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Best Seat in the House

Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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April 15, 2008 4:21 PM

Does The Season End With a Sonic Boom or a Whimper?

Posted by Rod Mar

How might Seattle's basketball franchise end?

With a Sonic boom? Or with a whimper?

However it ends, it won't be the performance of point guards or power forwards, it will be the work of litigators. That we know for sure.

I was at KeyArena on Sunday evening when the Sonics played their last home game of the season, a game against the Dallas Mavericks, who are battling for a playoff spot.

Seattle, on the other hand, has been playing for pride for months and struggling to reach the 20-win mark...still.

As most of you know, Seattle is struggling to keep the Sonics in Seattle.

I'm not a sports columnist, but I made my feelings known last week.

Because there is the possibility that this could be the last Sonic home game EVER, we decided to add shooters. Staff photographers Steve Ringman and Greg Gilbert joined me. Steve is a great photojournalist who has a knack for finding timely and storytelling features at big events. Greg shot the first-ever Sonics game back in 1967, so it was fitting that he be there for the possible finale.

Game action was going to be an afterthought at this game. The big story was the end of the season, and possibly the franchise's life in Seattle. With Seattle cruising along with a record of 18-62, post-season implications were nil for the home team.

One challenge that I discussed with my editors before the game was trying not to go overboard with "sign" photos -- fans holding up signs. Visually, they get old very fast, but on the other hand, signs are the voice of the fans in times like these, so we knew we'd have to have some of them in the mix.

First job was to get a photo on our homepage before the game started. The great thing about having terrific co-workers is that teamwork is not a problem. Greg headed outside to shoot fans coming in, Steve headed to the upper reaches of the arena to find fans and I headed down to the court.

Jillian Jackson had a big ol' homemade sign and she and her dad were down near the court during warmups. Her dad, a lifelong Sonics fan, wrote about witnessing the final game. I'm always careful and really skeptical about kids holding signs at news events (as in, finding little three-year olds holding signs at strike rallies..."Really, little Joshua? You're not even in preschool yet but you understand labor law?!"). But I asked Jillian about her sign, and she told me she'd spent two hours with her parents making it. She had perhaps the best quote of the night when the Sonics won, asking her dad, "Do we get to keep the Sonics now that they won?"

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 70mm, ISO 1600, 1/320 sec.,f2.8)

Kevin Durant, Seattle's rookie superstar, was introduced before the game:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, 24-70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 24mm, ISO 1600, 1/320 sec.,f2.8)

Thought I might as well as document everything, in case this would be the last game in Seattle. To that end I tried to make a different photo of the opening tip, but it fairly sucked:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF24-70mm/f2.8 lens @ 24mm, ISO 1600, 1/500 sec.,f2.8)

Durant got loose for a breakaway dunk. Wish he was approaching the basket from the opposite side so he'd be facing me instead of in profile. Damn.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 70mm, ISO 1600, 1/320 sec.,f2.8)

"Sign photos" were everywhere to be seen. I was once a high school English teacher (not that you'd know by my writing), but note to Sonics fans -- learn to spell.

At least this first sign has no spelling errors.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 200mm, ISO 1600, 1/125 sec.,f2.8)

Dude, before you call someone a "theif", learn to spell it. Or, at least call him a "criminel". Oh, and spell the guy's name right, too. I'm kidding!

(Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN, EF 300mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, 1/250 sec.,f2.8)

Boy, it was sure easier to spell the name Locke than Gregoire correctly. Or Evans, or Ray.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 200mm, ISO 1600, 1/200 sec.,f2.8)

Former Sonics were in attendance including "Downtown" Freddie Brown, nicknamed so for his propensity to shoot long-range jumpers from "Downtown". He's leading a group in trying to build a new sports arena in Seattle.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN, EF 300mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1000, 1/320 sec.,f2.8)

The biggest ovation was saved for former Sonic Gary Payton, who came into town for the final game. It was interesting on so many levels that Payton was in attendance. His jersey would surely be retired and hung in the KeyArena rafters should the team stay, but more than that, Payton served as a lightning rod of sorts when the team changed direction and eventually became the failing franchise they are now.

