While watching the San Francisco Giants play the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series last week, I had a conversation with a friend whose grandparents are baseball fans from New York City.
Although her parents ended up becoming New York Yankees fans, the talk about how the Giants last won the title in 1954 as the New York Giants made me wonder about how fans in the Big Apple think about their former team.
Coincidentally, Flip Bondy of the New York Daily News wrote about just that in an article this morning, revisiting the Giants' old stomping grounds and taking stock of people's memories of the team. While most of the people he spoke with had no idea the team even played there, one person did share some insight.
"It'll come up every once in a while among old-timers," said Veles Davis, a towers resident. "I was a little guy when they tore it down, but I learned to play basketball at Willie Mays Field around the back of the buildings. Most people are Yankee fans now. And Yankee fans don't want to know about (the Giants)."
Given the number of professional sports teams and the legacies they've established, it's not actually that surprising that New Yorkers have forgotten about the Giants. On the other hand, it's a rather sobering vision for the shelf life of a relocated team's legacy - neither animosity nor nostalgia but indifference. Build it, and they will forget, as Bondy concluded his piece.
However, a conversation with a former Seattle Sonics fan from Vancover, B.C., while visiting Oklahoma City recently reminded me of another possibility - under what circumstances would a Seattle basketball fan actually root for the Thunder?
The fact is that it should be easy for basketball fans to root for the Thunder, easily one of the most likeable and watchable units in the NBA. That would seem especially true tonight with Kevin Durant and the Thunder opening their third season in Oklahoma City tonight after LeBron James and the Miami Heat kicked off the much-anticipated 2010-11 season looking like someone had put a hex on them. That top billing in this NBA season went to LeBron and a Heat team that clearly has a lot to figure out before they're handed the championship trophy only exacerbates the good vs. evil dynamic that was established this summer between "the King" and the guy who drives a minivan.
However, that's certainly not to say that the Thunder have gone without their share of summer hype.
After pushing the two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games in one of the most exciting first-round series of the 2010 NBA playoffs, the Thunder got plenty more attention with Durant and Russell Westbrook representing the U.S. in the FIBA World Championships in Turkey in early September.
"It was a great experience - a great experience for our city," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "Oklahoma City was mentioned quite a bit during those games and they represent our team well. Russell and Kevin are team-first guys...But what an experience: to win even the exhibition games winning in Greece, winning in Spain, and then beating Turkey in Istanbul. That's a great accomplishment by the group of men that represented Team USA."
After Durant won MVP representing the country, the Thunder came home to more attention: plenty of press about the translation of off-court chemistry to on-court chemistry, a Sports Illustrated cover, and more than a few people asserting that the Thunder are a contender. All of it coheres around their young superstar who requested that Nenad Krstic and Thabo Sefolosha accompany him on the cover because they get less recognition (and now you've heard of them).
Yet it's neither the humility nor the hype around this team that make the Thunder significant enough to pay attention to. More broadly, it's that Durant is already carving himself a unique place in history at age 22, as described by Bethlehem Shoals in the Afterword of FreeDarko's just released Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History.
Kevin Durant, just barely arrived into the superstar club, is in many ways the purest example of a memory maker in the league today...What makes Durant so unique is that when he's on the court, you feel like you're bearing witness to something happening...There are no superlatives for what he does quite yet, and perhaps there will never be. LeBron is the orderly accumulation of all basketball that has come before, assimilating and surpassing; Durant is at once more and less surprising. We can discuss LeBron quasi-rationally; with Durant, we're compelled to just shake our heads as he hits another dramatic three.
What makes the memory-making capacity of Durant particularly difficult to stomach for Seattle fans is that we now bear the burden of witnessing his rookie year -- by far the most excruciating spectator experience of his young career - without the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of suffering through that adversity. Moreover, the process of bonding and coming together around Durant is so closely related to being in Oklahoma City that even their developing chemistry is a constant reminder of their relocation.
"It's quiet," said offseason signee Daequan Cook. "It keeps me a lot more well-grounded and focused."
In a quiet city with less distractions than other NBA cities - even compared to the rather relaxed pace of Seattle - the team has come together and rallied around each other.
"I think that helps us out a lot," said second-year guard Eric Maynor when asked about the team spending time together. "We go to the gym together, leave the gym, go to each other's house, play video games. It just gives us a great bond together and I think that's going to help us a lot once the season starts."
