It’s easy to forget that the Seattle SuperSonics were a real NBA team. This season is the 10th that the Sonics have ceased to exist, and in fact, there only are four players still in the league with “Seattle” on their professional resume: Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Damien Wilkins and Nick Collison.
The only one still with the franchise is Collison, who remembers his time with the Sonics like it was a lifetime ago.
“I had never been to Seattle. I didn’t know much about it at all, but I was excited about it. It was the first place I lived after college,” Collison told Basketball Insiders. Drafted 12th overall by Seattle in the 2003 NBA Draft, he never had lived outside of the Midwest and was eager to spread his wings a little bit after having spent so much of his life in just one part of the country. The Pacific Northwest was a revelation for him almost immediately.
“The first city I lived in was Iowa Falls, IA, which I love, and then Lawrence, KS, but Seattle offered me things I hadn’t experienced before. It was a bigger city, but I really just kinda came home. I lived there all year round, bought a house on the lake that I still own.
“It’s a cool city, and I made a lot of friends there.”
Some of those friends were his Seattle teammates. Collison came in just a season after Gary Payton, the franchise’s most iconic player, had left, so the revamped team was a rebuilding proposition, of which Collison knew he’d be a part.
Collison missed his entire first season in the league thanks to injuries to both of his shoulders, but he made his impact on the league from the minute he was given a role. His team even won a playoff series in 2005 before bottoming out just in time to draft Kevin Durant in 2007. Things were looking up for the organization with a brand new superstar on the roster, but Seattle basketball fans’ hope and general optimism would be, unfortunately, short-lived.
Trouble Brewing in Seattle
Most of the 2007-2008 season was spent lamenting the inability to get a new arena built, but that didn’t make it any less surprising when word started to leak that Clay Bennett, an Oklahoma City businessman that led the investment group that purchased the Sonics in 2006, was considering moving the franchise to his home state. In July 2008, Bennett and the team were granted approval to relocate.
According to Collison, the players really didn’t see it coming.
“No one really even knew that [the former ownership group led by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz] were looking to sell the team until they announced it was sold, and I remember that I was shocked,” Collison said. “The team was sold to these guys from Oklahoma, and people didn’t know what it meant. They didn’t know if we’d be leaving right away or what. And then we were there two more years.
“So for two years, we’d get asked about it,” he added. “We didn’t really know anything, and they claimed to be trying to get an arena built in Seattle. It really wasn’t the best situation to play in because so much about our futures was unknown. The city, the fans felt like we were leaving, so they didn’t come out. We weren’t a great team either, which didn’t help.
“I still felt fortunate to be in the NBA, but it was a tough situation to play in those last couple years.”
The Move to OKC
Over the summer of 2008, the Seattle SuperSonics ceased to exist, with the organization then setting up shop in Oklahoma City as the newly-christened Thunder. Following a 20-win season, the team used its draft pick to select Russell Westbrook (who wore a Sonics hat on draft night), and Collison, still hanging around, found very quickly that the new city was pretty great, too.
“When they announced the move in July, I didn’t want to leave,” Collison said. “I liked it right where I was, so I had a tough time get over that. But Oklahoma City felt familiar to me right away. I played college in Kansas. I’m from Iowa. I’m from the Midwest. We had played in Oklahoma City twice back in college and probably four times when the Hornets were there, and I knew they had a great crowd.
“You know, I was looking forward to playing in front of that crowd, and I liked being in the Midwest. I felt comfortable. I knew what to expect. And then when we got there, the fans were great. Even though we started that year 3-29, they still kept coming out, still supported us, and by the end of that year, we started playing better, started getting more positivity. It felt like we had something good there.
“The next year we made a huge jump, went to the playoffs, and it’s been really just a ton of success ever since. I was able to find a role in a really good team, and those first years in Oklahoma City were great for my career. They weren’t my best years statistically, but they were my best years. The best basketball I played in my career, for sure.”
In baseball, when a player is set to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, they have to decide which hat they’re going to wear on their plaque, which is an especially challenging discussion for those who may have had huge careers for multiple franchises.
Collison, while not a Hall-of-Famer and certainly no baseball player, has a hard time identifying himself as a Sonic or a member of the Thunder. This kid from the Midwest, who has played in Oklahoma for a decade, spent his formative years in a faraway city where he still lives in the offseason. He struggles to figure out toward which city he feels more allegiance.
“I have more memories with the Thunder for sure, but I don’t forget about that time in Seattle,” Collison said. “That’s where I started my career and established myself as a player. My rookie year, I played a lot of minutes in a playoff series. That was a huge experience for me to let me know that I could be confident and I could play.
“I’ve been with one organization this whole time, but for most guys, it’s two or three cities. Most guys bounce around and play three or four different places. Drew Gooden, a guy I played with in college, played like nine different places in eight years. That’s just the way it goes for different guys.”
Collison actually is just one of a handful of veteran players still playing for his original team. Dirk Nowitzki, Udonis Haslem, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are the only players still in the league with similar years of experience and just the lone organization on the resume.
“You know, it’s rare, franchise moves, but I’ve still had a lot of stability in my career. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Back to Seattle?
As Collison heads toward the end of his career, he soon will find himself a fan of basketball rather than an employee of the NBA. As a fan and as someone owns a home in Seattle, he hopes to see the NBA return to a city that deserves a franchise as much as any city in North America.
“I’d love to see a team back there,” he admitted. “I follow all the stuff, the arena proposals and everything. I’d love to see it happen. The hard part is someone else probably would have to move for that to happen, and I know how hard that is for a home base.
“But I’d like to see it happen. I know that it’s a good fan base, and it’s got a lot of history. It’s a great city, you know? It’s kind of hard to believe there’s not a team there already. Just with all the companies that are there, how good the economy is there. Amazon, Boeing, Starbucks, Costco—there’s a lot of good stuff going on out there.
“So I’d like to see it happen. Maybe expansion then no one’s got to lose their team.”
Expansion never is completely out of the question, and if it ever does happen, it’s easy to imagine Seattle being at the top of the list of potential cities.
When Oklahoma City started the Thunder, the team history—the records, the retired numbers—stayed in Seattle. Someone really could just start the franchise right back up like nothing happened.
In retirement, it’s easy to imagine Collison courtside, rooting them on, right back where he started.
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