MIAMI - When the Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, some of the happiest fans in the building weren’t Heat supporters, they were Seattle SuperSonics fans.
Pockets of spectators clad in Sonics gear loudly cheered every Heat bucket and unveiled signs and banners supporting the return of the NBA to Seattle (or mocking the Thunder).
The Thunder, of course, called Seattle home until relocating for the 2008-09 NBA season.
The divorce was a bitter one — Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz, the former Sonics owner has been roundly criticized, along with Thunder owner Clay Bennett for their roles in the move and many Seattle fans refuse to consider OKC the same franchise.
This vocal group has nothing personal against Thunder fans — the animosity is mostly saved for Bennett and Schultz — but does occasionally remind OKC’s fanbase that Kevin Durant was in fact drafted by and played his first year in Seattle, among other things.
Only Durant and forward Nick Collison were on the final Sonics team.
The producers of the damning documentary about the move called Sonicsgate, were decked out in Sonics jersey and full zombie makeup (ESPN’s Bill Simmons mockingly refers to the Thunder as the “Zombie Sonics”) behind the Thunder bench on Tuesday.
Collison said he noticed them and has seen them before, but doesn’t take offence.
“I don’t take it personal, it’s more of a cause that they have, which I understand,” Collison said.
“They’re trying to get a team there and they don’t like the way that we left so it’s understandable … I don’t take it personal if they don’t (support the Thunder) it’s more they don’t like what happened and I surely understand that. I don’t take it that they don’t like me as a person.”
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey spent nearly a decade as an assistant coach in Seattle — a period where the team won four division titles and made the 1996 final — and still lives in the city with his family in the off-season.
Like Collison, Casey understands the hurt in the Emerald City, but believes more people are rooting for the Thunder than against.
“I think there’s a lot of deep-down respect because for the pure basketball fan, they see an up-and-coming young team that plays well, they’re well-coached,” said Casey over the phone from Seattle.
Casey knows some of his former supporters are now booing at places like Shawn Kemp’s bar and hopes, eventually, things settle down.
He still has friends in the organization like director of team operations Marc St. Yves, who has been with the franchise since 1979-80, when he was a ballboy.
“You’ve got some younger fans that are just looking for a cause, want to be anti-whatever and you do have some people who genuinely were hurt losing the team, but I think deep down they have to appreciate the way the team plays,” he said.
“I’m sure there are pockets of town, pockets of fans that resent that they used to be the Sonics and now are the Thunder. But life goes on, you’ve got to rally and figure out how you’re going to get another team. There’s a desire and effort to get the arena built just do whatever they can to help Chris Hansen (who is trying to bring a team back by replacing the KeyArena, which was the NBA’s smallest venue) to get the arena built. Buy season tickets, support whoever the new owner is and take over from there.”
The appetite for basketball is still strong. A host of current and former NBA players including Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford, Spencer Hawes have been involved in the movement to get a team back and former Sonics like Freddie Brown, Detlef Schrempf and John Johnson still live in what Casey called “a basketball hotbed,” as well as Bill Russell and former Raptors coach Lenny Wilkens.
Collison, who also spends his summers in Seattle, says he knows more people there who want the Thunder to win it all than the vocal minority wishing ill on the team.
“I have plenty of friends in Seattle,” Collison said
“So my friends, that is personal. They cheer for us.”