In the 1995-96 NBA season, Gary Payton, point guard for Seattle’s SuperSonics, did something remarkable – in addition to recording a box score of 19 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game, he punished lollygagging opponents by stealing the ball 231 times in the regular season. For this effort he earned the nickname The Glove; by the by he was also awarded Defensive Player of the Year.
Payton’s teammates, rallied by his monster effort on both sides of the floor, pitched in as well and ended up winning 68 games. This streak they continued in the playoffs to become Western Conference champions. Despite having such formidable accessory weaponry as Detlef Schrempf and a 20/2/11 Shawn Kemp available at veteran coach George Karl’s disposal, Seattle never got to celebrate ultimate glory – as was the case with most NBA success stories in the 1990s, Payton’s Sonics ran into the brick wall of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, who put them away 4-2 in the league finals to begin their second threepeat.
The Sonics earned well over half of those 68 wins at a stadium then doing business for the first season under a new name – KeyArena, named for the venerable Midwestern regional depositary KeyBank, whose $15.1 million bid for the naming rights satisfied Seattle mayor Norm Rice’s long-held dreams for a state-of-the-art pro sports facility in the Emerald City. (Until last month, Rice had been Seattle’s only black elected mayor – Bruce Harrell just became the second.) In fact, while mayor Rice’s architects were busy renovating the KeyArena-in-waiting, Payton’s Sonics were briefly ousted from Seattle, playing instead at a PNW motorist’s favorite landmark, the TacomaDome, some 30 miles to the south.
In the 27 seasons before 1994, the SuperSonics played their home games at the same arena, then named simply the Coliseum. It finished construction in 1964 under the watchful eyes of Paul Thiry, who had a slightly scaled-down version built two years prior for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair; the Space Needle was first unveiled for the same occasion.
The Beatles performed twice at the Coliseum to crowds of 14,000; three other professional sports franchises played there; it hosted the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in 1987, and future Sonics vanquisher Michael Jordan won his first dunk contest there.
Five years after the best moment KeyArena had yet had, the Sonics’ Game 5 win over the Bulls on a Friday in June of 1996, ownership of the team transferred to local nincompoop Howard Schultz, then CEO of Starbucks and lately a presidential pretender. The coffee mogul went to Seattle City Council a few years later hoping to have the renovation costs of KeyArena publicly defrayed; when this attempt at financial hardball failed, he sold the team to a willing gaggle of oil and gas enthusiasts of Oklahoman extraction.
What follows is famous – Aubrey McClendon, who pioneered fracking and founded Chesapeake Energy, an entity solely responsible for 1 in every 1000 lbs of industrial greenhouse gases emitted in the thirty years following 1988, shanghaied the Sonics to Oklahoma City. They became the Thunder, and Kevin Durant became the last NBA player ever drafted in Seattle.
Perhaps you get the point I’m trying to make by now; if not, a dash more history brings us to the present. With no regular tenant, the building born for a World’s Fair fell into disrepair. KeyBank declined to renew their naming rights in 2011, but with no suitors on offer, the arena continued to go by the bank’s title, like some Austenite waif doomed to marry her parents’ first choice. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sniffed at the possibility of an expansion team calling it home. The NBA simply ignored the prospect.
By 2016, however, conditions in Seattle had changed sufficiently to admit a second life for the pyramid. Now-disgraced but then-mayor Ed Murray, approaching reelection, made KeyArena’s revitalization a pet project; when he resigned the following year, his replacement, Jenny Durkan, brought the campaign across the finish line. A contractor was selected in 2017 – the NHL joined negotiations the following week – and by late 2018, the lurid powers-that-be of the hockey world had granted Seattle their Kraken. The NBA, never unhappy to join a party, sent the stadium off for extensive renovation with a preseason exhibition game between Durant’s new team, the Golden State Warriors, and the hapless Sacramento Kings – Durant scored 26 points to win.
While Murray-Durkan opportunism was certainly one driver of KeyArena’s rehab, the other was likely more impactful. For by 2017, Seattle’s homegrown corporate Cthulhu du jour, Amazon, had swallowed up half of the e-commerce market. Financial commentator Jim Cramer that same year included the company in his coining of the acronym FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) to describe the technology powerhouses whose soaring valuations would propel equity markets to their dizzying heights in the Trump era.
Such prowess had given Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, dreams of grandeur; finding time away from his philanthropic, romantic, and extraterrestrially avionic efforts, he sent a trunk of ducats down Mercer St and asked if the city would be so kind as to begin referring to the Seattle Center Arena (neé KeyArena (neé Coliseum)) as the Climate Pledge Arena.