Organizers called yesterday’s green-and-gold gathering in Occidental Park the Bring ‘em Back Rally, and they handed out thousands of mini-signs bearing that slogan to drive home the point. As aggressive as that message sounds, the Seattle hoops-heads who braved the October-like weather yesterday (estimates have run from 2,000 to 6,000) were surprisingly non-confrontational. I say “surprisingly” because, honestly, after all the mud that’s been slung (justifiably so) at Howard Schultz and Clay Bennett and David Stern in the four years since the Sonics slunk away to Oklahoma City, I anticipated more, I don’t know, angst —especially considering that what’s left of the Sonics was taking the court in OKC for Game Two of the NBA Finals. Like Sports Radio KJR host Mike Gastineau—who, by the way, gave one of the most heartfelt and rousing speeches at the rally—told me last fall, “It doesn’t take but a few knuckleheads to start something.”
But if there were any knuckleheads in Occidental Park (renamed for the occasion Seattle SuperSonics Park by proclamation from Mayor McGinn) they kept it cool and channeled their energy toward celebrating Roosevelt High School grad Chris Hansen’s proposal to build a new $490 million arena in SoDo. Even for a transplant like me who never had a rooting interest in the Sonics, that was genuinely inspiring to see. But that wasn’t the only surprise:
Hansen dressed down for once. The billionaire hedge fund manager’s standard uniform for every press conference or public appearance in Seattle up to this point has been a sweater-and-collared-shirt combo. But for once he rocked a casual look, sporting an old school Sonics warm-up jacket. He still looked shy and uncomfortable in front of a crowd, and at times he spoke so softly that even his mic could barely pick up what he was saying. But watching him joke with Sonics greats like Slick Watts and Detlef Schrempf, you could tell he’s starting to enjoy his newfound notoriety. When he gave a shoutout to the attendees—who would later chant “Thank you, Chris!”—and said, “This is why I’m doing this. This is inspiring,” it was clear he meant it.
There was a polar bear in the crowd. Am I the only one who saw the dude chilling in the park in a bear suit? Was it Grant Cogswell doing a little stealth marketing for Grassroots?
Rob McKenna was there, too. After telling an inquisitive voter to ‘Get a job’ two months ago, you’d think the Attorney General wouldn’t show his face at an event that encouraged people to leave work an hour early. It was hardly surprising to see King County Executive Dow Constantine there, pleading with attendees to tweet their support for the proposed arena to city and county councilmembers, because he’s backed Hansen since day one. But McKenna’s presence on stage felt…off, like a blatant ploy to court the sports-fan vote for this fall’s gubernatorial election. But give him his due: At least he showed up—which is more than can be said for Seattle City Councilmembers like Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Nick Licata, who missed an opportunity to see just how passionate Sonics fans are about the project. And speaking of passion …
This city really misses its team. Sounds dumb to say, but in the four years I’ve lived here—I moved to Seattle one week before then-Mayor Greg Nickels let Bennett abscond with the Sonics—it seemed like fans weren’t so much upset that the Sonics were gone as they were pissed that someone had taken them. But the spontaneous chants of "Super-Sonics" that filled any lull in the proceedings whipped up a game-day atmosphere in that cobblestoned park and were proof positive that love—not bitterness—permeated the crowd. At one point Gastineau boomed from the stage, “The will of the people can get things accomplished!” Seattle basketball junkies jonesing for the return of the NBA will need more than that—namely, an assist from the city and county councils—to get an arena built. But they proved on Thursday that if Hansen’s plan fails, it won’t be because they didn’t fight.