It's not a sport; it's theater, dance, jazz. Basketball reaches out to us as a synchronized lark, in which the tremulous imperfections of the human body are transcended by applications of elegance set against the calibrated futility of time. Triumph and relief are inextricable here.
Unlike so many of the more vulgar entertainments available to the Romanesque hordes--from pro wrestling to Cops--the pleasures of this shindig derive not from beholding an inherent humiliation but in witnessing the spontaneous overcoming of error. Time is halted by a movement of grace. From chaos bursts an instant of beauty, and a single snapshot emerges with what novelist Leonard Michaels called "the clarity of tremendous style." This is what gives basketball such a nervous, jazzy appeal.
All sports offer up such cathartic moments of glory. What makes basketball unique is that these moments arise in an atmosphere of total anxiety. Everything in basketball is defined by the progress of time: There are clocks nagging within clocks, bearing down to red-lit tenths of seconds--nagging, taunting, imploring. While, say, baseball fans can luxuriate in the expanse of a single inning, basketball fans--a twitchy, itchy, neurotic crowd--wriggle and squirm under an almost unbearable weight of suspense. Hence the enormous relief masquerading as exultation whenever the ball snaps the net. The roar of fans is simply an expenditure of surplus anxiety, a collective venting that borders on madness. Basketball junkies, like regular old junkie junkies, are just time junkies, only more so: antsy folks looking for a stop-time fix against the incremental erosion of Kronos. That, and a little beauty, a little funk, and swagger.
Those of us, then, who find ourselves perennially hooked on Sonics basketball were dealt some pretty wicked stuff this year. Even for a team as perturbable and combustible as Seattle, it was a harsh, hairy ride, full of ugly incidents and plenty of casualties. Between those rare, frozen moments of beauty we've learned to crave, we found ourselves confronting the most erratic and frustrating species of unscripted soap opera, both on the floor and off. There were texts and subtexts, spontaneous psychodramas piled like pages of bad manuscript. By the end of the gig, during the last week of the season, you could look around KeyArena and see pockets of burned-out fans hanging from their season tickets by the skin of their teeth, a dull, milky glaze in their eyes. It looked like a convention of post traumatic stress disorder survivors.
Not that it was all that hard to see coming. Anyone who has followed the Sonics for the past decade or so has surely witnessed the increase of aggravating factors leading to the team's current state of turmoil. What was surprising this year, then, was not that everything finally came to a head, but that it did so all at once, and with such severity. As one problem impacts another, it's perhaps best to consider them one by one, like pieces of a jigsaw.
Exhibit 1: In a league rife with subterranean racial tensions--an ionic field of black players, white coaches, white fans, hiphop overtones, big money, and hero worship--the Sonics commenced the 2000-2001 season saddled with one of the most explosive power struggles since Golden State Warriors forward Latrell Sprewell (hair meticulously corn-rowed, eyes always ablaze) tried to choke Coach P. J. Carlisimo (mustachioed, fuming, the bad cop) to death during a practice in December of 1997.
Not that Sonics guard and de facto franchise head Gary Payton ever actually made good on his threat to slap former Coach Paul Westphal like a bitch. He didn't have to. In keeping with his on-the-floor brand of inner-city psychic brinksmanship, Payton's two-year relationship with Westphal was characterized by a stunning lack of respect; Payton executed a passive-aggressive head game of non-recognition in which he consistently undermined his coach's authority through insubordination. In retrospect, it's difficult to recall Payton ever once looking his coach in the eyes. His back was always turned, his head cocked away as Westphal yelled plays from the sideline. It was brutal.
Westphal, for his part, never stood a chance. Adrift in a changing sea of tattooed, post-politesse black attitude, the former Boston Celtic was hopelessly miscast from the get-go; his meepy, laissez-faire, conservative-Christian tactic of conflict resolution came off as the worst kind of neurotic honky posturing. On November 6, 2000, immediately after the Sonics dropped a game to Orlando, Westphal--overhearing a gripe session during which his abilities as a coach were questioned--waltzed into the Sonics locker room and tendered up his resignation to an ad hoc vote by the players. This wasn't a showdown of wills. It was a plea for euthanasia. The whole schtick, obviously, was directed at Payton, but Payton wouldn't take the bait. "I don't care if it's Fred Flintstone coaching the team," Payton said after the incident. "I want to win." What a strange, funny thing to say--funny, and sad, and revealing.
