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Robert Nellams and KeyArena Prep for the NCAA Tournament

After more than a decade, March Madness is finally returning to Seattle. And Seattle Center’s director couldn’t be happier.

By Matthew Halverson March 2, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Seattle Met

Robert Nellams photographed at KeyArena in Seattle on January 20, 2015

Though the NCAA
Men’s Basketball Tournament has been a March mainstay for more than 75 years, it wasn’t until 1984, when the Kingdome hosted the finals, that it truly went mad. Seattle sports promoter Bob Walsh is credited with turning the tourney into an event, and over the next 20 years it came back to the Emerald City eight times. Then we got the cold shoulder—and no one’s exactly sure why. But after more than a decade, March Madness is finally returning to Seattle—KeyArena, specifically—and Seattle Center director Robert Nellams couldn’t be happier. Not just because the former Franklin High School star loves basketball, though. It’s also a nice reminder that the Key is still kicking. —Matthew Halverson

That sense of optimism that runs through the first night of the tournament—where you have all of these sets of fans who believe their team is going to win the national title—it’s like spring training, when everybody thinks they’re going to win the World Series. But in this case you’re already in the tournament.

Just a quick personal story: My best friend is a college basketball coach, and the last time the tournament was here, he was coaching the University of Nevada, Reno. Well, they played here in Seattle, and they beat Michigan State and Gonzaga to go to the Sweet 16 in St. Louis. In fact, I dropped everything and bought tickets and flew down there to support him. 

We’ve tried every year to bring the tournament back. I really don’t know what happened. Maybe somebody said something wrong to someone and they happened to be the wrong person to say it to. Clearly something went south, and that’s why it’s taken a long time for them to give us another shot. All we know is somehow we got out of the rotation and now we’re back in the rotation and, oh, happy day.

I’m not a suites guy. I like to be surrounded by as many people as possible, yelling and screaming with everybody else. So when Seattle U came back to play in the Key in 2008, a few friends of mine and I bought season tickets. We sat right behind the courtside seats. It’s my favorite place to be because I don’t feel pretentious being on the court, but they’re still great seats. The difference in cost wasn’t that great, but it made us all feel better.

My strength as a player was shooting; people used to talk about my sweet jumper. But the thing I had the most fun doing was passing. Somebody once said that the best play in basketball isn’t the basket but the pass that led to the basket, and I always took that to heart.

“There’s the guy who lost the Sonics.” People have actually said that to me a couple times when I’ve walked into a room. I think they were trying to be funny. I try to not be bothered by it.

When someone snatches something away from you and says that either you’re not good enough or you don’t care enough, it’s an open wound that just can’t heal. We went through that with the community, and we had the additional burden of being the ones that felt responsible for why it happened. So we not only felt incredibly sad, we also felt shame.

We had three different ownership groups, between 2001 and 2008, say they wanted a new building. From the Ackerleys to Schultz to the Bennett ownership group, all of them said the same thing: “This building is inadequate.” The other thing they said was, “This is the cash cow for not only the community, but for Seattle Center. So if we leave, not only will the community not have a team, but Seattle Center will implode.” Obviously that was PR spin because they wanted a new arena. But if you have years of that, that’s the image that people get in their mind. I would do public speaking engagements where I’d tell people all of these positive stories about Seattle Center, and they’d be scratching their head and saying, “I thought you were dying?”

After the Sonics left, 2009 was a disaster. Our revenues fell off a cliff. We hadn’t figured out how to cope yet, and we lost seven figures. But in 2010 we turned it around enough to break even. And then if you fast-forward—and I’m really proud of this—in 2013 we had a seven-figure profit on the building. It was a really cathartic thing for this organization. It was an affirmation that we not only had value and that we knew what we were doing, but also that we could respond to adversity and create something new.

I like to tell people I’m an and guy, not an or guy, and I believe that applies to Seattle Center and the proposed arena too: How do you do that and this, as opposed to that or this? After the previous administration had a long series of discussions with Chris Hansen about his plans, they brought me into the loop to let me know it was a possibility. I went from wanting to question the logic of a new arena to saying, “Okay, if this happens, what do we do here at KeyArena—short term—that protects jobs? And in the long term, is there a way to work together?”

My great-grandmother helped my mother raise me, and she would say some really profound things. One time it was something along these lines: “There’s no shame in being ready for an opportunity that never comes. But there is shame in having one come and not being ready for it.” So I always have that in the back of my mind. You never know when an opportunity is going to present itself. 

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