SEATTLE -- The little girl wearing a Kevin Durant jersey stood sentry curbside, her long, blond hair blowing in the afternoon breeze. Her homemade sign read simply: "Don't tell me I don't matter."
AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey
Sonics fans just won't give up, as Eric Neel saw on Monday.
The man with the tanned face and gray stubble walked through the gathering crowd, silently holding up a Dennis Johnson poster circa 1979, letting his picture speak volumes.
The father put his daughter on his shoulders as they both joined the rising chant, "Save our Sonics! Save our Sonics!"
Three high school-aged buddies huddled under a birch tree on the grounds of the federal courthouse in Seattle, like the witches in "Macbeth," cursing Seattle SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett in some giddy secret tongue.
They came from all over the city. They came more than 2,000 strong. They came by bus, by car and by bicycle. They came because a trial had begun on the 14th floor of the courthouse to determine whether their team would remain in Seattle for the next two seasons. They came to catch a glimpse of Sonics legends Xavier McDaniel and Gary Payton. They came to catch the attention of media outlets in Seattle and across the country. They came to be in the company of like-minded compatriots. And most of all, they came because they love their Seattle SuperSonics.
"For all of us, growing up, the Sonics were our idols," said Seattle native and Sacramento Kings forward Spencer Hawes, who was in attendance. "They're a part of us."
In the courtroom, lawyers were debating the terms of the team's lease with the city of Seattle, arguing about whether a specific performance clause obligates the team to remain in the city and play its games in Key Arena through the spring of 2010. They parsed paragraphs and parentheticals -- Bennett's side arguing for relief from the agreement, and the city's team insisting that it was binding. They asked their witnesses for the most precise, sometimes the most miniscule, statements of fact.
On the grounds outside, under a bright summer sky, the people spoke instead from the heart, raising their voices in shouts and songs, greeting strangers like long-lost friends and raising their angry fists toward the upper floors of the courthouse. They knew the workings of the law would determine the fate of their team. But they weren't content to let a court transcript be the only story of the day.
"This isn't about the lawyers, this isn't about Clay Bennett -- this is about our team, this is about you and me," Brian Robinson, co-founder of a citizen-action group called Save Our Sonics, told the crowd.
As the people cheered, Robinson and his co-founder, Steve Pyeatt, introduced McDaniel -- who declared himself a Sonic for life -- and then Payton, who climbed up on a newspaper box, arms spread wide, face craned toward the sun, and declared, "I want them to raise my jersey in the rafters here - in Seattle!" The crowd went wild.
Hope is what fans do. The members of Save Our Sonics have worked tirelessly in pursuit of a legal basis for keeping the team in Seattle, including drafting a resolution eventually adopted by the city council stating that Seattle must hold the Sonics to the terms of their lease agreement. But maybe their most important work has been in sustaining hope, in making hope seem reasonable, in reminding the citizens and fans of Seattle that hope is its own pure good.
The crowd that gathered at the courthouse Monday afternoon -- by virtue of its size and sound and feel, by virtue of the collective perseverance on display, by virtue of the simple will of its people, who had come together to say "this is important to us" -- felt more important than the smaller group gathered in the courtroom upstairs.
The crowd felt more connected to what really connects us to sports teams, no matter where we live - passion, love, fidelity. It felt more a part of what we hope to get from sports teams, whomever we root for - a sense of pride, a sense of belonging and the enduring (even against long odds) prospect of victory.
Will it be enough? Will it keep the Sonics in Seattle? No, probably not. The world does not often work in such poetic ways. It's not always so attuned to what is right rather than what is profitable.
But it meant something. It underscored the crucial point in these negotiations (not as far as Bennett's group is concerned, perhaps, but as far as the NBA should be concerned). The Sonics have a history and relationship with the people of Seattle. And that is not as abstract as hope. It is the stuff of irrefutable fact.
"It felt great out here," said Judi Childs, president of the Sonics booster club. "There was an energy. Things were possible. I hope just by our being here and making noise that it reminds people everywhere: Our feeling about the Sonics is very real."
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him here.