HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Seattle is starved. Starved for basketball.
Their beloved Super Sonics were taken away five years ago and just last May it must have felt as if the table cloth had been swiped from under all the place-settings just as dinner was ready to be served. Yes, they would have been stealing another city’s team, and there was an element of filth attached to it, but them’s the breaks as Seattleites can confirm.
And then the Sacramento Kings weren’t coming to Seattle to be reborn the Sonics.
On Sunday, Seattle got an up-close peek at what they’ve been missing since Clay Bennett bought the Sonics and whisked the franchise with a young, rising star named Kevin Durant to Oklahoma City. Durant made his return to the Emerald City, his first visit since playing his rookie season in green-and-gold and then was left with no choice but to say goodbye. In the five seasons since, Durant has become an All-NBA performer, his prowess second only to LeBron James, collecting three scoring titles and a trip to the NBA Finals, too.
The 24-year-old has become the face of the Thunder and he’s embraced his most-recent adopted hometown just as he had his last. He’s grown from a polite and skinny one-and-done at Texas into a full-fledged man. He’s a bona fide role model, as admired for his determination and desire on the floor as his accessibility and compassion off it. Durant was the first to step forward with a donation after the horrific tornado that leveled nearby Moore, Okla. — a donation of $1 million. He followed that up by personally visiting the devastated area and bringing teammates with him.
So on Sunday, fans in Seattle came out in force to catch what they’ve been missing.
There he was Sunday, in the city where his professional career began, and the 24-year-old looked just like he did when he played his last game in Seattle five years ago.
However, instead of his old green and gold No. 35 jersey, Durant wore a red No. 7. And instead of an NBA contest at KeyArena, he turned a summer-league game at the Jamal Crawford Pro-Am into a must-see event that drew manic fans to Seattle Pacific University.
The crowd overflowed out of Royal Brougham Pavilion and snaked around the corner onto Nickerson Street.
When Durant walked through a side door, the place went bonkers. And when he stepped on the court, the crowd of 3,000 greeted him with a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said former Washington standout guard Will Conroy, who teamed with Durant during the game. “Only Kevin Durant could do something like this in Seattle. Seriously.
“People wouldn’t come out like this and show this type of love for LeBron or Kobe. Not here. This just shows what he meant and what he still means to this city.”
With cameras and smartphones held high, fans lined the floor snapping pictures as the announcer said, “Welcome home, Kevin Durant” over the loudspeakers.
The NBA will never live down the manner in which the Sonics bolted Seattle, the 14th largest television market in the country, and make a new home in the 45th. A uniquely beautiful corner of the country, where three NBA teams once called home (including Vancouver), is represented solely by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Belief in an NBA return to Seattle has flat-lined. The league has no plans to expand beyond its current 30 teams and prying another team from its roots doesn’t appear to be in the forecast.
The NFL has survived and thrived without a team in Los Angeles, the second-largest market in the U.S., for two decades even as plan after plan has been formulated to build a stadium and woo a franchise. The NBA will also continue to march on without Seattle, as shameful as it might be, as a gaping, palpable hole in the city’s sports scene grows.
From a fan:
“To see him back in Seattle playing and fighting for our Sonics is pretty special,” 20-year-old Brandon Lee of Everett, Wash., told the Seattle Times. “We want basketball back in Seattle and to see the original guy back here was pretty awesome.”
From Kevin Durant, who after the game stood outside of the SUV that brought him surrounded by kids and signed autograph after autograph:
“I’ve had a fun time here in Seattle. I miss you guys. Thank you for the warm welcome, man. I can’t wait to come back. Thank you. I appreciate it.”