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Scenes From the NBA’s Emotional Return to KeyArena

Back on April 13, 2008, the world was a different place.

“The Dark Knight” hadn’t hit theaters yet.

Neither had “Iron Man,” and with it, The Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.

Rafael Nadal hadn’t yet defeated Roger Federer in The Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played.

Michael Phelps and The Redeem Team were a couple months away from capturing America’s hearts at the Beijing Olympics.

That’s how long it’s been since the Seattle SuperSonics played their final game in KeyArena. Time just keeps passing too. Kids in high school are college grads. College grads now have kids of their own.

Last Friday though, at least for one night, it felt as if a time machine had brought all generations together, thanks to Jamal Crawford.

Comprised of players with local ties, Crawford runs an annual Pro Am league held at Seattle Pacific University, supplementing them with NBA stars, Blake Griffin and Kyrie Irving among them, but most notably Kevin Durant, who returned to his first NBA home for a game in 2013.

On his ability to draw the biggest stars to the Pacific Northwest, Crawford – who noted Seattle, Vancouver and Portland were always favorite stops for players during his early years in the league – told reporters, “I always ask the kids who they want to see and I go out and search them down. It’s amazing because guys don’t understand the magnitude of what it is they’re doing. They love giving back, they love playing in front of people, and they’re like ‘man, the fans are really into it, you guys don’t have a team, but you have a great city.’ Blake Griffin was here [for] one day and he was like, ‘I think I’m gonna buy a place here.’ It’s just amazing how that carries over.”

This year, Crawford kicked off his league with a debut at the Key, providing a chance for more than triple the usual amount of fans to see NBA players and others with local ties in action. It wasn’t just stars of today though. On one end of the court was Lenny Wilkens and Slick Watts coaching Team BallIsLife, countered on the other end with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp helming Team BrandBlack.

Coaches Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp

Coaches Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp

“I enjoyed seeing a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a while…The fact that they wanted to do this was kind of special, and it shows people that Seattle is alive and well,” Wilkens said after the game.

That time machine feel was even evident in the stands too, as the presence of Detlef Schrempf and Doug Christie was matched by Spencer Hawes (in a ridiculous suit), Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson, not to mention prospective Sonics owner Chris Hansen, and women’s figures showed up too, as some WNBA players stuck around after their game that preceded the event, with Storm legend Sue Bird representing the league’s prideful history and Mercury star Brittney Griner (donning a Dennis Rodman Bulls jersey) its future.

Chris Hansen acknowledges a warm reception from the fans.

Sitting courtside, Chris Hansen acknowledges a warm reception from the fans.

As I took my seat in the press section, I was flooded with memories of what it was like to watch NBA basketball in person.

First was that, yes, Terrence Jones really is that much taller than Isaiah Thomas. What Thomas is able to do, and routinely at that, in order to score at the rim is remarkable. The other was something that scouts and analysts indirectly refer to all the time (and doesn’t always translate on television), which is how the best players on the court are extremely noticeable.

Both sides had three NBA players and it was very evident that they were the top dogs. Somebody like Jones or Kelly Olynyk might be not be a star on an NBA team, but there’s not many people walking the planet who are both that tall and that skilled, with the ability to both shoot and bring the ball up the court. Meanwhile, Thomas committed some Celtic-on-Celtic crime in crossing up Olynyk, and Justin Holiday, now an Atlanta Hawk after winning a ring in Golden State, quietly led Team BallIsLife with 22 points.

While Olynyk was the leading scorer on the night with 27, the player who stood out most was Martell Webster. He was feeling it from deep, which isn’t surprising, but he complemented his sweet stroke with nice moves in transition to evade traffic and split double teams. Webster’s back has plagued him throughout his career, and though it was just a showcase event, Wizards fans would’ve been pleased with how free he looked on court.

In fact, it was his back-to-back triples that broke the game open for Team BrandBlack, a lead they carried for most of the night. With his team’s victory well in hand, Crawford took the mic with about five minutes left and had the score altered to make it a tie game, thanking the thinning crowd for staying despite the clock approaching midnight (the night may have seemed timeless, but kids still have bedtimes), and that (in All-Star-esque fashion) the intensity would heat up as a final treat for the crowd.

True to their word, the physicality ramped up as Jones, Olynyk and former UW standout Jon Brockman crashed the boards, while Thomas exited after falling on a drive. With a couple minutes to go, fans showed their appreciation by unleashing a classic “SU-PER!”, “SON-ICS!” chant, in what was by far the most touching moment of the night. (Heck, just recalling and typing it induces chills.)

“I was almost about to start cheering with them until I remembered I had to shoot some free throws,” said Crawford.

Under the adjusted score, Team BrandBlack trailed by one in the final seconds, and everyone knew who would take the last shot. Crawford sized up his defender, made a couple moves, pulled up from three and…

…missed.

In retrospect, it was a fitting summation of what happened to NBA basketball in Seattle. A storybook ending isn’t guaranteed.

The basketball itself was scratchy (not even All-Star or Olympic teams have chemistry down after one game), but to get that many legends and fans back in KeyArena meant the event was still a resounding success.

Crawford said, “It really is a community. It’s not about me or anybody else. We’re all doing this together. Hopefully we get the attention of the NBA and hopefully one day we get the Seattle Sonics back…Seattle will always be here for me and I’ll always be here for them.”

The great thing about basketball is there’s always another game, another chance to hit that game-winner. Crawford will get his as the Seattle Pro-Am continues over at SPU all summer, but that’s the tough part about how the Sonics left: as hard as the people of Seattle fought for their team, they couldn’t prevent Howard Schultz, David Stern and Clay Bennett from taking the ball out of their hands.

Summing up how Sonics fans feel, Crawford finished by saying, “I have faith and hope that we’ll get a team back here.”

Until then, faith and hope will have to suffice. After all, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

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