Hearing the news that the NBA will return to Seattle, for an early October preseason contest between the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors at KeyArena, made me think of ping pong.
My knowledge of ping pong is as shallow as my knowledge of, well, NBA exhibition games. I can’t recall a moment that stands out.
But it was ping pong, not football or baseball or hockey, that changed the course of human events 47 years ago. During the 1971 world table tennis championships in Japan, the U.S. team got an invitation to visit China. The invitation was accepted, and a delegation of players and accompanying journalists became the first Americans to set foot in Beijing since 1949.
The thaw in Cold War relations opened the door for president Richard Nixon’s monumental 1972 trip to China and a different kind of global warming: Two superpower nations were back at the table, eyeing each other warily but realizing the obvious economic benefits diplomacy presented.
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All because of ping pong.
The preseason exhibition between the Kings and Warriors is the equivalent of “ping pong diplomacy.” The event won’t mean anything, and yet will mean everything. It’ll be the first NBA basketball game in Seattle since the Sonics’ 2008 relocation to Oklahoma City.
After a decade of acrimony, of lies, lies and more lies, the NBA and Seattle are back at the table because both realize the economic benefits of diplomacy. The league covets a high-end market with appealing demographics — which is to say, lots of fans years removed from retirement, capable of investing in season tickets — and Seattle covets a team called the Sonics.
It almost happened in 2013, when Chris Hansen attempted to buy the Kings and move them into to the arena he proposed in Seattle’s SoDo district. But at the 11th hour, in negotiations overseen by mayor Kevin Johnson, the Kings were purchased by a businessman who kept them in Sacramento.
That the NBA is making a brief return to KeyArena with the Kings on the court strikes some as tone deaf. Like, seriously? You’re bringing the team that appeared to be headed to Seattle into Seattle for an exhibition game? Does this league have no sense of decency?
Relax, folks. Commissioner Adam Silver did not orchestrate the exhibition as a litmus test of Seattle’s viability to sustain an NBA franchise. Silver knows, as every owner in the league knows, Seattle has nothing to prove.
The exhibition was arranged by Warriors president and CEO Rick Welts, a former Sonics ball boy who, upon graduating from the University of Washington, served several years as the Sonics public-relations chief. Welts is regarded as a marketing genius — he’s largely responsible for the midseason basketball celebration that turned the All-Star Game into the All-Star Weekend — and hasn’t forgotten about Seattle.
The Kings versus defending NBA champion Warriors, with Kevin Durant (who won the rookie of the year award during the Sonics’ last season in Seattle) and Klay Thompson (a former Washington State standout) in KeyArena, how can anybody perceive this as negative?
“There’s a lot of baggage regarding the whole saga,” Adam Brown, co-producer of the award-winning documentary “Sonicsgate,” told the Sacramento Bee’s Aileen Voison on Wednesday. “But overall, if we can remove some of the emotion, this is a step in the right direction. Anything that involves NBA participation here is a step in the right direction.”
As an NBA team owner who grew up with the Sonics, Welts has been paying attention to Seattle’s evolving pro sports landscape. He knows all about the Oak View Group and its determination to renovate KeyArena. He knows, too, about the Oak View Group’s passion for hockey.
Seattle figures to land an NHL franchise as soon as 2020, for the very reasons the NBA wants to return to Seattle: The demographics fit.
But with the possibility of four major teams competing for attention (actually five, given the Sounders’ box-office success), hockey is positioned to claim first dibs on winter sports fans around here. Furthermore, there is no bad blood between the NHL and Seattle, no history as cringe-worthy as former NBA commissioner David Stern’s insistence that Washington lawmakers follow his orders, or else.
Stern is out of the picture, thank goodness, and Silver seems amenable to establishing a truce. It had to start somewhere.
It’ll start in October, with an exhibition game steeped in ping-pong diplomacy.
Plans for the game were revealed on Feb. 21, 46 years to the day Richard Nixon landed in China.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath