In part one of Joel’s short series on fandom, he reminisces about the plight of Seattle sports in the new millennium.
Fans may not be born, but if they’re made, it’s when they’re young. Hometown teams are obviously the most likely to become your favorite, and the most likely to stay that way until you’re old enough to mix up the player’s names (my grandfather calls his favorite player “Pops Gonzo,” no matter how many times we tell him the name is “Pau Gasol”). For whatever reason, it seems inherently apparent to most people that being a fan of a team close to your origins is more legitimate than supporting a team from somewhere else. Of course, this is on a sliding scale depending on how good the team is: if you’re a Yankees fan from Michigan, that’s less forgivable than being a Mets fan from Michigan.
Why are there such “rules” about being a fan? Why should I care if some of the other people supporting my team aren’t from the squad’s “home”? If America is supposed to be a meritocracy, why are people upset with “fair weather fans” who are only excited about a team when it’s doing well? Does owning more memorabilia and apparel with my team’s logo on it make me a bigger fan than somebody with less?
I don’t really know how to answer these questions, which is upsetting considering the amount I’ve thought about them. Being from the Pacific Northwest and a fan of Seattle sports, the last few years have really challenged my resolve as a fan and my very definition of “fandom.” I’m sure I’m not alone in Seattle, or anywhere fans exist. A lot of us are pretty crazy about sports, and as I learned firsthand, sometimes they affect us in extreme, totally irrational ways.
I loved Seattle and its sports teams growing up, but it wasn’t until after I moved to the east coast for college that I became obsessed with all things Great Northwest (notice I capitalized one of those regions and not the other… not an accident). Suddenly I was only listening to obscure local bands from the Puget Sound, I could name every player in the NBA who grew up in Washington State, and I even got a tattoo of the Seattle skyline with “206” written over it. Okay I didn’t do that last one, but I thought about it. (In high school I did play basketball against Louisville star Peyton Siva, the owner of that tattoo. He borrowed my ball to practice dunks once. In sandals. I was terrified.)
The point is, I was a tool. I defined myself not just as someone who is from Western Washington, but as someone who needs to tell you how categorically awesome everything from there is. I’m not sure I was a fan of The Divorce, the Seahawks, or Starbucks so much as I was a fan of the idea of something being “from Seattle.” Then again, maybe that made me a fan in the truest sense. Maybe it just made me annoying to talk to.
Before all of that, I was just a small-town kid who loved the Seattle SuperSonics. I caught hoop dreams in preschool, and the incredible run of George Karl’s Payton-Kemp-Schrempf teams locked me in for life. The Sonics logo was on at least half of the shirts and jackets I owned growing up (the other half consisting of skateboarding logos or TMNT designs. Oh, the nineties). Kevin Calabro, the voice of the Sonics, was (and is) a personal hero of mine. Posters on the wall included two Shawn Kemps surrounding one MJ (yes, that’s a little me. Unfortunately only the Eddie Vedder poster has survived). I loved Jordan as much as the next kid, but in the ’96 finals every one of his crazy fadeaways or contorted layups was “so lucky,” and “anybody” could make those kinds of buckets if they took “one hundred shots a game.” It was a great time to be into basketball, and those great Sonics teams were the cocoon my inner fan was raised in. Although I eventually came to love and follow the Mariners and Seahawks as well, I never followed as closely or as emotionally as I did with the Sonics. Even after Kemp doubled in size and knocked up half the Sonics Dance Team before suddenly turning into Vin Baker (dealing me my first favorite-player-traded-away blow), I stuck close with the team.
Being a fan of any Seattle sports team in the new millennium hasn’t been easy. In the last dozen years, Seattle sports teams have largely followed a common timeline: a great season or two falling bafflingly short of immortality followed by a total freefall into years of laughable irrelevance. The Mariners gave us our first roller coaster with the historic season in 2001. Coming off a wild-card berth in 2000, 2001 marked the first time the M’s had made the playoffs in consecutive years. The team set an American League record with 116 wins. (116 wins!) The All-Star Game was not only at the two-year-old Safeco Field, but featured eight Mariners (eight!), including the eventual Rookie of the Year Ichiro (ROY!), who also won the American League MVP (Mike Trout style! Oh, wait… nevermind). It’s easy to forget just how downright filthy that team was. Perhaps that is because they would quietly flame out in the AL Championship Series against the Yankees for the second year in a row, somehow never make the playoffs again, fire the immortal Lou Piniella, and wallow in mediocrity for the rest of the decade. The Mariners’ ship sunk to rock bottom in 2008 (theme alert: 2008 was easily the worst year in Seattle sports ever, period), when they would mail in a putrid 101-loss season.
