SEATTLE >> He was a kid at the time, all of 19 years old, about to conclude his first NBA season. He stood on the court in green and gold, waving his arms up and down, asking for more noise from the home crowd begging for another chance to see the home team play.
That was more than 10 years ago. Kevin Durant was that kid. The Seattle SuperSonics were his team.
“Just that culture of the Sonics was really, really deep and so many people all around the world or all around the country enjoyed the Sonics,” Durant said recently. “It was pretty crazy, man, now that I think about it the time we spent there, the little time we spent there and how much we could have impacted the city if we stayed.”
A decade later, Durant will be back in that same building, again likely to be waving his arms toward what is expected to be a sold out sea of green and gold. KeyArena, the former home of the Sonics, will host its final event Friday night when Durant’s Golden State Warriors meet the Sacramento Kings in an NBA preseason game. It will then be shuttered and remodeled from top to bottom.
There could be no more appropriate way to see the building sent off in its current state than to have the NBA under its roof one more time.
“For the city to have this game and for it to be the send-off for KeyArena, I think it will generate an energy that hopefully the powers that be can see just how supportive the city of Seattle is of basketball and maybe it can push them in the right direction to bring a team back,” said Seattle Storm star Sue Bird.
It will be the first NBA game here since that April night in 2008 when Durant was on the floor as the Sonics played their final home game amid chants of “Save Our Sonics” before moving to Oklahoma City. He spent only his rookie season in the Emerald City, but the connection remains strong.
Now a two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP, Durant lived on Mercer Island back in the day. He said he was one of a few who lived so far out of the city since most of his teammates stayed downtown.
Durant was accompanied by his mother, Wanda, as he got settled that year in the Pacific Northwest, across the country from his Washington, D.C., roots after just one college season at Texas. Durant had figured on draft night that he was headed to Boston or Atlanta.
He fell in love with Seattle, only to see it ripped away after less than a year.
“I was anticipating the move obviously but it happened so quickly. That’s the nature of the business,” Durant said. “It was devastating for the fans and I was still getting used to the city as well. I was kind of confused emotionally on how to think about that but as time went on and you see the excitement for Thunder basketball in Oklahoma City, you tend to wonder. It was me and Nick (Collison) and Jeff (Green) at the time. Once we started having some success, we were the only guys that played on the Seattle team. We were just thinking about how crazy it would have been being in the playoffs, going to the finals in Seattle. It was still great in Oklahoma City as well.”
The love of the Sonics still runs deep in the community. WWE wrestler Elias was booed for nearly five minutes during a taping of “Monday Night Raw,” this past week, in the next-to-last event in the building that opened during the 1962 World’s Fair.
KeyArena has been the home of junior hockey, indoor soccer and roller derby. It hosted the final indoor concert performed by the Beatles in 1966 and seemingly every major artist since. It’s seen two WNBA title banners raised to its rafters and will have a third added when the new building opens. The Storm won a third title this past season.
But it’s the NBA that made the old barn famous. From the days of Lenny Wilkins and Jack Sikma, to Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, and ultimately Durant’s one season in Seattle, it’s the Sonics that were most associated with the facility. It’s no wonder that Warriors President Rick Welts has said Friday will be a celebration of the team for which he was a ballboy as a kid.
When the Warriors and Kings take the floor, it will have been 3,827 days between NBA games in the building.
“The Sonics to me were a lot like the Warriors to the Bay, a really cool brand, good history and tradition going back to the championship in ‘79 just like the Warriors in ‘75. Great colors, cool brand and unbelievable fan base,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I played there in the Finals in ‘96 with the Bulls and it was a basketball town. I think it’s a real shame, just the fact the Sonics don’t exist, it’s one of the franchises in this league to me that not only makes sense but feels like the NBA. I think it was a real black mark on the NBA and I’m hoping the Sonics will be back at some point in the near future.”
That’s also the hope of the investors about to pour $700 million into the facility. If all goes to plan, the building will become a construction site sometime in the next 60 days, beginning a two-year transformation that will remodel and modernize the building. It will be reborn as the expected home of an expansion NHL franchise to begin play in either the 2020 or 2021 season.
And if Oak View Group, the investors paying for the privately funded renovation, has its way, the NBA will follow in short order.
“We will continue to push aggressively to bring an NBA team to join both the NHL team, if we’re lucky enough to win a bid, and more importantly join the Storm at this new arena,” Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke said.