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Scott Howard-Cooper

The Q&A: Mayor Mike McGinn on the NBA and Seattle


Posted Oct 27, 2012 3:04 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: Five years ago, on Oct. 31, the Seattle SuperSonics tipped off what would be their last season in Seattle. After the 2007-08 season the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City, where the re-named Thunder have become one of the NBA's best young teams and a model of small-market success. Meanwhile, the people of Seattle, many of whom felt spurned and abandoned by a franchise they had supported for more than four decades, have gradually made their voices heard. A partnership between the public and private sectors designed to return the NBA to Seattle is clearly taking shape.

Commissioner David Stern, speaking Thursday from the annual Board of Governors meeting to mark the approaching start of the regular season, underlined the primary issue: Seattle may have taken major steps to get a new arena, but Seattle has no team and, in fact, no reason to feel like one is close.

But the drive is to bring the SuperSonics back. Maybe the team will have been known by another name in a previous NBA life, maybe it once belonged to someone else, but a name change and paint bath will take care of that and Seattle will have them back, in heart and words.

The momentum that continues to build to replace the club that became the Oklahoma City Thunder is based in business and local politics but built on passion. The message is unmistakable: If a new team comes, it will be called the SuperSonics, dress in green and gold, and quickly be connected to forefathers Gary Payton, Lenny Wilkens and Slick Watts. The part about being a replacement will only be the official read, of course. In actuality, if popular opinion around Puget Sound does rule in the end, the new franchise will be a continuation.

No next team is close to being in place -- the Kings remain the obvious top candidate for relocation somewhere as the Sacramento stalemate drags on without signs of progress -- but the chances of the NBA returning to Seattle have never been better as a fifth season without the Sonics is about to begin. News earlier this month that city and county leaders signed a funding plan for the construction of a $490 million arena is a critical positive development.

In a wide-ranging interview with NBA.com, mayor Mike McGinn talked about the past, the future, the emotions of doing to another city what the Thunder did to Seattle, and increasing optimism in the wake of the critical political backing to partner with the work in the private sector of investor Chris Hansen, a Seattle native living in San Francisco. And the possibility of playing Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson one-on-one for the Kings.

Some excerpts:

NBA.com: What does your gut tell you about when Seattle will have a team?

Mike McGinn: I can't say. We're at the stage where we have tried to lay the groundwork for the investors to go and get a team, and that's between them and the NBA.

NBA.com: I know that the city officials are not involved in that process. But at the same time, you're obviously in connection with the Hansen operation.

MM: I've made it a point not to ask those questions.

NBA.com: Why is that?

MM: I know what it feels like to lose a team and I know the fact is that there are probably other cities out there and that those teams might be coming up. My job is to lay the groundwork. The city and the county are prepared to move ahead if Chris Hansen can secure a commitment for a team. That's on his side of the equation.

NBA.com: Whatever team it is, though, would you be surprised if there was a team there for the start of next season? Or is that a little bit too hopeful?

MM: I know enough to know that things can sometimes happen really fast and sometimes they take a while. I suppose there's an outside chance we could get a team next fall. The feeling is if the NBA were to award a franchise to Chris Hansen and his team, they could play in KeyArena while we proceeded to build the new arena. I recognize that that's super fast and that's an outside chance at best and we're more likely looking at a multi-year process.

NBA.com: Do you think people would prefer an existing team or is there some hope in some corners for an expansion franchise, just to be able to say, 'This is ours from the beginning'?

MM: That may be true. Again, a lot of the fans here know what it feels like to lose a team. I don't think anybody here wishes that on another city. At the same time, they had a team taken from them. They understand if that's the way the ball bounces, so to speak. I think there probably is some idea of having a new team. I'll tell you something. Sonics history means a lot to the fans in Seattle. Sonics history means a lot to the fans and whatever team they have, they would like the Sonics history to return to Seattle. I can speak as a fan, too. I enjoy watching Kevin Durant play. I think he's great. I think that team is a fun young team. But when they would flash up there on the scoreboard the playoff history of the Oklahoma Thunder, that rubbed me the wrong way. That wasn't the Thunder's playoff history. That was the Sonics playoff history.

