Excerpt from a chapter on Doug Christie in the new book Hoops Heist: Seattle, the Sonics, and How a Stolen Team’s Legacy Gave Rise to the NBA’s Secret Empire (Published by Slow Grind Media, 2020)
You can buy this book on Amazon here.
“Some people think I was the first guy to make it out of Seattle to the NBA, but that was James Edwards,” Christie says.
Edwards won a high school state title with the Roosevelt Rough Riders in 1973, played at the University of Washington until 1977, and then was drafted by the Lakers as the 46th overall pick in the 1977 NBA Draft. He’s best known for his role on the 1988-89 Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, when he won two NBA Championships.
From ’73 to ’92 there was a Seattle drought. Then, by the late 90s, the proverbial floodgates were about to open.
“When I was growing up the college coaches really didn’t come to Washington to recruit,” Christie says. “They’d go to California or maybe Oregon. But we always had the talent around the Metro area. You’d go to Rainier Beach and the gym was full. Garfield, the gym was full. These were intense rivalries with good players. They just weren’t recruited deeply. And even when we had talented guys, they’d go to Cal or Stanford and not the University of Washington. We always knew if UW could keep players home, they’d be good. But we always had a great basketball community.”
As the first player in over a decade to break out of the city and make it to the pros, Christie took it upon himself to give back and look out for the next generation of guys behind him. He launched leagues, hosted open gyms, started teams…and he made sure all of it was free so any kid could come. Most importantly, he wanted to be a visible member of the community, just as the Sonics were for him throughout his childhood. It sounds corny, but the level to which normal kids had access to their local NBA idols in Seattle simply wasn’t found anywhere else. The Sonics players weren’t just holding down a basketball job in the city, punching a clock and closing their driveways until the next game. They were part of the city. They embraced it.
“The Sonics were huge for me as a kid from the inner city,” Christie says. “To have a professional team right here. I’d ride the seven Rainier downtown and get off at the arena, and we’d see Gus Williams driving in with a Rolls Royce with his NBA 1 license plate. I loved those teams in ’77 and ’78, and then against the Bullets in ’79. I remember when they didn’t want to pay Gus Williams and fans had a going away event for him at the Seattle Aquarium. Thousands of people went to say goodbye and I went. There was a picture in the local paper of me, maybe ten years old, trying to get his autograph. He wore those classic Nike Blazers, and normally it said Nike on the back, but on Gus’s it said Wizard and I just thought that was the coolest.”
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Seattle police department had a challenging relationship with the inner-city areas. There was a lot of unrest and mistrust. One of the ways the police department thought to try to improve community relations, especially for the younger inner-city kids, was to give the cops Sonics cards, and if you were a kid you’d get the card if you approached a policeman and engaged in conversation. It was the perfect olive branch. The one thing everyone agreed upon in Seattle was their love for the Sonics, but their adoration didn’t happen in a vacuum. The organization and the players took pride in getting involved. Even notoriously tough guys like Xavier McDaniel made sure to make time for the next generation of Sonics fans, including a scrappy kid who lived on Rainier Avenue.
“I was getting in a little trouble as a kid and my mom put me in this church group called Young Life. They had this thing where, if you were selected, Xavier McDaniel would come and pick up the kid and take him to the game, and that ended up being me. I’ll never forget, he pulled up in a Range Rover and he had his wife with him. My friend Carlos and I got in the back seat and we talked sports and basketball and he asked us about school. Then we went to the game with him and we got to go into the players’ entrance and do all the things you normally don’t get to do. We went behind all the gates you couldn’t get behind, and it was an incredible experience. Carlos and I kept elbowing each other, like, are you serious right now?”
For a kid who used to sneak into games, having a backstage basketball pass with his favorite team’s most popular player was hoop nirvana. And once he got to the league himself and played for several franchises, he realized how special his experience was. Very few NBA teams were as embedded in their community and with their fans as the Sonics were.
“The city of Seattle is just different,” Christie says. “It’s not Sacramento, but it’s not New York either. The fans understood the game of basketball in many ways. If you ever went to the coliseum or KeyArena, it was rocking.”
That intense passion is what led to the equally intense devastation when it looked like the team was on its way out of town. From Christie’s perspective, the entire situation was unfathomable. There just was no Seattle without the Sonics. How could there be?
“When I first heard they were leaving, I always thought Howard Schultz should have just made a Starbucks Arena. That’s what really turned fans off, was the fact that the city didn’t want to build an arena,” he says. “I was sad as hell. It was heart wrenching. As a kid, the Sonics grounded me. They put roots in me. And I knew there were going to be a lot of kids who weren’t going to get that. Right now, Jamal Crawford could tweet out that he was going to have a summer league game at midnight, and three thousand people would show up. As big as hoops are in that area, to not have a pro team is a sin.”
Hoops Heist is the first publication from 2x NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas’s Slow Grind Media, and is available wherever books are sold.
You can buy this book on Amazon here.
Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, “Mean” Joe Greene, The ‘Greatest Stars of the NBA’ Series and other books about sports, fatherhood, fitness and more. His work has been endorsed by Spike Lee, Kevin Durant, Tony Dungy, Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Chef Robert Irvine.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @Jon_Finkel