Phil Caldwell

Sports Blogging With a Grin

NBA Playoffs 2011:Pacific Northwest Grows Angrier as Grizzlies, Thunder Advance

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Sonicsvsgrizzlies3_crop_340x234There was a time not so long ago, when a series between the VancouverGrizzlies and the Seattle SuperSonics would have ignited two of the most crazed and passionate fan bases in the country.

But not any longer.

For reasons that still baffle fans throughout the entire northwest corner of the continent, commissioner David Stern decided to trade two major population centers for two itty-bitty and over-saturated middle markets somewhere in the center of the country, dominated by five separate NBA franchises.

The further each team advances in the playoffs, the angrier this part of the country becomes.

And it’s not fan apathy.  It’s fan hostility toward a now-hated commissioner and his league.

Meanwhile, the upstart Major League Soccer seized upon the mistake, where it quickly discovered how passionate fans are in this part of the country.

The Seattle Sounders sold out nearly every home game over the first three years of existence, with 30,000-people crowds growing to 65,000 and 70,000 for “friendlies” played against teams from other international leagues.

MLS success in Seattle and Vancouver makes the recent NBA franchise re-locations look even more silly and inept.


Seattle is the premier cornerstone franchise of the MLS, with new franchises in Portland to the south, and the Vancouver Whitecaps to the north, duplicating the amazing immediate success of the Sounders.

The MLS, unlike the NBA, recognized how lucrative these two markets are, but perhaps they had the advantage after watching Vancouver & Seattle fans evolve into a typical English football rivalry so prevalent in the old country.

During the mid 1970s, the North American Soccer League Sounders vs. Whitecaps routinely hosted sold out matches, with both cities going nuts over meaningless games in early summer.

Portland vs. Seattle soccer matches were similar, with both fan bases flooding opponent stadiums and restaurants several times a year, in ways that would make Liverpool vs. Manchester envious.

During the old NASL days, Vancouver Whitecap fans would travel in massive numbers, if they could find tickets, to Portland and Seattle, and vice versa.

And this for a league that went bankrupt and folded in the mid 1980s over soccer games played indoors in a concrete cave on cherished sunny days in the Pacific Northwest.

Sports Illustrated ran stories in 1975 about this corner of the continent and the obvious fan passion.  Indeed there was a time when the NBA enjoyed this area, with the Sonics selling out the now-imploded Kingdome with crowds of 35-45,000.

89748296_crop_340x234Sold out Qwest Field in Seattle for Barcelona vs Sounder match in July of 2009
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

More importantly is the international influence this part of the country holds, for leagues wanting multinational exposure into the far east and beyond.

The NFL Seattle Seahawks and the MLB Seattle Mariners are broadcast into Japan, Korea, China, Alaska, much of the Pacific, and almost all of western Canada. But the same cannot be said for the NBA Portland Trailblazers, especially in Seattle, where Sonic fans wants no part of their former rivals.

Sadly, the NBA never stuck around in Vancouver long enough to tap into this passion.  Vancouver Grizzly teams were terrible, with one bad draft pick after another resulting in a team that never came close to making the playoffs.

Meanwhile, as the Sonics were being taken over by an incompetant owner and GM who ran that franchise into the ground, once routine Kingdome-filled crowds were failing to sell out the 14,000 seat Key Arena after a decade of questionable player moves and multi-million free-agent signings.

Eight years ago, the International Olympic Committee, a bit more enlightened than the NBA, awarded Vancouver the 2010 Winter Olympics, and gave the world a glimpse into how passionate fans in these parts are when a decent product is put on the table.

Obscure sports like ice curling and bow snow skiing were sold out months before the events.  Parties scattered throughout the city rocked on late into the night.  Local fans went nuts.  Seattle fans joined in.

2856376_crop_340x234Seattle Sonics vs Vancouver Grizzlies
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The entire downtown area of Vancouver was an on-going two-week festival that did not sleep, undeterred by sideways rain or frigid temperatures.  Each night, NBC broadcast views of glistening waters contrasted against blue skies and snow-capped mountains, in awe of the natural beauty the region has to offer.

But more importantly, the 2010 Winter Olympics exposed the fire Canadians have toward their sports.

Meanwhile, the NBA did everything in their power to muck things up, especially in Seattle, where new Sonic owner Clay Bennett spent two years deliberately sabotaging his franchise so that he could justify moving it.

Outright fan anger toward the NBA is now the norm, with local talk shows routinely fielding calls from bitter fans hating everything and anything about professional basketball.  It’s far worse than an untapped market, and it’s growing in intensity the longer the area remains without a team and more successful the former franchise is.  Several times a day fans are either writing or calling, vowing “they are done forever” with professional basketball.

Part of that is due to fans in Seattle knowing they paid the price, with franchise worst-ever seasons, which produced high draft picks that are now the foundation of the team.

Recent polls in Seattle indicate almost 80 percent of fans would rather the city pursue an NHL team than a replacement NBA squad.

Vancouverhome_original_crop_340x234Former home of the NBA Vancouver Grizzlies

Fan forums are routinely filled with scathing comments towards David Stern and Clay Bennett. Former Sonic owner Howard Schultz was recently forced to use security to keep unruly Sonic fans from dragging him out to the parking lot for a good old-fashioned tar and feathering.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, apathy towards the NBA is contrasted by near religious love and devotion towards the Canucks.

Walk any street in the province and you’ll see half a dozen normal folks wearing $125 Canuck jerseys.  The city is absolutely in love with its hockey franchise, best in the NHL this past regular season, which plays in an abandoned NBA arena.

Yet at the same time, almost zero interest in their former basketball team the Grizzlies, now far away in Memphis.

Such is the case when a league behaves as callously toward fans, as the NBA did to Vancouver and Seattle.  And the region has become hostile to David Stern’s brand of corporate professional basketball as a result.

It likely will take a remorseful and apologetic NBA several generations to recover the fan bases in this corner of the country, and a prerequisite is the removal of Mr. Stern as commissioner.  And yet with  the NBA still taunting and insulting the region by appointing hated Clay Bennett as chair of the franchise relocation committee, either the league doesn’t care about this area or are amazingly ignorant of what they have done.

97188998_crop_340x2342010 WInter Olympics
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It sends the incorrect message that they could waltz back in at any time and reclaim passion that has turned against them.

Seattle, with new football and baseball stadiums and a basketball palace that was built as the priority, before the other two facilities, is now a market the NBA may never get back.   And rightly so, as the NBA went out of their way to deceive the nation about Seattle’s devotion and loyalty to their basketball franchise.

In response, Seattle voters passed initiatives banning any more public money every go to the coffers of professional sports, especially the NBA.

Seattle, a city that absolutely loved the NBA and it’s Sonics, now curses the league.   And as Seattle’s former franchise faces off against Vancouver’s former franchise, anger grows.

And because of this, the NBA may never recover an area passionate about sports, who now has turned against a commissioner who most fans see as pompous and arrogant, and who deliberately set out to do this.

Years of apologies from the NBA may not help. Because for many former season ticket holders in the Pacific Northwest, the NBA is dead to them, and David Stern cannot seem to grasp how much damage his own actions have done to an entire corner of the continent.

View the terrific documentary on the Sonic’s move to Oklahoma City at

Read more from the same author at: Ghost of Supersonics Hovers over NBA, Kings Move


Written by PhilCaldwell

April 30, 2011 at 3:22 pm

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