SEATTLE — It's plastered on three billboards, all positioned within two miles of KeyArena. Embedded between images of Kevin Durant and Luke Ridnour reads the Seattle Sonics slogan for this basketball season. "Be Part of It.” The irony is this entire region already is. Knowingly or not, each of the near 3.3 million residents in Seattle's metro area is involved in the current confusion and murky future that embodies this city's oldest pro sports team. An arena dispute between the city and the team's Oklahoma-based ownership group has put in jeopardy Seattle's 41-year love fest with pro basketball. The Sonics on Thursday night played the first of what could be only 40 more home games inside much-maligned KeyArena. A move to Oklahoma City could happen as early as next season. On the day of the team's home opener, and one day before an expected announcement regarding the team's future, many locals weren't quite sure how to treat the Sonics. For some, it's ‘So long Sonics. Nice knowing you.' Others vow to fight until the end, determined to do what little they can to save the Sonics and WNBA's Storm. But even the most avid fan sounds resigned to the fact that both teams will have an Oklahoma City mailing address this time next year. The sound of defeat resonates loudest from callers of talk radio.
Fans in Seattle seem to want to root for the Sonics, specifically Durant, but fear becoming too attached. Durant's jerseys, Owen said, are one of the hottest sellers in the team shop located just outside of KeyArena.
Petrovich rues the day he might see Durant blossom into an All-Star while leading his Sonics to the playoffs — in Oklahoma City.
"I would like to think, hope is a better word, that when this team becomes a playoff-caliber team, they're becoming it here, not there,” Petrovich said. "I still think it'll happen. But a lot of things have to be solved, and there a lot of court battles yet to go.”
"I felt like I was watching somebody else's team.”Words like inevitable, helpless and disenfranchised fill the radio waves. The Sonics opened the season Wednesday night in Denver, resulting in a 120-103 loss that is expected to be the first of many drubbings this season. But it wasn't the highly anticipated NBA debut of phenom, No. 2 overall pick Durant, that lit up the phone lines of KJR 950-AM. Much of the talk — when programming found time to break away from Tyrone Willingham and the University of Washington — centered on the future of the Sonics franchise. "This Sonics season is looking like a basketball version of (the movie) Major League,” text messaged in a fan named Greg. "It was hard watching the game because you didn't know who the team belonged to,” said KJR host Dave "Softy” Mahler. "It was hard for me to get into it because I didn't know which team I was watching. Was I watching Oklahoma, or was I watching Seattle? I felt like I was watching somebody else's team.” Mahler, 33, grew up in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue and is a 13-year employee of KJR. He's known in the Seattle market as being the voice of the fans for the way his blunt opinions mirror the average Joe's. "The hardcore fans here are trying to do everything they can,” Mahler said. "And it's just been like swimming upstream. I think the NBA has taken a backseat in this town to the NFL and to the MLB. A lot of fans have jumped off the wagon.” The Sonics landed in this position because of the recently-built, neighboring stadiums of the Seahawks and Mariners. Qwest Field and Safeco Field are both jaw-dropping mammoths. Down the road no more than 15 minutes, sits KeyArena in the shadows of the Space Needle. Its architecture causes you to turn up your nose when compared to its exquisite counterparts. "The majority of people do not want to public fund a new arena. There's no question about that,” Mahler said. "Most people look at KeyArena and think, ‘What's wrong with KeyArena?' "The problem is they don't look at what other teams play in. They don't know that KeyArena is the smallest arena in the NBA. They don't see the (unfavorable) lease agreement the Sonics have at KeyArena compared to other teams have. They don't live in that world.”
"I want the Sonics in Seattle.”Brian Robinson's Blackberry Pearl buzzes every three minutes while sitting at a table for two along the windows at a North Seattle Panera Bread. He answers a call before excitedly passing the phone to a business partner and informing him they've scored eight lower bowl tickets to the home opener. Robinson, the co-founder of Save Our Sonics and Storm, wants his teams to stay. He's been an on-again-off-again season ticket-holder for the past 12 years and has united more than 6,000 others like him to fight the good fight. "This town is not really a stand up and shout for what you believe in type of town,” said Robinson, a 34-year-old real estate developer. "But there are a huge amount of people here who care. The question is how do you find the people who care and want to do something about it? "Dave (Mahler) is a perfect example. He could rally people if he wanted to. He's sitting back and waiting for something to happen. So I'm starting to become a little more critical of people who care but don't do anything. I want the Sonics in Seattle.” Chris Van Dyk is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The 56-year-old Bainbridge Island resident is the founder of Citizens for More Important Things. Van Dyk has lobbied local politicians to vote against publicly funding any more pro sports venues. "I believe in free markets,” Van Dyk said. "I believe in a free country. And I believe that (Sonics chairman) Clay Bennett should be free to take his toy wherever he wants to go. The only thing that I don't believe is free is tax dollars to subsidize people who don't need it. "These people do not belong on welfare. And if the citizens of Oklahoma City think it's a good deal to put a bunch of overpaid bums on welfare, including Clayton Bennett, that's their mistake.”
"Hope is a better word.”George Petrovich was second in a line of two at the ticket window outside of KeyArena. The 36-year-old auto detailer lives 10 blocks from the arena and only wants to be part of it. "It's kind of hard for a lot of people here because most people want them to stay, yet most people know they can't do anything about it other than to support the team,” said Petrovich, wearing sunglasses over his blue Seahawks cap. "Whether you like the ownership group or not, support the players and the team. "It'll look bad for us, especially during a nationally televised game, if they turn the cameras on and it's two people in the stands. That's the way I look at it, and that's the reason I'm down here trying to buy tickets.” Jeremy Owen, the team's director of merchandising, said on-line sales are up 43 percent compared to last October. The majority of those orders are from Durant's native Washington D.C.-metro area and Texas, where Durant starred for a year in college with the Longhorns. "I can't even remember the last order we've received from Oklahoma,” Owen said. "Maybe two or three weeks ago. It's pretty sporadic. It's nothing like people might think it would be. It's been pretty quiet.”