Although it's probably safe to say that Seattlites had little reason to ever think about Oklahoma City prior to the relocation, most people's general impressions of the city probably weren't too dissimilar from the players' descriptions. It's actually difficult to even imagine two metro areas that are more different than these two. Obvious political differences aside, there are times when it's hard to even imagine commonalities.
While Seattle is a beautiful walking city, sidewalks are a rarity in Oklahoma City outside of the city center. The same could be said for opportunities to recycle, much less sorting garbage. Conversely, there are plenty of opportunities to attend church on Sunday with one on almost every other block in residential neighborhoods. Seattle's assortment of vegan and vegetarian cuisine is replaced by a diverse selection of fried foods: from pickles to mashed potatoes to soda (as it turns out, most people have yet to scratch the surface of fried possibilities). While living without a constant drizzle for the majority of the year is nice, the elements are not exactly kind to Oklahoma City either.
"They only told me about the ice storms," said veteran off-season acquisition Morris Peterson drawing laughter during Thunder media day. "You know, it's quiet. When I was in New Orleans, I lived downtown and there w/as always something going on so to get a chance to have some fresh air and see more green and stuff is good."
Without making a judgment of which is "better," life moves to a different rhythm in Oklahoma City. At the same time, it's not difficult to understand why moving to this particular city - with that particular owner - was at least a secondary contributor to the shock of relocation. So the very notion that a sports team somehow binds them historically - even if the 1979 NBA Championship trophy still resides in Seattle while Durant resides in Oklahoma City - is somewhat odd. And the history left behind actually provides a lens to understand the significance of this team.
Just as Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer wrote yesterday that the Sonics' championship represented Seattle's transition from "cultural dustbin" to a cultural center in the Northwest, the Thunder represent a potentially similar coming of age for their city. As the first professional sports team in the state, the Thunder - as well as the construction of their presently unnamed arena and surrounding Bricktown - have become a symbol of the city's larger process of coming together and recovering from the 1995 bombing. The city's recently opened state-of-the-art Olympic rowing training site is only seen as further evidence of the city's growing status in sports and beyond. It's way too early in the season or the team's development to talk about what a championship would mean to the city, but the community of fans is developing along with the team and has quickly embraced them.
"I've been here since July now and I'm kinda a little bit noticeable just going to the grocery store and what not," said rookie center Cole Aldrich during media day. "And everybody is just so welcoming. And that's really, just not only Oklahoma City, but just the whole Midwest feel. Everybody's just so nice and excited about the upcoming season."
As cheesy as it sounds, the building of community both within the team and around this team at a time when the league claims to need a source of hope for small market teams is all part of what makes their continued effort to "rise together" special. There's no denying it's a good story for the NBA and they're understandably milking it as a perfectly fortuitous counter-balance to the Heat.
At the center of that is obviously Durant and it's hard to disentangle his emergence as the leader of this unit from that broader narrative. There are definitely other professional sports teams touting the strength of their relationships - the Lakers' touching ring ceremony last night is evidence of the chemistry that has helped them to two consecutive titles. For their part, Giants general manager Brian Sabean used the cliché "it takes a village" when asked for comment on their journey to the World Series. We could list others, but none has the combination of a budding superstar, growing together with a group of players drafted by the same team, with the opportunity to lift an entire community.
Ironically, it is in that feel good context that makes Seattle fans bristle at the sight of Durant's comment during training camp.
"I miss Seattle a lot," said Durant to a group of reporters during training camp. "It was my first city that I lived in on my own. It was a great city to play for. It was unfortunate for the fans what happened, but it's time to move on. I'm sure they've moved on. But in the back of my mind, I still have a thing for Seattle and always am going to remember what they've done for me."
As significant as Durant's historical legacy might become and as easy as it should be to root for the Thunder, the fact that the narrative is so heavily shaped by relocating to a new city would make it exceedingly difficult for a Seattlite to set aside the past to root for them even without the fingerprints of Clay Bennett or David Stern all over it. In a sense, the very fact that the past might prevent Seattle basketball fans from "bearing witness to something happening" only exacerbates the sting of the relocation. Liberated fandom is difficult to attain if there's a very personal history to get over.
With the energy currently around remembering the Sonics and hoping for a new team in Seattle, it's hard to imagine the gloomy scenario that Bondy describes in which a team with decades of history is simply forgotten and post-relocation history simply ignored. But with the Thunder hours away from beginning their third season in Oklahoma City, it's almost as if the story in its entirety is increasingly alienating even as it appeals to everyone else.
As great a story as it is, it's hard to imagine Sonics fans jumping on board even though they more than anyone are certainly entitled to it.