A tarnished picture of NBA fandom

My handwriting has come a long way.

“As many basketball posters as possible” is a full and accurate description of my boyhood philosophy on bedroom decor. Today, only one such poster remains on my wall back in Seattle. I made it myself when I was 10. It’s a collage of pictures published in the Seattle Times and Sports Illustrated during the Supersonics’ 1996 run to the NBA finals.

That summer the Supes were all anyone in Seattle could talk about. Pennants hung out of car windows. Sonics logos topped antennas, and flags were draped from houses — the city was awash in Sonics green.

In some ways, it was similar to what’s been happening this year in Oklahoma City, on a less impressive scale:

  • Just like the Thunder, the dynamic young Sonics conquered a veteran club — Stockton and Malone’s Jazz — on their way to the Finals.
  • All of the sudden, on the biggest stage, superathlete Shawn Kemp, like Russell Westbrook, morphed into a savvy veteran.
  • Gary Payton asserted his dominance over Stockton just as Kevin Durant wrestled the Western Conference from Tim Duncan.
  • George Karl proved himself to a critical public just as Scott Brooks, coaching in the shadow of Gregg Popovich, withstood the doubters.

That summer, Seattle’s airwaves buzzed with the ultimate Sonics fanthem by local band The Presidents of the United States of America, and I made my dad drive me to the team store located next to Key Arena to buy the CD. We listened to it on repeat all the way home and I memorized every word down to the epic calls from Kevin Calabro, the voice of the Sonics, that were spliced into the chorus.

I would sing the lyrics: “Fans can rattle the roof / nothing but net, Big Smooth / five guys in a groove,” while carefully assembling my poster. I stared in wonder at images of Nate McMillan and Sam Perkins engulfing Stockton in a suffocating trap or Gary Payton, all wiry fury, getting chest to chest with muscle-bound Malone.

They were heroes, all of them. Even against impossible odds — the ‘96 Bulls had won a record 72 games — my faith had never been stronger.

It was, without a single doubt, the most deeply I will ever feel about a professional sports team.

I also know that 16 years later, somewhere in Oklahoma City, there is a kid having that exact same dizzying experience. He or she has fallen hard for the Thunder, and this kid’s season will either end in heartbreak, as the 1996 season did for me, or in pure joy — there is no in between for the truly obsessed.

But if you travel to that middle ground between tragedy and joy, a sports fan’s no man’s land, you’ll come across a stubborn contingent of Sonics loyalists who aren’t sure how to feel about the franchise making it back to the Finals under a different city’s name.

There’s no denying that the Thunder are not just a feel-good story, but a special kind of team that most fans will never once in their life have the immense pleasure of rooting for. Young, athletic, joyful, determined — they’ve grown in ways the Thunder faithful dared only dream quietly, so as not to jinx their team’s potential. The players have rewarded the city’s enthusiasm with an almost naive approach to the job, a serious departure from the jaded outlook of teams built on disoriented youngsters and veterans playing out the string.

What this team has accomplished between the lines is a great story and, as it should be, the story.

But from the removed perspective of a Sonics fan, there’s so much more to the picture. In many ways, the Thunder aren’t just a pastoral image of what it looks like when everything goes right, but a reminder of the sometimes grotesque reality behind the product on the court.

There’s the fact that the Thunder’s ownership group came to Seattle with the express purpose of taking the team back to Oklahoma and didn’t flinch at the prospect of wounding hundreds of thousands of Sonics fans. There’s the controversial, fracking-friendly company, Chesapeake Energy, that helped make the team’s new owners rich enough to purchase the Sonics and for which the Thunder’s arena is named.

But most of all, Seattle fans view the Thunder through the prism of the team’s origins. The cynical nature of how the Thunder came about suggests that all the ideals embodied by the team’s players couldn’t be further from the reality of professional sports.

The lockout certainly reminded us of this fact — there are 30 very, very wealthy owners who control the game and no fan can choose who these people are. Owners’ whims and goals shape the league we love, not always in the ways we’d like.

For now, the future favors Oklahoma City. If health allows, the team will be great for at least the next decade, and increased revenue sharing will help support the market. But an ugly truth is the same economic winds that helped bring the Thunder to Oklahoma City could one day rip the team from this devoted fan base. Just take a look at what’s happening in Sacramento. Oklahoma City is a small, vulnerable market that needs to continue to excel on and off the court to survive.

I know that the kid who is living and dying on every Durant jump shot might one day end up in my position.

Sonics fans understand that nothing is permanent, even memories. The past is always being shaped by future events. Those 1996 moments have been sullied by the hard reality of sports business, as have more current stories like the Thunder’s blissful rise.

The young fanatic becomes a wry observer.

Time doesn’t really heal wounds. The hurt exists, it’s just more difficult to access. It becomes less familiar, more removed from the reach of idle thoughts.

There are still remnants of the deep, visceral response I used to get from the images in the collage on my wall, but now I focus more on how I had to scrunch up the last words of the poster’s title where I unexpectedly ran out of space (did learn how to write really late, or something?). It no longer readily recalls the sentiment that sparked its creation.

For my 10-year-old self, the collection of clippings was a big, ambitious undertaking — all that actual cutting and pasting!

In reality, it’s sort of endearingly pathetic: composed of only a dozen or so oddly-aligned images and not even the size of a normal poster. It hangs, a heartfelt, misshapen artifact. I no longer see that poster, nor the NBA itself, with the eyes of a 10 year old.

Each time I return home, and as the Thunder move further and further from their Seattle roots, that collage of memories, where Shawn Kemp is forever perched on Dennis Rodman’s shoulders following a ferocious dunk, appears a little more frayed and foreign.

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