Then, two weeks later, Westphal announced to the local press that he was suspending Payton for one game after an ugly incident against the Dallas Mavericks that ended with Payton having to be restrained by teammates as he hurled foul insults at his coach. A few hours later, Payton apologized and Westphal rescinded the suspension. The schizoid transparency of the good cop/bad cop routine was embarrassing. Beyond any issues of disciplinary paternalism and administrative cowardice was the simple fact that Gary Payton had Paul Westphal's number. High noon had come and gone. Five days later, Sonics team president Wally Walker gave Westphal the boot, only 15 games into the season. He then installed former Sonics point guard and then-assistant coach Nate McMillan as "interim" head coach--a job that everyone knows should have been McMillan's from the start.
"Race, the league's taboo topic," writes David Shields in Black Planet, "is the league's true subject." Never was this taboo truth more apparent than in the collective sigh that went up from both fans and the media when McMillan took the reins. It had an aura of salvation. And the underlying cause of such exultant relief was no less obvious for being unspoken: Nate McMillan is black. The importance of this can't be understated. Not only could the new Sonics coach understand the tough, trash-talking game Payton had learned growing up on the mean streets of Oakland, he knew how to face it down, too, in a way a white coach never could. McMillan himself had played beside the volatile Payton for years, sharing responsibilities with him at the point guard position. So when the new sheriff in town handed Payton a one-game suspension on January 18 for yet another of his tirades, it sure as hell stuck. No more bullshit.
Stern, team-focused, and tough-minded, McMillan's style of basketball is representative of a generation that is rapidly disappearing from today's iconic NBA. This was old-school stuff, part Lenny Wilkins and part Malcolm X--dignity, discipline, and focus. Payton responded almost immediately. There would be no more waltzing with whitey, no pulling rank and blowing storm fronts of attitude. After McMillan laid down the law, Payton was a dove: controlled and behaved, yet undiminished. He was a wonder to behold on the court, playing some of the best basketball of his career. Watching Payton work the floor, there was little doubt that he elevated his team.
Exhibit 2: Vin Baker. Of all the Charlie Browns in professional sports, Baker is surely the Charlie Brownest--an addled sad sack who was brought in for $87 million just three years ago and who, in that same span of time, has had one of the worst nosedives in recent athletic history. Baker's psychosomatic retardation on the court has been so painful to behold, so full of thwarted desire and tough odds and ill-conceived intentions, that one almost wishes Payton would creep up behind him and mercifully end the misery.
Baker is swamped in tragedy.
From the minute he set foot in Seattle, he was screwed. I used to think that he had simply crumpled under the fierce browbeating of Payton and the hyper-competitive angst he often hones on underachieving teammates. (Recall the way Shawn Kemp, the very man whose shoes Baker was hired to fill, underwent a similar kind of psychological and physical deterioration. Kemp wound up in rehab for cocaine abuse this year, his career as a Portland Trailblazer all but kaput.) The problem goes well beyond interpersonal dynamics, though. Baker's problems seem to be deeply spiritual. The poor guy just isn't cut out for the gloomy, gothic atmosphere that suffuses this dank little city, right down to its sports teams. He's too vulnerable to waterlogging, and far too susceptible to the blunted adversities of the Northwest. For all the recent economic booms and attendant boosterism, Seattle is traditionally a town of losers. As artist Art Chantry once pointed out, this is the place where the Manson family used to come on vacation. Chronic defeatism is as much our aesthetic as our curse. Even our victories are corrosive. Vin was led astray when he was bribed out here to the final frontier. And he just never evinced the thick skin required to overcome his slump under the relentless, unforgiving scrutiny of the sports press; and that, in the end, is his particular cross to bear. He came in a god, but he'll leave a goat.