The taste of 2001’s greatness made the awful decade that followed even harder to swallow. But for a young me, the real disillusionment with the Mariners (and baseball in general) was the dawn of the steroid era. Even if I didn’t want to call everyone on ‘roids a “cheater,” they irrevocably complicated fairness in the sport. When my favorite player from those early 2000’s Mariners, Bret Boone, was outed by Jose Conseco as a juicer, I was stunned. Then I remembered reading in a 2001 game program at Safeco how he had put on 25 pounds in the offseason, at age 31, before he nearly doubled his offensive output that next season… in that moment of realization you could probably smell my childhood innocence melting.
The next mountain a Seattle sports franchise would climb was the 2005 Super Bowl. The Seahawks had hung around .500 for a long time, when, like the Mariners a few years before, they were treated to a new stadium in 2002. Qwest Field, as it was called then, quickly developed a reputation as notoriously loud. The Seahawks finally started making some noise of their own in 2003 with a 10-6 record, and by 2005, they had really put it together. The roster was overflowing with likeable characters, including rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu, MVP running back Shaun Alexander, and an already veteran Matt Hasselbeck. The ‘hawks boasted the best offensive line in football, led by Walter Jones, Steve Hutchinson, and Mack Strong, the best blocking fullback in the league. (I admit, I’m name dropping in part because the 2005 Seahawks are the only football team in history for which I can name 85% of the starters.) But all the excitement of that Super Bowl run turned to anger, as everybody felt hard done by the refs in the big game. Even worse, we lost to the Steelers, who we considered to be universally douchey even before Big Ben became Ben Rapistberger.
Another couple of decent seasons followed for the Seahawks, but they weren’t nearly as fun. Management inexplicably let Hutchinson go, Mack Strong retired and the once-great O-line looked like Swiss cheese. Suddenly Shaun Alexander revealed he was actually a pansy, refusing to take hits, sliding to avoid contact and drawing rare boos from the home crowd. We were a long way from the utter joy of Marshawn Lynch’s beast mode, “hold-mah-dick” evisceration of the Saints in the 2010 playoffs despite making it with a 7-9 record.
The Sonics didn’t experience quite the highs that the Seahawks and Mariners did during the aughts, but they took an infinitely lower dip. The 52-win team in 2004-05 was fun to watch, even though we traded my favorite player of all time (Brent Barry, of course) before the season started. Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Vlad Radmanovic were raining trey-bombs, while Robert Swift collected over a million bucks a year to be one of the ugliest bench decorations the league had ever seen. We won the division, beat the Kings in the playoffs, and respectably lost a Game Six by two points to the eventual-champion Spurs. It was a cool season that recaptured some of the old magic of the 90’s, even if the roster wasn’t exactly terrifying (Vitaly Potapenko, fresh off securing the title of “Worst Center Ever To Start Half a Team’s Games” the season before, still played a baffling number of minutes in ‘05).
The next couple years didn’t go as well, so they blew up the team to build it around number two draft pick Kevin Durant. I honestly wasn’t that excited about the former Texas star. I was sad to lose Jesus Shuttlesworth and Rashard. I was a little dismayed by Durant’s inability to bench 185 even once. (We sometimes forget what a big thing this was when he came into the league. KD was impossibly skinny. The last game I ever went to at Key Arena was memorable only for the way my dad kept staring at him in disbelief, like somehow there was a funhouse mirror on the court that only affected Durant.) Mostly though, I was worried about the rumors that Seattle would be losing the team altogether.
Then we started losing games like it was going out of style, and despite Durant winning ROY honors and scoring twenty a game, he was jacking up a lot more shots than he was hitting (43% from the field, 28% from three). It was a miserable season where the team was godawful and the fans were struggling to keep it together. The whole year just had the feel like they were already gone, but instead of ripping the band-aid off quickly they were dragging it out for nine months. I definitely cried a couple of times in private. It was tragic.
