Posted Jan 5 2011 10:04AM
All those thousands of fans who crammed into the arena that night might as well have been going to the beach to watch 12 men try to hold back the ocean.
Their team, their Seattle Sonics, were down 0-3 to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals and everyone on the planet knew where the series was headed and who was going to take home the Larry O'Brien trophy. There was really only one reason to show up.
When Nate McMillan, who had been sidelined for the first three games with severe back spasms, stood up and removed his warmup jacket, the building filled with a roar of delight and dignity.
When the horn sounded and the game was over and they had thumped the Bulls to avoid a sweep, McMillan and the rest of the Sonics stood on the floor as confetti rained down and cheers of honor filled their heads with pride.
This was the NBA in Seattle and the way it could be, should be again. It's time to reconcile. The opportunity is at hand.
Yes, the league has taken control of the Hornets with the stated goal of finding an owner to keep the team in New Orleans. But we all know that's like putting a Band-Aid on an ax wound. It isn't likely to stop the long-term hemorrhaging of interest in pro basketball in the Big Easy.
For all of the great reasons to visit a wonderful city -- slurping oysters at Felix's and Acme in the Quarter, listening to music at d.b.a. New Orleans and the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street or watching the sunrise over beignets at the Café du Monde -- New Orleans simply isn't an NBA town. It wasn't back in the day with the Jazz and it isn't now with the Hornets, who couldn't fill their building when they got off to blazing 11-1 start and are now requiring the artificial stimulus of a $200,000 pledge from the business community just to avoid triggering a clause in their lease that would allow the team to leave.
The numbers make the argument. New Orleans is the 52nd-largest TV market (635,000 homes) in the U.S.; Seattle is No. 13 (1.8 million). Even when they flew out of the starting gate under new coach Monty Williams, the Hornets were averaging roughly 13,000 fans per game in the New Orleans Arena. One home game against the Pistons attracted just 10,823.
Just this week, only 13,433 fans showed up to see the Hornets against the Sixers and now New Orleans needs an average of 14,698 fans through the final six home games of the month to keep the club from invoking an opt-out clause in their lease on Jan. 31.
There were never such questions of support in Seattle and there wouldn't be upon the return of the NBA, even though there are still some hard feelings about the way the Sonics were hurried off to Oklahoma City. There were few sights more electrifying and few atmospheres more intimidating than when the likes of Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma and Fred Brown were playing before crowds that often topped 30,000 at the Kingdome, fueling back-to-back trips to The Finals in 1978 and 1979, the latter producing the only major sports championship in the history of the city.
When the move was made to Key Arena in the 1980s and the roster changed from Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel, Dale Ellis, Eddie Johnson and a young McMillan to Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins and a veteran McMillan in the 1990s, only the building became smaller. The intensity remained huge.
Always the smart and shrewd public relations expert, commissioner David Stern has done the right thing by making the Hornets official wards of the NBA. It makes perfect sense to try to find a local buyer for the team, particularly in light of the commitment that the league has made to the city of New Orleans.
Yet there is nothing in the past with the Jazz in the 1970s and the Hornets now that says this is a marriage that is going to work over the long term. Without a deep corporate base and a hungry, viable business community to support the franchise, the Hornets will inevitably find themselves back in the same morass in a few more years.
While Stern and the Board of Governors will have other relocation options -- Kansas City, Anaheim, St. Louis -- none is as deserving for past loyalty and future revenue potential as the Seattle market. There is solid corporate support for bringing the league back. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is the ideal front man. Stern has told people that he would like Ballmer in the league. Ballmer has given every indication that he wants in.
For crying out loud, Charlotte had to wait only two years to get a brand new franchise after George Shinn first poisoned the market and then ran with the team to New Orleans. The long, passionate history of the Sonics in Seattle deserves at least as much.
Of course, the arena issue still remains. But there are local forces that seem interested in working out the problems. A compromise that centers on a re-designed Key Arena should not be ruled out, especially considering that the Hornets' current home at New Orleans Arena feels plain and outdated and is hardly up to snuff for a 21st-century NBA.
For all of the pain that Sonics fans still feel when they switch on the TV and see Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and friends running up and down the court wearing Oklahoma City across their chests, a lineup led by Chris Paul and David West would be a welcome salve . And it would give the league a fitting site for an exciting team rather than the yawning backdrop of empty seats.
The echoes of a full-throated Seattle still resound. The league can still bring back the roar.
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