Long before the 12th Man cleared his throat, Seattle was mad for sports. Listen to what happened when the city won its first world championship.
“The lexicon of sport does not contain language to adequately describe the fervor of fans who saw Seattle triumph last night,” wrote the Seattle Times.
It was March 27, 1917, the day after the Seattle Metropolitans beat Montreal, 9-1, to win the Stanley Cup. People still talk about the double-hat trick Bernie Morris put on the Canadiens that night.
Fast forward 97 years. The Metropolitans folded, Morris passed away, the Pilots moved to Milwaukee, Bo Jackson ran over Brian Bosworth and the SuperSonics were kidnapped.
The century hasn’t been a complete sports downer around Puget Sound. But since those Amazin’ Mets became the first U.S. team to win the Stanley Cup, Seattle won only one other major sports championship. And that trophy now resides in Oklahoma City.
As the Seahawks gun for title No. 2 on Sunday, will a championship hex be as big an issue as the weather?
“I don’t think there’s a curse or something wrong with Seattle or its fans,” Seahawks legend Steve Largent said. “It goes to the competitive climate and not having a team with the ability to win it all. I think that may be the distinction with this team.”
For the sake of 12th Men and Women everywhere, let’s hope so. It’s not that Seattle deserves to win more than Denver. Then again, maybe it does.
Denver fans have savored two Super Bowls and two Stanley Cups in the past 20 years. And did you see the photos from Sunday’s team send-offs?
Thousands of Seahawks fans turned the streets into a pep rally as buses neared the airport. The Broncos’ farewell committee looked as if it could have fit inside Wes Welker’s locker.
“I just want us to win,” ex-Sonic and current FOXSports analyst Gary Payton said. “I don’t care if it’s 28-27, as long as we win.”
When it comes to sports, no city has suffered quite like Seattle. The Mariners, Seahawks and erstwhile Sonics have one in a combined 114 seasons. That’s not quite as bad as the Braves, Falcons and Hawks going 1-for-139 for Atlanta, but you could still call Seattle the Cleveland of the West.
That city hasn’t won a championship since 1964. But at least it had seven before then, and the Cavaliers never moved to Tulsa. Losing the Sonics is a big part of Seattle’s unique sports persecution.
“That’s a big wound to our people,” Payton said.
So is the memory of 2001, when the Mariners won an astounding 116 games and didn’t make the World Series. The Sonics won 64 games in 1995-96 season, then had the misfortune of meeting the 72-win Bulls in the NBA Finals.
In 2006, the Seahawks were victimized by some of the worst officiating in Super Bowl history. Even when the Metropolitans won in 1917, the Canadiens hadn’t bothered to bring the Stanley Cup with them. Imagine how loud the old Ice Arena would have been if Morris had skated around guzzling Olympia lager out of the Lord Stanley’s cup.
So yes, the good people of Seattle deserve to party like its 1917 when the game ends Sunday night.
“Without a doubt, the sports fan in Seattle is the best,” Sue Bird said. “They consistently provide the best home court/field advantage for all their teams. I’m thinking that a Guinness record speaks for itself here.”
The 12th Man spoke at 137.6 decibels this season at CenturyLink Field. It should be noted that all that Puget sound over the years has not been wasted.
Bird has helped the Seattle win two WNBA titles since arriving in 2002. The Storm is always at or near the top of league attendance standings.
The Sounders haven’t won an MLS title. They are like a poor man’s Seahawks, though the rich Paul Allen owns both teams. They play at CenturyLink Field in front of a zesty crowd that would feel at home in a World Cup final.
The Sounders averaged 44,038 fans last year. That was more than double what the Mariners averaged. Of course, the Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since that star-crossed 2001 season.
They led the league in runs scored, fewest runs allowed and tied the Major League record for most wins. It was all the sweeter because Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson had all jilted Seattle in the previous three seasons. Then the Yankees ruined everything by winning the ALCS.
Football’s high-water mark came in the early 1980s, when Largent was catching passes from Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg. Then came a long lull where the most memorable moments were Jackson sprinting out of the Kingdome and personally demolishing the Boz.
Mike Holmgren revived things in the early 2000s. It led to Super Bowl XL and 21-10 loss to the Steelers.
Head official Bill Leavy admitted he made two terrible calls, including a holding penalty on the goal line against Seattle. Pittsburgh might have won anyway, but you’ll never convince people in King County that there wasn’t a conspiracy afoot.
As painful as that memory is, nothing hurts like losing your first love.
“What made our city was basketball,” Payton said.
There wasn’t much else going on in the late 1960s, other than U. of Washington football. Baseball came in 1969, but the Pilots were stuck in a minor-league park and went bankrupt. They were quickly sold to a used-car salesman from Milwaukee named Bud Selig.
The Sonics arrived in 1967. A year later, they traded for Lenny Wilkens, who wasn’t just happy to be there. Expansion teams were the pits, and he was a Brooklyn native used to East Coast action. Then he got a look at Seattle and all its outdoor majesty.
“Once I got in the area and got to know the people, I fell in love with the place,” Wilkens said.
The place returned the favor, especially after Wilkens came back and coached the Sonics to the 1979 NBA title. It was the season before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started turning America onto the NBA. Seattle already had the fever. When the Sonics landed at the airport after beating Baltimore, their plane had to be diverted to different terminal.
“There were 20,000 people out there just going crazy,” Wilkens said.
There were 10 times that many the next day at the downtown parade.
“No one was burning anything or turning over trucks. They were just celebrating,” Wilkens said. “It was a magnificent time.”
The good times returned in the 1990s. Payton arrived from Oregon State. He was joined by Sam Perkins, Hersey Hawkins and Detlef Schrempf. Then they got 19-year-old Sean Kemp, who blossomed into the Reign Man.
By 1996, Seattle was thinking dynasty. But the Sonics ran into the arguably the best team in NBA history in the Finals. Why couldn’t Michael Jordan have played baseball one more year?
The Bulls won, 4-2, but Kemp averaged 23 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and shot 55 percent from the floor. Thinking all they lacked was a defensive center, the Sonics signed Jim McIlvaine to a $33 million contract.
All that did was irritate Kemp, who wanted a new deal. He sulked his way through the next season and was traded to Cleveland in a three-way deal that brought Vin Baker to Seattle.
So long, dynasty.
“I think if our team had stayed together like the Bulls or San Antonio, we’d have won a championship,” Payton said.
If Boston suffered the Curse of the Bambino, you could say Seattle was hit by the Curse of the Kempino. Bad management, an arena fight and back-room deals ensued. Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett bought the team and swore allegiance to Seattle. He quickly headed to oil country and took Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant with him.
And you wonder why the town that loved the NBA can now barely stand to watch it? Payton refuses to let the Thunder retire his jersey.
“It’s nothing against Oklahoma City,” he said, “but I didn’t play in Oklahoma City.”
That’s the Seattle sports psyche. Good times turn bad. Flags get thrown. Promises get broken. It would probably be easier if fans had never been teased by success.
“I’d rather have been there and lost,” Wilkens said, “than not been there at all.”
They’ll be there again on Sunday. Will the 12th Man be watching with his hands over his eyes?
“In sports, sometimes things happen that are just out of your control,” Bird said. “On the flip side, I don’t feel like the teams that do win are lucky. They are just really, really good. Luckily, the Seahawks fall into that category this year.”
And luckily for the Seahawks, their city is also due for some sporting luck. If it comes, how will Seattle react?
Cover your ears. The lexicon of sport can’t even begin to describe it.