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Updated Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 10:30 PM

Plenty of NBA wounds left to heal in Seattle

By Jerry Brewer
Seattle Times staff columnist

Chris Hansen's money is talking, die-hard Sonics fans are cheering like it's Game 7, and the rest of Seattle is bracing for the probable homecoming of the franchise that made this city a viable pro sports community.

Passionate supporters in Seattle are left to wonder: Barring an 11th-hour move from a Sacramento buyer, could it get any better? Aside from NBA approval of the Hansen group's agreement to buy the Sacramento Kings and relocate them to Seattle for the 2013-14 season, it seemingly doesn't get much better. But in reality, there's plenty to be done to ensure the new Sonics have the best chance to reclaim their place in the local sports scene.

It starts with winning back more of their fan base.

That process might be as difficult as Hansen's task of putting together an arena plan and acquiring an NBA team. Certainly, it figures to take longer. Despite the enthusiasm for the Sonics' return, despite the many people who have come back already because of the inclusive way Hansen has led the pursuit, the notion that the city is overflowing with NBA support is misleading. Optimism has obstructed the skepticism, but a lot of non-believers still must be converted before Seattle becomes as rich an NBA city as it used to be.

"There's no telling how some folks are going to react," said Kevin Calabro, who had been the voice of the Sonics for 21 years before the team left for Oklahoma City in 2008. "It's going to be painstaking, and it won't be overnight. But you're going to have to regain the trust of fans."

Support for the novelty of the Sonics' rebirth is almost a given. For the first two seasons, the Sonics won't have any problem filling the arena and fostering excitement. People will be so happy that a franchise has returned. New fans will join the die-hards. Every Sonics game will be a special event, and that will attract casual fans.

When the Sonics move to their new Sodo arena (assuming that plan holds up to environmental and economic impact reviews), the first season or two won't be a problem, either. But even though things will be good in the beginning, fences must be mended locally, connections must be re-established, and faith must be restored. A significant portion of fans who swore off the NBA after the Sonics' ugly 2008 departure must be convinced to support the product again. And the business community, which had started to do the moonwalk even before Howard Schultz sold the team to Oklahoma investors, must be won over, too.

There are some sobering facts about the traction the NBA has lost in this city. Seattle Times research maven Gene Balk, who crunches numbers in his brilliant FYI Guy blog on seattletimes.com, recently detailed that, in Scarborough Research surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012, only 4.1 percent of people in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area expressed that they had a "very high" level of interest in pro basketball's greatest league.

That ranked Seattle 75th of 78 major markets surveyed. And it's a 53 percent decline from 2005, the Sonics' last playoff season, when 8.9 percent of people in the area said they had a "very high" interest in the NBA. On average, from 2000-07, Balk's research showed that 7.5 percent had a "very high" interest level in the NBA.

Are the declining numbers shocking? No. The city's anger with the NBA and its commissioner, David Stern, is well documented. But the information does focus the challenge awaiting Hansen if he can bring the Sonics back.

Hansen has already done much to help with the healing. He and his partners also seem like potential owners who will be fan friendly. How they set up the franchise will mean much.

"If this happens, at the beginning, the roster will be in flux, and you'll be selling your plan and selling the idea of the NBA athlete and how you need to come to watch the best basketball players in the world," Calabro said. "But the biggest thing you have to do to sell the fan base — put together a great front office. Go out and get the best of the best. Find a face of the franchise that people believe in and can relate to. You have to get it right when you reopen the door. You have to demonstrate clearly, 'Hey, these guys are serious.' "

Perhaps that's why NBA insiders are speculating that, if Hansen's purchase goes through, he will hire a big-name team president. Phil Jackson's name has been floated out there. Spurs executive R.C. Buford has been mentioned. Larry Bird, too. The Kings roster will have to be torn apart, and the man in charge of the rebuilding had better be competent. Otherwise, the NBA's return to Seattle will be akin to the disappointment of its return to Charlotte with the expansion Bobcats.

Hansen gets it, and I'm sure he will make good hires who stir excitement. And his trustworthy presence as the majority owner should help with still-angry fans.

Some will never come back, and that's just an indicator of how deep the wound is. But some can be won back, and new fans can be found amid the thrill of something that is both retro and new. How Hansen rolls out the franchise will be an intriguing story line — provided he acquires a franchise to roll out.

"I think fans have had enough time to vet their frustration and passion," Calabro said. "After 4 ½<133>years, you can let that steam go a little bit. I know I've had to work through all those feelings. Now, I'm just ready to see NBA basketball back."

That bandwagon is filling up, but there are plenty of seats remaining.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.


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