Tears From a Clown, Part One

To anyone that considers himself or herself a true Seattleite, Washingtonian, or Northwesterner (note that Northwesterner isn't a word, but Northeasterner is…how fitting), July 18th, 2006 will mark a permanent etch of despair on your soul.

More specifically, July 18th’s the day a two-year, rhetoric-filled, gainsay between Howard Shultz and the City of Seattle finally came to a head, forever inverting the poles or our sports-loving essence.

As much as I want to, I’m going to refrain from bashing the parties involved and responsible. Given my state of depression and overwhelming wave of hopelessness on the issue, I wouldn’t be giving anyone their deserving ferocity. As I write this, I’m less useful than the soldier from Metallica’s “One” video, nodding Morse Code communiqués to family and friends, vs. my standard cuddly outward presence. So, I’ll rest and mourn today, to fight on tomorrow.

The only angst retrievable from my defeated stature relates to a similarly tumultuous time in the city’s existence. It was a time that also involved the city, big business (Starbucks as well), and an outraged populace; the WTO riots of 1999 and 2000.

The ingredients of my soul drew me downtown those years, like a teen to peer acceptance. Years of narcotic and hallucinogenic consumption had romanticized anything that appeared chaos; the repeated readings of Camus’ “The Stranger” established my place in our existential existence, assuring my participation and interaction. I wasn’t there for any great cause. More the mocking all parties involved.

I found irony in the organized Anarchists protests and displays. I chastised and challenged the individuals smashing the storefronts, on the validity of their cause. I sarcastically informed the animal-righters with their alignment of dolphins over the lovable tuna. But more germane to today’s horrific news, I recollect confronting specific individuals for their systematic bashing of anything and all that was Starbucks and GAP.

True to my nature, this was nothing more than a selfish way to please my own thirst of irritating nameless people, desire for Starbucks Coffee, and frequent purchasing of GAP clothes (remember, this was 1999 - the GAP was still cool then). I didn’t understand why they didn’t trust either company, but more importantly, a Seattle icon like the founder of Starbucks.

All I can say now is that those unshaven, intentionally unpredictable, non-conforming, olive- dressed vandals were half right that day. Starbucks IS run by a double-talking man whose soul has been harvested and left barren by the lure of dollars. A man who’ll embed himself into your heart with his talk of civic duty, only to rip it out through the same embedded puncture as if it were a harpoon.
I’ve been called the Tin Man many times in my life; wearing that unique lack of humanity as a badge amongst the “lesser” populace. But July 18th has disarmed me of that badge as feelings of pain are overwhelming and chilling my heart. That’s how much the Sonics and the NBA meant to me.

More than any other sport, the NBA evokes images of personalities over collective units or teams. The ability connect to those colorful individuals is due many factors. If you attend a game, even in the cheap seats, you’re within throwing distance of cherished heroes or villains of roundball. From more expensive seats or television you can see their facial expressions, understand their pain, or sense their triumph. You see it all, everything about that player; good, bad, or indifferent. You know them, what makes them tick, their shortcomings, and what drives them.

Test yourself on this point; quickly think of the 1995 Mariners, then the 2005 Seahawks. If you’re not currently physically restrained at Western State Hospital…many names and situations scurry across your memories. With only a few personalities differentiating them from the pack.

Now conjure the 1996 Supersonics; you immediately think of Gary Payton’s swagger, the Reign Man’s samurai dunks, McMillan’s heart, Brickowski’s methodical unintentional rough play, or the psychotic dog-bitten scarred face of George Karl.

This is what separates the NBA from all other sports, the simplistic evocation of not only the players’ skill-but their soul. All of which conjures up smiles and laughter with such ease; childhood memories are its only rival.

There are numerous names and faces of Supersonics having brought delight and pain to me over the years. Some through their exquisite and artistic skills, others through their ability to overcompensate for their lack of athleteticism, and the special ones who had just enough of both to become legends. My memory and appreciation for the Supersonics history is limited only by age, personal presences, and the annihilation of many brain cells. So forgive and remind me if I’m remiss in any way.

The earliest retrievable visions of the Supersonics are those great teams of the eighties. Those Bickerstaff-led teams always grabbed hold of the city’s imaginations with their ability to make the playoffs, even if barely, and demolish opponents once in. Those mid-to-late eighties teams had everything you’d ever want in a squad. Deadly and pure shooters, cocky and confrontational down-low presences, and what amounted to an NHL goons coming off the bench to use all six of their “accidental” elbows. Their philosophy was simple; we’re going to put up 120 points, throw you an elbow, and play little defense…see if you can keep up.

Tom Chambers was deadly from any position on the court. He could drive by and emasculate you with a posterizing dunk, or carve out the opponents winning spirit with his silky smooth jumper. Ever the shooter, Chambers didn’t even give his mother an assist for his birth; all the more reason to love the original Tommy Gun.
If you were to look up the word “scorer” in the dictionary the name Dale Ellis would appear. Dale Ellis had the ability to take over any game, at any time, regardless of who was given the demoralizing task of guarding him. His range was only limited by the team bus, anything outside of that was conceivably two points. He was so confident in his abilities; “he wouldn’t pass you the salt at the breakfast table” as Kevin Calabro would say.

The third, and to me most memorable, super power on that team was Xavier McDaniel….aka the X-man. Xavier is what Muhammad envisioned when he invented the power forward. He could stomp on your psyche by posting-up and muscling in a bucket, quash your spirit with a key rebound, or intimidate you with a precision elbow followed up with a angry scorn an inch from your face. X-man was, simply put, masterful.

Those teams also started an unheralded youngster from NC State that could eliminate an opposing player’s ability to accomplish the fundamentals on defense, then give out more assists than the Red Cross on the other end. Nate McMillan, a second round draft pick, lead the 1986-87 under .500 Supersonics to the Western Conference finals, signaling all of us to the greatness within him.

The squads those years had numerous other characters and memorable players. Like Maurice Lucas, who based on his coarse demeanor, could’ve played along Gretzky being his personal goon, forged holes through a defensive front for Walter Payton, or equipped any MLB team with a long-hitting DH that existed to topple opposing catchers. There was the silent but effective two-headed center duo of Clemon Johnson and Alton Lister. Or Russ Schoene (aka The Original Steve Kerr), the Supersonics overlooked instant offense off the bench. All he did, or was capable of, was a jumper…but it was magic every time.

Like all things do in sports, those teams eventually fell victim to age, updated styles of play, and new direction from ownership and/or coaches, leading to irritable mediocrity. Unlike most sports franchises however, the Supersonics down years still include playoff runs and exciting moment and the twilight years of those great players and teams were no different.

The next spike of greatness from this franchise came courtesy of an improbable lifting of a ping-pong ball in the 1990 lottery, our Supersonics would have the second overall pick.

That pick was Gary Payton.

In Part Two of “Tears From a Clown”, Ryan Davis deals out more recollections of George Karl, The Glove, The Reign Man, McMillan, and of course, the greatest announcer in the biz. Stay tuned!

Known very well to friend and foe as "pehawk" in our fan forums, Ryan Davis will be providing a fresh voice on the Seahawks, Seattle sports in general, and life in a nutshell. Feel free to send your thoughts, recriminations and mule sniffs to Ryan here.

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