Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder a sad Pacific Northwest Basketball tale

This year's NBA Western Conference Semifinal series between Memphis and Oklahoma City is a particularly painful one for many NBA afficionados to watch. Not for the quality of the play: the Grizzlies cuurently may be playing the best basketball in the West, while Oklahoma City's roster includes superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined with feel-good role players like Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. It's hutsome - especially in my current home city - because it showcases two NBA franchises that relocated from the Pacific Northwest to smaller Midwest markets.

In 2008, the club formerly known as the Seattle Sonics bolted town after forty-one years ingrained into Northwest folklore. That span included twenty-two playoff campaigns, three NBA finals appearances and the 1979 NBA Championship where a three-guard rotation of Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and "Downtown" Freddie Brown were anchored by the outstanding hair (and post game) of young centre Jack Sikma. It rankles Seattle fans so much that many now take no interest at all in pro basketball. Nearly three years since new owner moved the franchise to Oklahoma City, there's still enough ire for the man who sold the team, Howard Schultz, to eject fans from a book signing in upmarket Bellevue. Many of the disenfranchised Sonic Nation now boycott his company, Starbucks, for having the nerve to sell to a man whose known aim was getting the NBA into Oklahoma City.

Even though the city of Seattle refused to relinquish the Supersonics' name and the yellow and green which defined their jersey, Seattleites still seethe at the factors and faces involved in taking a young playoff team (comprising Westbrook and Durant) away from a staunch basketball city. even during periods of basketball droughts, the fans turned up. Key Arena, the Sonics' home for most of their Northwest tenure, is now home only to the Seattle Storm and the Rat City Rollergirls.

Vancouver's is a different story - the city simply wasn't given a viable chance at NBA life. They existed in their expansion form for only six years before Michael Heisley purchased the team and moved them to basketball purgatory, Memphis, home of exactly zero other pro sports franchises. The Grizzlies allegedly haven't been profitable since moving to the Midwest, which led to a series of costcutting moves and Heisley's consistent presence on "NBA's worst owner" lists. That their current roster is successful runs almost in spite of Heisley's ownership as time and again he has failed to pay the right players and forked over for the wrong ones. According to reliable hearsay, the decision to draft uberbust Hasheem Thabeet over almost every other draftee was his, overruling his personnel division. Only recently has he started to dig into his own capacious pockets, realising the only way to be profitable is to win. Even with this new fiscal policy, his lucrative extension to Zach Randolph (while bidding against no-one else) proves he still struggles to get it right.

While it's true that basketball has no chance to be the number one sport in Vancouver, it could well establish itself as a solid second behind a beloved Canuck team which consistently folds in the playoffs. Rogers Arena is a beautiful, state-of-the-art complex which could easily, comfortably and profitably house an NBA franchise (The Vancouver Pacers, anyone?). As someone who is a recent resident of both cities, there's certainly demand enough for pro basketball in both cities: witness the support that both cities' new MLS franchises have so quickly accumulated.

Seattle, however, is a basketball town. The list of great basketball players who grew up in Washington is remarkable: Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford, John Stockton, Jason Terry, Detlef Schrempf, Doug Christie and Aaron Brooks all attended High School in the state. Shawn Kemp, Fred Brown, Slick Watts and Bill Russell, among others, all still reside on Puget Sound. During NCAA tournament month, bars go crazy with expectation for the Universities of Washington, Washington State and Gonzaga. Now, playoff time in Seattle is met only with the green and blue of Seattle Sounders scarves.

Game One was a typical Grizzly win, as the club rode Z-Bo's inside scoring. To even the series, Game Two saw the Zombie Sonic bench blow up behind young guards Eric Maynor and James Harden. The Thunder, even though they won 55 games this year, lost three of their four games against the 46-win Grizzlies this season, although key post defender Kendrick Perkins did not play in any of those matches. With the teams evenly matched, the series should be an exciting spectacle for the average NBA fans, especially in light of a pending lockout. Here in Seattle, there's a small, sad shrug and hope the Mariners don't suck as bad tonight.

Pro basketball's dead to this city. It's why all in Sacramento fear the Anaheim Royals. They should.

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