Payton was a brash, cocky, trash-talking point guard whose toughness Sonics fans came to appreciate. But when Howard Schultz bought the team, it was obvious that Payton was not the type of player Schultz thought was the right image for his franchise. I'll never forget the media day when Payton chose not to show up over some perceived slight by the franchise (the Glove was not a perfect citizen by any stretch), and Schultz reacted by denouncing him to the media, suggesting that if Payton worked at Starbucks, that sort of absence wouldn't fly.

I think that was the day when most of us who cover the team realized that Schultz might not be fit to be an NBA owner. Heck, the media wasn't even mad at Gary for skipping media day, and Schultz was threatening to punish him like a lazy barista. Good in principle, but bad in the business of the NBA where the players are the show.

Anyway, Payton got a well-deserved standing ovation.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 24-70mm/f2.8 lens @ 42mm, ISO 1000, 1/400 sec.,f2.8)

Even though Dallas had an early lead, the Sonics battled back late in the fourth quarter. I was in the upper reaches trying to make a better overall photo of the arena. "Try and get some fans or something in there," said my editor. Kevin Durant hit a huge three and I got some fans in my frame.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 16-35mm/f2.8 lens @ 18mm, ISO 1600, 1/320 sec.,f2.8)

Time was running out in the game and it was close so I hustled down to the court for the end and made a jubliation photo. It's not great. It's barely even good because you can't see faces, but it was "good enough" to make the paper.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 16-35mm/f2.8 lens @ 19mm, ISO 2000, 1/500 sec.,f2.8)

Seattle won in the final seconds and in that fourth quarter it seemed like old times. The place was rocking, the fans were chanting. Except for chanting "SUPER....SONICS!" like they did in the heyday of the '90's, they were chanting "SAVE OUR SONICS!" and "BENNETT SUCKS! BENNETT SUCKS!".

And for once, basektball fans weren't referring to referee Bennett Salvatore, they were referring to Clay Bennett.

It was once the game ended that things got surreal again. No acknowledgment of the end of the season, no video recaps. I didn't expect and acknowledgment that this might be the last game ever -- even Clay Bennett and his boys aren't that stupid. But seasons usually end with something -- a group wave by the players, a brief speech thanking the fans by a star player or coach. But this time, nothing.

And as Lear said, "nothing becomes of nothing."

Once the players left the floor and the excitement of the victory was gone, there was a still emptiness about the arena. Most fans simply left. Some stayed and took photos to commemorate the occasion, just in case, to be able to prove "they were there" the day it all ended:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 16-35mm/f2.8 lens @ 18mm, ISO 2000, 1/320 sec.,f2.8)

Others just stood, stunned, or so it seemed:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 90mm, ISO 2000, 1/160 sec.,f2.8)

Finally, I found an image that seemed to put it all together when I spotted a sign left by a fan. By getting low with a wide-angle lens, I was able to put the sign in the foreground and empty seats and lingering fans in the background:

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 16-35mm/f2.8 lens @ 16mm, ISO 2000, 1/320 sec.,f2.8)

After heading back to the photo workroom to transmit once again (for the fourth time in the evening), I decided to go foraging again. I caught Kevin Durant and his brother Charlie exiting the arena and made two frames.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 16-35mm/f2.8 lens @ 16mm, ISO 3200, 1/160 sec.,f3.2)

I had always thought that the deep ramp that the players use to walk in and out of the arena was kind of lonely and foreboding at the same time. This frame has more mood, and it's because of the ramp.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 16-35mm/f2.8 lens @ 16mm, ISO 3200, 1/160 sec.,f3.2)

So that was it. In my estimation the season ended with both a boom and a whimper. Boom when they defeated two playoff-contending teams in the heat of April in games that brought life back to KeyArena.
Whimper when the fans left the arena, not knowing the future of their team.

It's been a busy week. The Dalai Lama was in town, the Sonics played the home finale for the season, and work was full of drama. I'm going to take a week off from work. When I come back I can discuss my recent forays into multimedia, or finally (!) get around to some questions and answers, so if there's something you want to know, hit me up.

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