SEATTLE — While it isn’t the Sonics — at least not yet — NBA basketball will make its Climate Pledge Arena debut Oct. 3 in a “Rain City Showcase” exhibition game between the L.A. Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers.
A news conference was held Wednesday at Climate Pledge to announce the first NBA contest in this city since a similar October 2018 exhibition and comes amid increased talk of a Sonics rebirth. The Clippers are owned by longtime Seattle-area resident and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer while the Trail Blazers are managed by Jody Allen, the Seattle-based sister of deceased Microsoft co-founder and team owner Paul Allen.
“I think it validates the fact that we have a great Seattle market,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said in an interview after the news conference. “I think by having this game here … some of the players that will play will get a chance to see, in a more informal way, Seattle at its best.”
Harrell declined to comment on whether he’d had any recent conversations with NBA officials about expansion.
“I’m going to get away from specifics on that just for obvious reasons,” he said. “But I have made it very clear that I don’t think there’s anyone around here that wants to get an NBA team back as badly as myself.”
Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Fame former all-star point guard who played for the Sonics and then returned to coach them to the 1979 NBA title, agreed the upcoming exhibition will be a showcase of sorts for the city with regards to the league.
“It shows how popular the sport is in this town,” Wilkens, who resides in Bellevue, said after speaking at the news conference. “I mean, this is a great sports town and basketball has a great legacy here. There are so many young people growing up and wanting to be a part of that. So, here is an opportunity again, to get it back.”
Plenty has changed since that prior Seattle exhibition game in 2018 between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings served as the final event at what was then known as KeyArena.
That venue has since been overhauled into Climate Pledge for nearly $1.2 billion, with an entirely new interior built beneath a historically preserved, 44-million pound roof. Climate Pledge, home of the NHL’s Kraken and WNBA’s Storm, has also been specifically outfitted for NBA play with $50 million of interior features geared toward that league, lending somewhat of an audition-type element to the upcoming preseason affair.
“There are no more excuses,” Wilkens said. “I mean, we’ve got a beautiful place here. You can’t say that ‘We need a new building, we need this, we need that.’”
Gillian Zucker, president of business operations for the Clippers, said the idea for the game came about when her team’s coach, Tyronn Lue, had a recent conversation with Trail Blazers counterpart Chauncey Billups.
“Ty really wanted to match wits in the preseason with Chauncey,” Zucker said. “And so, here we are with tickets going on sale, fans getting fired up and our entire organization looking forward to participating in this first Rain City Showcase.”
The NBA had long resisted talk of replacing the former Sonics franchise, which relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008. One of the major reasons for the team leaving was the inability of former Sonics owner Howard Schultz to acquire a new, taxpayer-subsidized arena for his team to play in.
Schultz later sold the team to a group headed by Clay Bennett, who moved it to Oklahoma two years later under a new “Thunder” name. After nearly a decade of various groups jockeying to build a new arena within the greater Seattle region, former NBA executive Tim Leiweke and his Oak View Group won the rights to rebuild KeyArena beneath its roof in June 2017.
Leiweke has since maintained his goal is to have a reborn Sonics franchise playing in the arena, but cautioned that he can’t get ahead of league commissioner Adam Silver and other team owners. Silver had insisted for years the league wasn’t close to expanding, but opened the door to the possibility in December 2020 as his league grappled with reduced revenues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
NBA media personality Bill Simmons said on his podcast in February that he “had intel” the league is contemplating expansion and that Seattle and Las Vegas would be the two front-running candidates. Simmons speculated that NBA star LeBron James could be involved in owning a Las Vegas franchise.
Leiweke then announced a month later that OVG was building a new 20,000-seat arena in Las Vegas that could host an NBA team. In a phone interview at the time, he said both Climate Pledge and his forthcoming Las Vegas venue would be well positioned to accommodate expansion franchises.
“You more than anyone know we never get ahead of the commissioners,” Leiweke said. “The decision on if and when the NBA will expand is up to (commissioner) Adam (Silver) and the 30 team owners. But if those owners decide they want to expand, we believe Seattle will be in good shape with the arena there. And Las Vegas will be in very good shape as well with this project.”
Former NBA player Jamal Crawford, a Seattle native and onetime Rainier Beach High School standout, also partook in Wednesday’s news conference and said afterward this remains a tremendous basketball town in need of an NBA presence for younger players to aspire to.
“Gary Payton was coming to my high school games,” Crawford said. “Coach (Wilkens) was seeing me as a youngster. He saw Jason Terry. He saw all these guys that were coming up.
“And kids that were underneath me, Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy. They’re saying: ‘Oh, if all these guys from our community can do it, we can do it too.’ And now you’ll see kids take off. You’ll see three (Seattle area) first-round draft picks (debut) this year with more to come. That’s what makes our community special.”