Why you should care

Because hoops has recessions too. 

When most folks hear the phrase “forgotten Seattle basketball team,” the SuperSonics come to mind. Known for decades of hard-court heroics, the Sonics are as much a part of Seattle’s DNA as Starbucks, even post-relocation to Oklahoma City. For years, though, the die-hard fans of another local team have wondered if their hometown heroes might regain national prominence. And this contingent has been waiting for much longer than a decade.

The Seattle University Chieftains, as the team was then known, dominated college hoops in the 1950s and ’60s, reaching the NCAA tournament 11 times from 1953 to 1969. The pinnacle came in 1958, when the best player in Seattle history, Elgin Baylor, and his teammates nearly defeated Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game. During the following decade, the program produced more NBA players than any other school in America.

The Seattle University program was big time: NBA draft picks, regular March Madness appearances and sold-out games against the University of Washington.

But the arrival — and subsequent NBA championship transformation — of the SuperSonics presented steep competition for fans, and when the local economy slipped into a recession in the 1970s, the university struggled to fund the men’s basketball program. Eventually, the team joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. But today, Seattle is back in Division I, and a first NCAA tournament appearance since 1969 is within reach. Will college hoops glory return to the Emerald City?

Even if it does, it’ll be tough for a current squad to match the influence Baylor had on the game itself. When the Minneapolis Lakers made him the No. 1 pick of the 1958 NBA draft, the 6-foot-5 forward was already considered a complete player, renowned for an efficient athleticism that would soon transform the league. In the NBA of that era, no one dunked, the game was played “below the rim” and fast-paced, quick-shot offenses were all the rage. “You can point to [Baylor’s] entrance into the league as the precise moment when basketball changed for the better,” wrote Bill Simmons in his New York Times best-seller The Book of Basketball. “Elgin turned a horizontal game into a vertical one.”

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Seattle University’s hero player, Elgin Baylor.

Source Getty

In Seattle, that vertical basketball was what fans were used to seeing. Eddie Miles, John Tresvant and Clint Richardson, to name a few, all followed in Baylor’s high-flying footsteps with the Chieftains before moving on to NBA careers. Beginning with Baylor in 1958 and ending with Richardson in 1979, Seattle saw 27 of its players drafted by the NBA. The program was big time: NBA draft picks, regular March Madness appearances, sold-out games against the University of Washington and even a 1965 point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball.

But by 1980, Seattle had three professional sports teams and enthusiasm for university hoops was not what it had been. Led by a young standout center named Jack Sikma, the SuperSonics had just won back-to-back conference titles (1978–79) and an NBA championship (1979). Those Sonics teams invigorated a city that had longed for a winner since the days of Baylor’s dominance, so it was no surprise that fans gravitated to the pro club. The Sonics became so popular that they even launched the Sonics SuperChannel in 1981, a short-lived sports subscription cable service that was the first of its kind, according to The Seattle Times. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, even the most basketball-jonesing Seattleites had only so much money to spend on hoops.

From World War II through the 1960s, the city rode to steady economic growth on the shoulders of aircraft manufacturer the Boeing Company. At its peak, in 1968, Boeing employed more than 100,000 workers in the Puget Sound region, but there was a problem — Seattle failed to attract other industries and diversify its economy. So, when the “Boeing Bust” began, there was nowhere to go but down.

In 1969, Boeing cut its workforce to just over 80,000; by 1971, it had dropped to 32,500, according to the infamous Seattle Times report, “Lights Out, Seattle.” The 12 percent unemployment rate became the worst of any major American city since the Depression. And, with that daunting unemployment, public and private funds dried up, forcing the university to rethink its stance on collegiate athletics.

The Rev. William Sullivan, president of the university, had only one question to ask the trustees following the 1980 season. “I did not have anything preplanned except the one question of how a university can continue to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a program in which 140 students are participating,” Sullivan told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And with that, the university de-emphasized athletics, opting to register for small-school sport status without scholarships and to join the NAIA.

But as the modern “Silicon Forest” tech era brought prosperity back to Puget Sound, Seattle hoops received some love too. In 2009, the program returned to Division I status and KeyArena, formerly the Seattle Coliseum, where the Sonics and Chieftains once reigned supreme. Now, at 19-12, the Seattle University Redhawks are fourth in the Western Athletic Conference and hoping for a bid to March Madness.

If not destiny, it seems the Redhawks have history working in their favor. They’re 17-1 at home this season, on KeyArena’s Elgin Baylor Court.

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