I held onto the memories. I remembered “Sleepy” Sam Perkins (aka “Big Smooth,” an incredible nickname), who looked so high all the time you half expected him to nod off waiting to rebound a free throw. There was Hersey Hawkins’ mustache, Detlef Schrempf‘s name, and Kendall Gill getting buckets (when he wasn’t blaming his free throw air balls on changing weather systems). Shawn Kemp would scissor kick his crazy shoes through the air on the way to a tomahawk jam. Those guys had SIX STRAIGHT SEASONS of 55 wins or more. (Every once in a while I run into some dude who wants to argue that the Thunder are better now than they ever were in Seattle. It’s difficult to resist the urge to fight these people. Ignorant blowhards, every one of them.) We even stared down a 3-0 deficit and won back-to-back games in the ‘96 Finals against the 72-win Bulls. No one can take that from us.
Apparently they can, however, take the team from us. Plus all of its history. And by “them,” I obviously mean the irredeemable d-bag that is Clay Bennett.
The worst thing about the franchise move in the end was that they left us nothing. We can’t hang our Western Conference and NBA championship banners, can’t frame our retired jerseys, can’t retire the numbers of our 1990s greats. Even if we get a new franchise (or more likely swoop someone else’s), name them the SuperSonics again, and try to rebuild our crushed dreams, getting our franchise history back depends on the goodwill of Clay Bennett’s black metallic heart. We might end up hanging the first green and gold Chris Webber jersey ever made, while duplicate jerseys of Jack Sikma, “Downtown” Freddy Brown, Gus Williams, and Nate McMillan hang in a Seattle museum, the originals in Clay Bennett’s Closet of Spite. As I wrote to a friend during last season’s Heat-Thunder Finals:
No matter how endearing KD, Ibaka and James Harden’s beard are, I can’t root for them. Not because they should be in Seattle (although they should); I think the OKC fans deserve a team. I can’t root for them because if they win, my beloved Sonics, whose logo adorned 60% of the clothing I owned growing up, will be nothing but an asterisk next to an awkward ABC graphic about how this is the Thunder’s second championship, after the one they won on 1979.
Of course, there’s a chance that Seattle gets a team, fights for the original Sonics franchise’s history, and lets Sacramento, the next poor sucker of a city, keep their memories in hopes of someday replicating our (yet to happen) swipe. Chris Hansen (the investor, not the guy who does creepy stuff to entrap potential pedophiles) is doing everything he can to make this a reality, even footing half the bill for a new stadium. For the first time in years, there’s hope. Hope for pro basketball in Seattle. Hope that maybe someday Detlef Schrempf, Shawn Kemp, and Gary Payton can finally have their jerseys hung in the rafters of a Seattle arena. Hope that those things will feel like justice.
The injustice I felt was based on the weird concept of fandom. We were “good fans”; I was a “good fan.” We didn’t “deserve” to lose the team. We consistently sold out games (except for that miserable last year). People called (and continue to call) Seattle a great basketball town. The team had a long history in Seattle, a championship even. Was all that devotion just a silly, ultimately worthless use of our time, money, and energy? It didn’t keep the team around.
The funny thing about all of this sad mess is what happens when the perspective is zoomed out and you consider how important any of this really is. How far civilization has come, from not killing each other for mammoth meat to making serious claims about the “injustice” of a hundred-million dollar business (centered around some guys playing a childhood game) moving forty of its events from one city to another. I, as a relatively grown man, was nearly reduced to tears when local hero Brandon Roy announced that he would be retiring at age 26 from playing a game that made him millions of dollars. This is where we are though; sports captured our imaginations decades ago, and their continuity gives us comfort. No matter how good or bad our own lives are going, we will always have the fate of our favorite team for comparison. There will always be something for fans to commiserate over, or celebrate together. I think that’s why being a fan feels so good. I know that’s why losing the Sonics hurt so much.
The move to OKC would have been enough on its own to torpedo 2008 as one of the worst sporting years Seattle had ever endured, but to make matters worse, both the M’s and the Seahawks had appallingly bad seasons. As irrational as being a hardcore fan may be, for those of us Northwesterners who wanted to be one there was nowhere to turn that didn’t lead down a dark tunnel of hopeless despair. Since that fateful year, I’ve wrestled with what it means to be a fan. In Part 2 of the Nature of Fandom, I offer some conclusions I’ve come to, and talk about why I now wake up at 4:30 AM on Sundays to watch a sport nobody in America cares about: soccer.