Night of the Living Sonics

Seattle SonicsLast summer, when the then-Sonics and the City of Seattle were cementing their irreconcilable differences, the NBA was busy making up the schedule for the upcoming season.

It was clear, then, that putting the Thunder anywhere near those chafed Sonic fans was going to create the kind of serious inflammatory moment any entertainment organization would hope to avoid.

So the question became: When would the Thunder come to Portland? Sonic fans, just a few hour's drive away, would be waiting. Nobody was surprised to see that Oklahoma's first visit to the Rose Garden came many months into the season -- giving the summer's hot tempers some time to cool.

The big night was last night. Hundreds of Sonic fans bought tickets to the Blazer game, and made their way south.

Among them was Kevin Pelton. He's one of basketball's smartest statitical minds (part of the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown), and the moving force behind Basketball Prospectus and the APBRMetrics message board. Pelton is also a long-time Sonic fan, and one of the former Sonic employees who refused to follow the team to Oklahoma City.

He e-mails the following description of his experience last night:

There is no playbook for losing your favorite team to another city. It's a feeling that most sports fans will go an entire lifetime without ever knowing. People draw comparisons to breaking up with a girlfriend, or even losing a loved one, but neither seems entirely apt to me. A sports team can't have the same impact as a relative, but for better or worse the Sonics were part of my life on a regular basis from age eight and on a daily basis between when I joined the organization as an intern in 2002 and when the team's move was finalized last summer. And then, all of a sudden, they were gone.

I've watched the Thunder play numerous times this season via League Pass, and I'll confess to enjoying those games because I still like the players who made the move from Seattle. Watching on TV or online could not compare to seeing Oklahoma City in person alongside any number of Sonics fans. Last night was an entirely different experience.

In what was probably something less than a coincidence, the NBA delayed the Thunder's first trip back to the Pacific Northwest until just before the All-Star break on an otherwise innocuous Wednesday night. I had Feb. 11 circled on my calendar as soon as the schedule was released, and I made the now-familiar trek down I-5 to the Rose Garden with three other Sonics alumni, meeting more former coworkers in Portland.

It was a night to make a statement, and everyone had their own way of doing that. My good friend and coworker made a sign for his two-year-old nephew that read "Clay Bennett ruined my childhood." Others booed. My effort was subtler, but still impossible to miss: Journalistic objectivity be damned, I walked into the visiting locker room sporting a green shirt and a Sonics tie.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect in terms of support for the Sonics and hating on the Thunder during the game. Despite an effort at coordination by the Save Our Sonics group, there were pockets of Seattle fans scattered here and there throughout the Rose Garden. That made it hard to tell most of the night that anything was out of the ordinary, other than some extra booing when Oklahoma City was introduced and occasional "SUPER! SONICS!" chants during timeouts and free throws.

Walking around the concourse, the number of Sonics fans in attendance became obvious. Everywhere you looked, there was someone wearing a Gary Payton jersey, or a Sonics hat, or carrying a sign. I even saw members of the Sonics Dance Team in their old outfits.

I thought it was appropriate that the Seattle fans managed to get the point across without detracting from the fact that we were ultimately guests at the Rose Garden and this was an important game for the Blazers, having suffered a costly loss at Oklahoma City last Friday. There was a lot of talk about a Save Our Sonics e-mail that suggested fans were going down to boo both teams, but if that happened, I did not notice. Portland has been supportive throughout this entire process (including Paul Allen's vote against the relocation), and with the exception of a few fans who had too much to drink, the same was true last night. The empathy has been much appreciated.

The one surreal element of the evening to me was how much it felt like old times. Between the familiar Thunder players and staff, the number of members of the Seattle media who made the trip and the surprisingly mediocre press-room meal, it seemed kind of like covering a Sonics game. It's just that the drive home was waaaay longer.

Now that the game is past, I view it as a milestone of sorts in the process of grieving the Sonics' departure. It was fun, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything. What I don't feel is closure, the word reporters were throwing around in their interviews with fans. Dave Deckard from Blazer's Edge described Save Our Sonics last week as having a "never-say-die even when you're dead" mentality by virtue of its continued existence. I take that as a compliment. I'm nowhere near ready to concede the complete death of the NBA in Seattle. Closure will truly come when we do this again at a renovated KeyArena cheering on the Sonics v2.0. Until then, we must keep the Sonics' memory alive, and last night went a long ways toward doing just that.

UPDATE: Some video.