio stations cater to what people want to listen to. And people want to listen to the winner in town. But perhaps the city wants to hear so much “Hawks Talk” so that they don’t have to hear about professional basketball.
The Seattle SuperSonics arrived in 1967 as an expansion team in the National Basketball Association. Boeing had put the city on the map as a booming aviation business, but the Sonics were the city’s first major professional sports team. They had the floor to themselves as Seattle’s prized possession until the Seahawks got to town in 1976 and the Mariners gave the city a baseball team the next year.
The Sonics completely cemented themselves as the premier team in the city with their run of success in the 1970’s. The team made its first playoff appearance in 1974 under coach Bill Russell before suffering a heartbreaking loss at home in game seven of the 1978 NBA Finals to the Washington Bullets.
A backbreaking loss the year before combined with the return of the talented nucleus of Gus “The Wizard” Williams, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown created tremendous excitement about the upcoming season. The Sonics exacted revenge against the Bullets in the following Finals, and the party was on in Seattle.
Art Thiel was a writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 29 years and maintains SportsPressNW.com to this day. Thiel vividly remembers the championship parade that saw nearly 250,000 people pack the streets of Seattle on a sunny June day in 1979.
“I think I joked that day that it’ll be interesting to see how many babies are named ‘Sikma’ nine months from that day,” remembers Thiel.
Thiel has colorful recollections of the “warrior class” battles between the Sonics and Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets, or the donnybrook between James Donaldson and Tom Chambers in 1982.
“Sports are different than anything else, man. When your team wins a championship, the rest of the nation really stands up and takes notice,” says Mike Gastineau, former daytime radio host at KJR 950 in Seattle.
Gastineau is affectionately known throughout Western Washington as “Gasman”. The Gasman arrived to Seattle in June 1991, right on the cusp of the greatest run in Sonics history. His Indiana twanged voice was once a part of the daily discussion about the Sonics on Seattle’s airwaves. Gastineau used to host the Rally in the Ally pre-game parties at Jalisco’s restaurant and bar in Queen Anne. Fans packed the ally before and after they went in to watch the Sonics.
The pre and post game scene was always festive in the area surrounding KeyArena, and fans gathered at Jalisco’s in flocks to join in on the fun of the Sonics in the 1990’s.
“That was the culture of sports radio back then: really supplying the party, making sure everyone had a good time. Players would come by and it was really an exciting atmosphere. [The Sonics] were there 41 nights a year and you needed somewhere to party,” says Gastineau
Seattle in the early 90’s was a three-sport city, but after the Sonics fired head coach KC Jones halfway through the 91’-92’ season, the team hired a coach who would become an icon a decade later. George Karl came from Spain to replace Jones and the Sonics soon became the main event in town once again.
Before the coaching change, Seattle’s enigmatic young stars, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, were under fire and fans squawked for the pair to be traded. But where fans saw trouble, Karl saw potential for greatness.
“Karl lit a box of dynamite under this city,” says Gastineau.
Karl leaned on the ball-hounding Payton and the high-flying Kemp to a 27-15 record to finish the season. The Sonics were good enough to secure a playoff birth against the Golden State Warriors. The series would give the fans at Seattle Coliseum an opportunity to flex a deafening home court advantage in a stadium that only a native could love.
“That old Coliseum was a 14,000 seat, very tight, very musky, stanky building. But it was awesome. It was a 14,000 seat building but I’ll guarantee there were more than 16,000 people there to watch those games,” recalls Gastineau.
The Gasman spotlights the Golden State series’ pivotal moment with lucid detail. He points to a monstrous alley-oop dunk from Payton to Kemp to crack a 124-124 tie in the third game of the series and crack the sound barrier inside the Coliseum.
Gastineau reminisces about one of the iconic moments in Seattle sports history.
“It was a big lob from Payton to Kemp for just an unbelievable dunk. And it was a remarkable call from [Sonics Radio/TV broadcaster, Kevin] Calabro, and the next two days you couldn’t turn our station on without hearing it.”
Calabro’s call reciprocated the energy in the Coliseum that night with a passionate crescendo as Kemp buried the ball through the hoop.
“Up to Gary Payton, a lead pass to Kemp and he’ll slam it down! What a lob! Wow! Gary Payton with a lob ahead to Kemp! He went airborne and defied gravity! What a play! The Reignman has struck!”
Seattle loved the Sonics, and the team rode the energy to win a staggering 82% of their home games in the seven seasons from 1991 to 1998. The Coliseum was torn down in the middle of that stretch in 1995, and KeyArena was built right on top of it.
But regardless of the name on the side of the building, NBA games in Seattle were the place to be.
“The Seahawks, as great as they are today, they only play once a week. The Sonics played 41 games a year. And they were good. Really good from about ’92 to ’98. It was a big thing to be at their games back then. The music industry and the tech industry were booming at that time so you’d see Eddie Vedder in the second row, and Bill Gates in the first row at games,” says Gastineau.
The good times came to a halt when the NBA’s owners and players couldn’t reach a settlement in the league’s collective bargaining agreement before the season started. Ultimately the league resumed play, but the work stoppage in 1998 created a rift with fans.
Art Thiel covered the Sonics beat during that season and can remembers a disconnect between fans and players after the strike.
“The labor stoppage really hurt basketball here. It was unfathomable at the time that basketball could strike. The NBA players lost the support they had from fans and it really broke a bond with some fans. The NBA could drop dead in a lot of people’s eyes,” says Thiel.
The team finished 25-25 in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, and two years later then-owner Barry Ackerly sold the team to Starbucks Chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz in 2001.
