Like every one else over the age of 40 who lived in Seattle during 1979, I can remember that glorious spring when the Sonics dominated the NBA. Similar to the Mariners in 1995, the Sonics run to the championship created a sense of greater community in Seattle. The night they won, I was sitting in the Moore Theatre watching some foreign film as part of the fledgling Seattle International Film Festival. The film suddenly stopped, and someone walked on stage to announce: "We Won!" The film ended a few minutes later and everyone walked out onto Second Avenue hearing car horns, people yelling, total pandemonium. And remember the parade? It may have been the last time downtown Seattle had energy!
For some reason, that was the last year I seriously watched NBA basketball, despite my addiction to all things sports. But I have some thoughts about the demise of our team. And a caution for the poll-driven politicians that is based solely on my observations.
Howard Schultz has made more money on creating community than he has on coffee. While the cache of Starbucks may be fading, the meet and great of familiar faces every time you go for coffee is, in essence, community. Whatever else you may think about Mr. Schultz, his idea of owning a professional sports team with the understanding that community coalesces around sports is spot-on. Look at the Mariners in 1995. My usually "professional sports are for the unwashed masses" environmental friends were clandestinely checking scores. I caught several colleagues listening to the playoff games while on a birding trip to the Dungeness. The team brought together diverse and otherwise non-communicative members of the community. Every woman I knew back then wore a Mariner's hat while gardening.
Where Mr. Schultz went wrong, I think, was thinking he had to keep the Sonics investors happy in the short term, just as he has to keep the investors happy in the short term with Starbucks. While the Sonics, like all professional franchises, seemingly bleed money, Schultz divested a little too quickly. Ridding himself of money holes is what businessmen do. Cut the losses. But professional sports teams are not businesses, they are community icons,and patience is required.
The politicians, many who have admitted they have not attended a Sonics game in forever, don't know who goes to those games, or who are the fans. If all you're doing is having an aide listen to KJR-AM, reading the local dailies, or believing the pollsters, you'd think that the Sonics fan base is suburban white males who aren't going to vote for you anyway.
But observation will tell you otherwise. The Sonics, and many NBA franchises, are much loved by urban, middle class, and affluent African Americans of both genders. During the most recent NBA championship, I overheard a conversation between two middle-aged women of color who knew every single detail about the Lakers and Celtics. The NBA is hip, cool, downtown. It seems to me there is a large percentage of people who love the NBA who don't respond to pollsters calls, don't call "Softy" on KJR, and definitely don't send letters to the editors. However, ignoring this particular fan base is in some sense admitting that Seattle has turned white and smug.
Yes, it is probably true that the political elite in Seattle are happy they have declared their independence from the NBA. For many reasons enumerated by sports writers and other analysts, the so-called business model of professional sports is rather like a slimy death grip on cities, seeking more and more taxes to upgrade the privileges for corporate sponsors, while the rest of us risk our lives eating hot dogs and drinking way-too-expensive beer. I get those issues.
However, I will never forget the urbane hipster who walked on the stage, interrupting a foreign film, to tell a packed Moore Theatre that we won a championship!