“I’m peaking … It’s my time now. It’s our time. … We’re coming out! Guns blazing!”
â€“ Al Pacino, Devil’s Advocate
Lucifer’s soliloquy doubles as the mantra for the avid sports hater during championship competition.
Anybody with an acquired distaste for a particular athlete, team, coach, owner, media member, fan base, school or city â€“ even an entire sport itself â€“ should be hitting their peak form when a title is on the line and the rest of the world is watching.
You want to deliver boxing’s eulogy? You don’t do it during ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” You save it for a Mayweather or Pacquiao pay-per-view. You want to shred to pieces the idea that Eli is better than Peyton? Do it during Super Bowl Week, not preseason or the Pro Bowl.
This year’s NBA Finals are a hater’s playground, and of course the top targets are LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The columnists, analysts, morning-after experts and Twitter psychologists who have been picking apart the league’s best player and his team â€“ some with a surgical precision that is admirable, others with the skill of a fifth-grader hacking into a dead frog â€“ see the Finals as the stage to bring their sharpest blades.
The rest of us can wade through that bloodshed to take our shots at everybody from Russell Westbrook and Chris Bosh to Derek Fisher and Mike Miller. Bench players, announcers, wives, fans, national anthem singers … nobody is safe.
Me? I belong to the group that is committed to hating the Oklahoma City Thunder and everything they have to do with.
The relationship between Seattle â€“ where I was born, raised and still reside â€“ and its former NBA team is understandably complicated.
Some people here still root for the Thunder as if they never swapped green and gold for blue and orange. Some root only for the Thunder players and coaches that used to work for the Seattle Supersonics. Some root for all of the Thunder players, and have learned to separate the team from the organization. Some are rooting against LeBron and the Heat so faithfully that they’re temporarily, begrudgingly rooting for the Thunder.
But speaking on behalf of thousands of people I don’t know, my observational skills tell me that popular opinion out here is that we’d prefer Kevin Durant not lead the Thunder to an NBA title.
They don’t have to be the worst team in the league, not even a perennial lottery squad; just not The Champs.
And it’s not because anybody here truly hates Durant or his teammates â€“ we understand that the players had nothing to do with the franchise being whisked out of the city in 2008 â€“ but because the image of local villain OKC owner Clay Bennett and his henchman Aubrey McClendon getting their sticky fingers on that big gold trophy makes a lot of us sick.
And yet one of the (many) unfortunate elements is that for a knowledgeable basketball fan base like Seattle, the Thunder would â€“ under any other circumstance, with any other backstory â€“ be a team we’d love to watch.
Durant’s scoring ability harkens memories of Ray Allen mixed with Dale Ellis mixed with Spencer Haywood mixed with Tom Chambers.
Russell Westbrook’s bravado and tenacity at point guard has shades of Gary Payton.
James Harden‘s unpredictable offensive fireworks bring to mind Hersey Hawkins, Sam Perkins and “Downtown” Freddie Brown.
Thabo Sefolosha‘s understated perimeter defense would make those who grew up watching Slick Watts and Nate McMillan catch a flashback.
Serge Ibaka‘s energy, athleticism and knack for above-the-rim highlights aren’t too far removed from what we saw during Shawn Kemp‘s reign in Seattle.
Now if only those guys played for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Or the Washington Wizards. Hell, even the Portland Trail Blazers. We could get behind that.
But it’s just too hard for a lot of Seattleites to get behind this.
Even if we saw Durant and Nick Collison in Sonics uniforms once upon a time … even if Westbrook and Ibaka once wore Seattle draft caps … even if the Thunder might be the nicest collection of players in the NBA … this city that loves to root for nice guys who win ballgames has majority-ruled that we can’t root for these guys like they’re our guys.
So there I was, as the closing seconds of OKC’s series-clinching Game 6 of the Western Conference finals drained from the clock like a New Year’s Eve countdown to my own basketball nightmare, when my sister texted me:
“Do you feel like this could’ve/should’ve been the Sonics?”
For starters, the architect of this Thunder team, general manager Sam Presti, was hired by Bennett and the current ownership, after they’d already planned to move the team to OKC. Had ownership went into the hiring process with a different mindset, maybe they would have hired a different guy.