And finally, Exhibit 3: Every narrative has its author. In locating the compelling force behind the Sonics story, we need look no further than the front offices of owner Barry Ackerley's Full House Sports & Entertainment, a place of intrigue, executive mismanagement, and unimaginable financial excesses. The buck stops here. Nearly every single piffling-to-catastrophic problem the Sonics have experienced over the past decade derives, ultimately, from the monstrous ineptitude of the Sonics corporate wing, headed up by president Wally Walker: overpaying a talentless Jim McIlvaine, which made an underpaid Shawn Kemp leave town; then bringing in an overpaid Vin Baker, and, a season later, firing Coach George Karl after he had amassed one of the most successful records of the decade, replacing him with Westphal, which made Payton furious; then secretly looking to trade Baker, which made Payton furious; and the dog ate the cat that swallowed the rat that ate the spider that swallowed the fly, etc., etc.
And now along comes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Last January, Schultz purchased the entire Full House franchise (including the WNBA's Seattle Storm) for $200 million from Ackerley under the auspices of the Basketball Club of Seattle, a network of local big-money tech investors with ostensibly limited say in team operations (yeah, right, in the same way Kissinger had nominal say in Nixon's foreign policy). The whole situation, needless to say, smells a little funky to me. Schultz, after all, is an immediate intellectual descendant of Bill Clinton's centrist brand of touchy-feely corporate liberalism. In his business acumen and media savvy, we discover a shining example of the empty values of incessant consensus-seeking and idle-hand compromise, masquerading as some kind of sunshiny civic accessibility. Schultz was already on the diplomatic make at a game on April 15, glad-handing fans as they poured through the doors of KeyArena while photo-op flashbulbs snapped and popped around him. This, followed by a post-game town meeting with fans to discuss the future of the Sonics franchise. Christ, what a wicked irony it is that as every last bastion of democracy falls to hell in this country, corporate owners start pimping some twisted, trumped-up species of republicanism. Worst of all, Schultz recently started up a huggy-bear guest column in the Sunday Seattle Times sports pages detailing his personal experiences as the Sonics new chairman. Talk about corporate pandering and mutual masturbation. While they're at it, why not let Boeing CEO Phil Condit have a go? I bet he'd have a lot to say, too. What a butchery of journalistic standards.
It was upon this cluttered stage that the Sonics found themselves thrust during the 2000-2001 season. And in sketching the outlines of that stage, I realize just how far afield I've come from any mention of the intrinsic seduction that draws us to basketball in the first place. So it goes with the Sonics. They are a team that has succeeded despite every complication. In fact, the very definition of the team's success for the last 10 years seems synonymous with overcoming. The Sonics swim through their own miasma, and the miracle is that they've done it so consistently well. This goes a long way in explaining the addictive appeal they hold for so many fans. It's a bittersweet, love-hate sort of thing, a spike in the punch, a sugarcoated shot of poison. Again, I can't imagine a team more suited to its environs. The Sonics are so very Seattle.
This season in particular was characterized by a frenetic back and forth, a darting between really big highs and super-low lows. The needle swung constantly to extremes. Elation. Crash. Elation. Crash. This trend couldn't have started more dramatically. As if the firing of Westphal and the subsequent hiring of McMillan weren't enough to inspire a bit of hope and whip up mournful fans, the Sonics immediately went on a tear. After their miserable 6-9 start, the team inaugurated the new leadership by going 11-5, taking down, among others, Portland, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Miami. The transformation was amazing, an overnight revolution born of unadulterated enthusiasm. It was a fairy tale, though, and like all fairy tales, its truths were pumped up and its sustainable reality false. When Vin Baker's last-minute jump shot against Charlotte hit high off the rim, bounced twice off the top of the backboard, and fell right through the hoop as the buzzer sounded--a basket I still have a hard time believing in--you could almost feel the wave break. The Sonics lost six out of their next seven games.
Then they beat the Lakers, again, and Sacramento, again. In fact, the Sonics swept their season series against Los Angeles, completely dominating the reigning world champions in every aspect of the game, on every inch of the floor. Obviously, this amounts to something more than a fluke. The Sonics are as stacked with talent as any team in the league; when they are firing on every cylinder, with a balanced attack at both ends of the court, they can beat anyone thrown their way (except maybe the San Antonio Spurs). All of which begs the eternal question: Why the consistent inconsistency? How is it they smash great ball clubs, and then lose to shitty teams like Vancouver, Detroit, Boston, and New Jersey? What's up with the David-and-Goliath meets the Tortoise-and-the-Hare routine?
