Western Washington University's Carver Gym turned into a Seattle SuperSonics love fest any Pacific Northwest basketball fan of Seattle's 41-year-old NBA franchise would enjoy.
If one central message was conveyed Saturday, April 27, on WWU's campus, it was Bellingham loves its SuperSonics and can't wait for the team to return to the state.
"We've got our fingers crossed," said 49-year-old lifelong supporter Tom Schoonover of Sedro-Woolley.
Roughly 600 fans dressed in green and gold and anxious to see an NBA franchise return to Seattle showed up to get an autograph and hear Sonics legend Shawn Kemp speak. Co-founder of Save Our Sonics, Steven Pyeatt, also spoke, while Seattle-based hip-hop band Blue Scholars gave a live performance.
T-Shirts bearing Seattle lead investor Chris Hansen's face with the word "Hero" written underneath were being sold. Another shirt had Gary Payton's and Shawn Kemp's name's together in front of a greater-than sign with Russell Westbrook's and Kevin Durant's name's on the less-than side.
WWU senior and Associated Students Special Events Coordinator Jordan Renshaw put together the event titled #SonicsAllDay after he learned about the success of a recent Sonics rally in Seattle.
"I think a few our staff members went to the one in Seattle, and they had a great time and saw the turnout," Renshaw said. "I asked around on campus to see if people would go to a Sonics rally on campus, and people were like, 'Oh yeah.'"
Kemp, better known to Sonics fans as the Reign Man, stole the show. He immediately made a joke during his speech connecting Saturday's Bellingham rain to the fact that fans should have known he was coming.
Kemp spoke for five minutes before fielding questions for nearly half an hour. He signed autographs for over an hour following his time on stage.
Pyeatt, who said the event was planned with the hope fans would already know whether or not the Sonics were returning, spoke before Kemp and rallied the crowd before his entrance.
Pyeatt was one of the torch bearers in the effort to keep the Sonics in Seattle after the team was sold to Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett.
There's a reason he's so passionate about the Sonics: He feels a special connection with the franchise.
"Growing up, for my eighth birthday, my dad gave me, instead of getting the bicycle I wanted, I got a stock certificate for 100 shares of SuperSonics stock," Pyeatt explained. "It was probably worth eight bucks, but when you're in junior high it's like, 'Wow, I own a basketball team.' We didn't even have an NBA team yet, so that fall we got an NBA team in town, and I was at the first game."
A vote by NBA owners in the coming weeks will decide the Sacramento Kings' fate. Led by Sacramento mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson, Sacramento has cobbled together a number of investors who hope to keep the team in northern California. Hansen is hoping NBA Commissioner David Stern will approve a sale of the Kings by the Maloof family that will bring an NBA team back to the Northwest.
Pyeatt is more than optimistic about Seattle's chances.
"I think the fact no one can look at anything about the Seattle deal and say, 'This isn't right,' and everything about the Sacramento deal that you bring up, Kevin Johnson has to come out and say, 'Wait, wait, wait,' and do some spin control. ... When you get down to the spotlight, I don't think the deals match up at all. I think we're going to have a lot to celebrate here pretty soon."
That would certainly please Donna and Tom Schoonover, who've been diehard SuperSonics fans since their youth and got their retro Reign Man poster signed by Kemp.
The couple have been to Sonics rallies all over the Northwest. They described Pyeatt and Hansen as "heroes."
"We've had some amazing teams over the years," said Donna before she brought up the 1979 championship team, "Just incredible players and teams and coaches. It's hard to lose all that. It's a legacy."
And if NBA owners do vote in Seattle's favor?
"I will be jumping up and down screaming," Donna said.
Tom and Donna were two of the 44,877 fans who made ticket requests three weeks ago in a move Hansen made to show Stern how serious area fans are about their SuperSonics.
"I was on there right at 10 o'clock," Tom said,"but the website just crashed. It was funny, but I finally got in there."
While many fans, such as Sehome High School students Brandon Burbank and Afra Ghannad, are most excited about seeing high-caliber basketball if the Sonics return, Kemp gave a different message.
The Seattle star spoke glowingly of the franchise's vast community work. Being able to make a difference in the community was the biggest reason he'd like to see a NBA team back in the Northwest, Kemp said.
"If you look at the three franchises - the Seahawks, the Sonics and the Mariners - you would see that the Sonics did more community service work than any of those other franchises, so that's why personally I think they should come back," he said.
Kemp, who owns a restaurant in Seattle's Queen Anne district and has a son, Shawn Kemp Jr., who plays for the University of Washington men's basketball team, said he has a special connection with the city.
"The kindness of the city is what makes it," he said. "You can go back to the East Coast, and you may be able to get the skyscrapers. You can go to some other places and get the waterfront, but the kindness of the city is something you don't have in other cities. I think Seattle has a lot to offer."
Kemp fielded a range of questions, from who's better between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to who his favorite player to dunk on was.
"Even at college campuses, to see these kids get excited about having the fever, still wearing their jerseys, wearing the colors, it definitely means a lot to me," he said.
And hearing whether or not the Sonics will return to Seattle in the coming weeks will clearly mean a lot to area Sonics fans craving an NBA franchise.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.