Second, the Thunder were under no pressure to win before they moved â€“ considering the high likelihood that Bennett did everything he could to tank fan interest in the franchise in Seattle â€“ and under even less pressure to win after they moved.
The last incarnation of the Sonics was a bad team that played in front of a lot of empty seats in an arena that needed a total renovation. They would have gone into the ’08-09 season needing to win. In Oklahoma City, the brand-new Thunder could sell out games to an infatuated fan base for 3-4 years in a shiny building before the euphoria of simply having their own NBA team might morph into expectations for a winning product.
So given that room to take chances, OKC could use a No. 4 draft pick on an undersized two-guard named Russell Westbrook and let him experiment at point guard.
They could use a first-round pick on a raw, run-and-jump prospect out of Africa named Serge Ibaka, then take the time to develop him into one of the NBA’s most impactful defenders.
They could stick a No. 3 overall pick named James Harden on the bench and let him discover his niche without feeling forced to appease media and fans that believe the No. 3 overall pick should be starting.
They could trade an offensively versatile locker-room leader, a former top-five draft pick named Jeff Green, for an offensively-challenged sourpuss like Kendrick Perkins. And they’ll have enough slack to preach patience.
The real Sonics probably would’ve passed on drafting Westbrook in ’08 in favor of Kevin Love or Brook Lopez. Would that pick have gone on to become a star playing next to Durant? Maybe. Would that Durent-led tandem create the recipe that leads to an NBA Finals berth in their fourth season together? Maybe not. (Knowing our management pre-Presti, however, we would’ve taken the top “true” point guard on the board, D.J. Augustin.)
The real Sonics, having been burned by a bad run of seven-foot draft projects like Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Saer Sene, probably would’ve passed on Ibaka for a more proven commodity like Darrell Arthur.
Coaches, trainers, scouts … all vital cogs to the Thunder’s potential championship machine that may not have been hired had the franchise stayed in Seattle. You just never know.
On one hand, I’d like to think any NBA front office could put a championship-caliber team around Durant by his fifth year in the league. On the other hand, once upon a time I thought the same thing about Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony and Yao Ming.
No, this isn’t the same team that left Seattle. And there’s not much reason to believe that had the Sonics never left, they’d look like the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. For myself and a lot of people in this city, there is no connection.
Which makes the team so much easier to hate.
But a few things happened on my way to allowing this NBA Finals to become a miserable experience should OKC take the whole thing.
The first happened last Friday night, at Safeco Field in Seattle. I was there as six Mariners’ pitchers tossed the 10th combined no-hitter in baseball history. For a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 11 years, it might as well have been our World Series.
Then there were two instances this week â€“ Game 1 and Game 2 of the Finals â€“ when I watched the Thunder split a pair with the Heat.
More than the sinking feeling I got from watching Durant erase Miami’s second-half lead in Game 1 and pour in buckets throughout the fourth quarter (and again during Game 2’s late comeback that ran out of time) … more than the smell emanating from the TV whenever Bennett and McClendon were shown wearing their shit-eating grins on top of their blue Thunder t-shirts … more than the dread I felt knowing that LeBron could’ve scored 41 points per game instead of 31 and it still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy his critics …
What I remembered most was the Oklahoma City crowd. I heard their joy and passion, and how much it reminded me of the crowd I had just been a part of during that baseball game at Safeco.
They were celebrating their team, their Thunder, the team that Clay Bennett took from Seattle and brought to his hometown because he wanted to have a team in his city.
Just like we celebrate our teams â€“ our Mariners and our Seahawks and our Sounders and our Storm. Just like we’ll celebrate our Sonics again whenever homegrown billionaire Chris Hansen and his investment group takes some other city’s NBA team to bring back to Seattle.
Don’t feel too bad for Seattle.
I feel bad for Las Vegas. I feel bad for Louisville, for Albuquerque, for Omaha and Wichita, for Honolulu. Cities that don’t have major pro sports, that may never experience what Seattle experienced with the Mariners last week, or what Oklahoma City has experienced with its Thunder this week.
Do I want an NBA team to come back to Seattle? Of course.
Do I need the Sonics to come back? Not really.
And I know I don’t need the Thunder.
I don’t need the Thunder to win a championship, either.
Should Seattle fans be rooting for the Thunder?
Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.