I've offered a lot of flapadoodle, here and elsewhere, about how the Sonics are cosmically affected by the whole dark, demented, Twin Peaks milieu of Seattle itself. Indeed, it does seem at times that the team represents a sort of psychic barometer of our local subculture, in the same way I think Nirvana, Bill Gates, Ted Bundy, and the Mardi Gras riots tell us something important about the freaky, spongy, unstable ground upon which we so blithely trod. Suggesting such things is fun, but not very felicitous. In order to cough up a more viable theory about the Sonics' inconsistencies, I believe we need only reverse the proposals of those boneheaded parrots who call in on local sports radio programs and--voilà!--we arrive at a proximate cause of the Sonics' difficulties. In other words: trades.
It is a commonly held belief among the more reactionary wing (i.e., most) of the Sonics' fan base that the solution to every problem is to be found in endlessly trading players. The assumption is that, given enough time and enough money and a full supply of talented free agents, you will arrive at perfection. What usually happens, as with the Sonics, is that you show up at the beginning of every season with a new batch of guys who don't know how to play together. In the service industry, this is called a high rate of employee turnover, which typically leads to an atmosphere of mistrust, disharmony, and short money counts at the end of the day. It's a Band-Aid policy executed in bad faith. Sure, it's possible these days for cynical owners to up and buy themselves a championship--but it doesn't last. You can't bank a dynasty on a superstar turnstile. Remember the Florida Marlins?
Granted, because the situation has been so mutually disastrous, the Sonics desperately need to swap Vin Baker for a good, solid power forward. Of course, they'll never get Baker's full worth, but at least they can try now that he's past the third year of his contract. So it goes. Beyond this, though, Schultz and CEO Wally Walker should leave the team well enough alone. I firmly believe that all this current lineup requires is the time and patience to get everyone in sync. McMillan, who has already proven himself to be a canny, adaptable head coach, has all the talent he needs in Rashard Lewis, Desmond Mason, and Ruben Patterson (all of them under 25). Tampering with the formula, rather than letting it play out, is the most shortsighted of solutions. And contrary to popular opinion, Gary Payton deserves better.
Because this, in the end, is what it all boils down to: Gary Payton. He is both the focus of and the reason for the team as it now exists. Over the course of a decade, Payton has transformed himself into one of the best players in the league and one of the greatest all-around point guards in the history of the NBA. He's been a perennial All-Star. In 1996, he led the Sonics to the cusp of a world championship. Now 32, there's been no apparent slackening or deterioration of his natural abilities; if perhaps he's slowed a bit, he's well made up for it with an incredible economy of movement. And while Payton is hardly one of the most acrobatic or spectacular or even graceful of players to watch, your eyes are still drawn to him at all times. His presence is riveting. Payton is always at war with his own physical limitations; he works though them with a combination of daring and exertion that borders on slapstick. Like Charlie Chaplin, he seems to imperceptibly transcend the laws of physics through sheer willpower. He makes baskets that make you shake your head.
The centrality of Payton's role has always brought a load of heat on him, but it got especially bad this year. His aggressive character and animated, often explosive disposition--not to mention his occasional aloofness--inspire a mealy ambivalence in many fans. His ability to lead the team is constantly questioned. Earlier this season, when Payton was struggling with Westphal, there was heated talk of trading him away and rebuilding the team from the ground up. Thankfully, this brand of extremist bullshit and scapegoating ceased not long after McMillan took over.
The fact is, Payton had his best season ever this year. He salvaged the Sonics from absolute mediocrity. He made the agonies of our addiction worthwhile by dealing a continual dose of the pure, powerful stuff, by quelling our anxiety with a kaleidoscopic display of talent. If, by chance, he is bumped off the Sonics next year, the team will collapse under its own anonymous weight. The prospect of such a thing makes me tremendously sad. If he returns, though, as it looks like he will, there's reason to believe the Sonics will be vastly better than they were this season. They will win 50 games; they will make the playoffs.
Of course, either way, we'll all be there, watching. We just can't help ourselves.