Schultz bit off more than he was willing to chew when he purchased the Sonics. He loved the perks of being an owner, enjoying the high-fives and cheering when things were going well, but was maligned by local media for being morose when the team was losing.
No longer willing to write the checks for the Sonics any longer, Schultz sold the team to Clayton Bennett and his ownership group based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 2006.
Thiel remembers arriving to the Sonics’ practice facility on the day of the sale to find anything but a remorseful owner.
“They had balloons and cookies at the practice facility when they announced the thing! They were selling Seattle down the river, and they were trying to make it a party,” says Thiel.
Mike Gastineau was doing a radio show at FX McRory’s when the news broke that Schultz had handed over the paperwork to Bennett and immediately saw the writing on the wall.
“[Schultz] came in and said that he struck a deal with an ownership group committed to keeping the team here in Seattle… But when I heard the deal it sounded like 100 percent bullshit. I said on air that day that they’re gone. I’ll guarantee you. They’re gone.”
The sale didn’t necessarily guarantee relocation. Bennett maintained that his group would put forth a good faith effort to keep the team here, unless the Sonics arena situation could be reconciled. The team’s lease at KeyArena was expiring and there was no viable destination to keep playing professional basketball in.
But Bennett’s words were as devoid of truth as much as KeyArena is devoid of Sonics basketball today.
The Gasman’s foresight became a reality. After a nasty two-year litigation process, the team announced on July 2nd, 2008 that they would be moving to Oklahoma City.
What went wrong?
Mike Gastineau strikes the gavel and points the finger right at Schultz.
“Howard Schultz was a quitter and that’s what killed this team. He is the beginning, middle, and end of it. He is an incredible titan of industry. He taught the world about $4 for a cup of coffee but he was a terrible basketball owner,” says Gastineau.
“The neighborhood’s a ghost town down here now compared to what it used to be,” says Keith Robbins, owner of Tini Bigs and Hula Hula bars in the lower Queen Anne area that the Sonics used to call home.
The neighborhood he is talking about is now lined with empty storefronts.
KeyArena now stands as a husk relative to the former hub of culture, commerce, and basketball it used to be. 41 years of Sonics basketball bringing tens of thousands of people to the arena 41 nights a year is now gone from the region’s economy.
The Key still plays host to concerts, women’s basketball games and college basketball games, but these events don’t move the needle as close to as much as the Sonics used to.
41 games a year was the minimum number that was often much higher depending on how many times the Sonics hosted playoff games. The playoffs brought out an increased fervor in the city.
“I remember during the Championship series with the Bulls [in 1996], the whole street was shut down here. Every place was absolutely jam-packed in lower Queen Anne. You couldn’t find anywhere to park. There used to be no places to sit, and now there’s plenty of places to sit,” says Robbins.
Robbins’ words demonstrate the light switch in the area that turned off once the Sonics had been sold. Tini Bigs and Hula Hula are the last two relics standing in a once vibrant pre and post game scene that has seen every other bar close around it.
“Our business is probably down about 30% from when the Sonics were here. If we’re lucky, there’s 1-3 dates a month that effect us throughout the year where there’s a noticeable bump in business,” Robbins says.
“We didn’t need promotions back then. People came to eat and drink and go watch the Sonics.”
The bar scene around the stadium was devastated by the Sonics’ departure, and they weren’t alone in industries having to adjust to life without NBA basketball in Seattle.
“Having [the Sonics] broadcasted on our station was a huge deal for our advertisers and for the people listening,” says Gastineau.
“When they left we just stopped talking about them and the NBA as a whole. It was a huge turnoff to listeners. We’d talk about what we thought was important news in the NBA and people would call in saying they’re turning us off. There was such a visceral reaction from sports fans in the area.”
It’s hard to blame a fanbase for distancing itself from something that had been completely stolen from them. But the shift in public opinion led to a shift in programming at KJR.
A sports talk radio station functions simply by talking about sports. KJR, for example, has programming for twelve and a half hours a day. But very few, if any, of those 750 minutes of airtime are spent talking about professional basketball.
That a major station could ignore a third of the professional sports sphere entirely is preposterous from an outsider’s perspective. But it is a testament to the severity of the pain that the move to Oklahoma City caused the city of Seattle.
“There’s no doubt there’s a huge hole here. There’s a huge gap here, especially in the wintertime. Once the NFL season ends in January, that’s when the traditional rhythms of thinking about basketball used to start and now it’s gone.”
“People say, ‘Oh it’s not that bad’, but really it is like there was a death in the family. When they left, it left a huge hole in the city’s sports heart that might never be fixed,” add Gastineau.
It’s been more than six years since the Sonics left, but time has not quite yet healed the wound. Basketball was Seattle’s first sports love, and what was once cherished is now unrequited in a city 2,000 miles away. The once gem of the Emerald City is now someone else’s treasure in the Dust Bowl.
While Gastineau and plenty of others in the city still mourn the team, another faction of people in Seattle haven’t quite gotten over it as much as they’ve gotten used to it.
“It’s been six years now. I got used to them being here and I’ve gotten used to them not being here,” says Thiel.
“I mean I covered the beat, so I cared. But the city seems to have found the Sounders and the Seahawks and other things. There’s just a lot more things to do here,” Thiel continues.
The Sonics’ exodus did different things to different people. For some it was a loss of a loyal customer base capable of sustaining a business. For others it was a lost relic of culture and the departure of a source of discussion. Some are numb to it. Others still mourn. But as a civic issue, there is little denying that Seattle without the Sonics isn’t whole.
Edited by Justin Peroff.
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