NBA.com: If an existing team comes, what will they be called?

MM: That's not my call. But my assumption is everyone wants the return of the Seattle SuperSonics. All I can tell you is everybody has been saying, 'Bring back the Sonics.' That's all they've been saying. 'Bring back the Sonics.' The fan website is sonicsarena.com. The emotional attachment to the Sonics is very, very strong. It was our team. It really represented Seattle. People want the Sonics back.

NBA.com: Do you think that Seattle fans would be affected by taking another city's team, or is it, 'Even if we have to crush somebody else's spirits, we had it done to us, so let's go do it to somebody else'?

MM: I don't think anybody wants to do it to somebody else. I think it's more a case of people just want back what they had. Here's the deal. If you walk around Seattle, you'll see people wearing shirts in the green and gold colors of the Sonics with the little symbol of the basketball hoop. And beneath that it says ROBBED. That's how they feel. They feel like they were robbed. They were robbed of their Sonics. And they just want them back.

NBA.com: When you go to something like the U.S. Conference of Mayors and see your counterparts from other cities, specifically Kevin Johnson of Sacramento -- considering that's the city that gets mentioned most often -- do you try to avoid eye contact with him? [McGinn laughs.] If you see him coming, do you duck down a hallway? Do you sit at a conference table and have a staredown?

MM: None of the above. First of all, Kevin Johnson is an absolutely amazing mayor. He's moving into a leadership role in the U.S. Conference of Mayors that he's earned as a mayor. He's been a real leader on education. The two of us have met a number of times to work together on education issues. As I said, he's a real leader. And I've been observing him from afar. Mayors do this. We watch other mayors to learn from them. Kevin Johnson is a really great mayor. I chatted with him one day about it. I said, "Hey, by the way, I just want to bring up this issue. People ask me, 'What do you think about the potential of getting the team from Sacramento?' I told Kevin what I told reporters and what I'll tell you: "Hey, I'm rooting for you, Mayor Johnson, because I know what it feels like to lose a team." That's an honest sentiment.

NBA.com: How did he respond to your comment?

MM: He smiled and laughed. He's very gracious. He knows whether Sacramento keeps the team has to do with ownership there, the NBA and the city. What they can do together. He knows that's what's required to keep the team.

NBA.com: He didn't challenge you to one-on-one, winner gets the team?

MM: Can I tell you a funny story? I'm playing basketball one day. I still play basketball. I go down Sunday mornings and play in a gym. One day I'm kinda getting a hard time from some people about how I'm playing. I'm running down the court, get a pass, mid-stride, plant, launch a 3-pointer, it swishes. I decide to do a little talking and I say, "Show me another mayor in America who can hit a 3-pointer like that." Somebody from the bench says, "Kevin Johnson, Sacramento."

NBA.com: The people in Detroit (with Dave Bing) may have an answer as well.

MM: Everybody laughed when he said that. "Kevin Johnson, Sacramento." We haven't spoken about playing basketball. I still play, but he looks pretty fit and I think he's a few years younger than me. And he played in the NBA, too. Again, Mayor Johnson and I have had a really good working relationship around issues. I endorsed him and voted for him to enter the leadership at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I'm very impressed with him as a mayor.

NBA.com: Gary Payton has spoken on behalf of the city and there have been a few other guys. Payton is probably the most visible of the former Sonics, is that correct?

MM: Shawn Kemp. Slick Watts. Lenny Wilkens served on our citizens' advisory panel to take a look at the deal. We've got some great former players here in Seattle. Detlef Schrempf is still in the region. I actually ran into Nick Collison as well. He still keeps a house here in Seattle. A lot of people have been speaking out for the Sonics. We've had some current NBA players here as well. Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford and others. There's been a lot of folks talking about it. We've got a lot of players, but Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp and Lenny Wilkens and Slick Watts, they've been at a lot of the events as well.

NBA.com: What role do you think it plays when those names, those former Sonics in particular, are involved?

MM: The history of the Sonics, it means a lot to a lot of people here. A lot of folks have been very passionate about it.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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