Sonics Youth

Big in Japan, but they're not expected to amount to much.

LAST THURSDAY, Oct. 30, most newspapers in the basketball-literate world had bold page-one banners reading: "LEBRON JAMES SCORES 25 IN NBA DEBUT!!!" The rare reader got to the bottom of the page to read, in agate type: "Scientists agree: World to end soon." Such has been the impact of the 18-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers wunderkind. We hear the National Basketball Association soon will be renamed LeBron James and Associates.

Where does this leave our relatively anonymous Seattle Sonics? Well, 2-0 so far, as the team paddles back from a pair of games to start the season in Japan. In tow is the player with the league-leading scoring average, and his name is not LEBRON JAMES but Rashard Lewis, who dumped in not 25 but 50 on Friday to the delight of otherwise basketball-ignorant Japanese patrons. The games evidently were intended to help sell the NBA product in a land where, heretofore, the main pastimes have been base-ball and smoking. One might ask whether, if this were the aim, the league could have sent more illustrious emissaries. As it is, once you get beyond Floyd's Place in Lower Queen Anne, it's difficult to find more than a few dozen souls who could name three of the Sonics' five starters, and L.A. Clippers is believed to be a chain of hair-and-nail salons.

Actually, make that three of the team's four starters. The fifth, and best, is supposed to be Ray Allen, the All-Star guard who is missing the early games due to arthroscopic surgery on an ankle. This development kind of gave the lie to the team's new slogan: "five as one" (the Cavaliers are said to like the Sonics' motto so much they're thinking of adopting "one as five").

THE 2003-04 VERSION of the Portland Trialahem, Trail Blazers will, work-release arrangements permitting, greet the Sonics on Friday at KeyArena. The Portland club is said to be a reformed organization from the recent, well-reported police-blotter years, though you wouldn't know it with the roster addition of Travis Outlaw at forward. The Seattle-Portland rivalry remains one of the league's best ongoing sideshows. Others, of course, include the Los Angeles Lakers, rich in talent but poor in PR, what with rape charges against erstwhile NBA choirboy Kobe Bryant. Many have suggested that the Bryant they know (which is to say, the one they've seen on TV) can't possibly be guilty of a rape in Colorado, and to them my reply is: Then quick, let's acquit him and concentrate on finding the true Nicole Simpson-Ron Goldman killer.

Or let's at least focus on the facts on hand as they pertain to the Sonics. Few arbiters of NBA excellence give the Greenies much chance of even making the playoffs this season, much less advancing in Western Conference brackets sure to be blocked out with the likes of the Lakers, the Kings, the Mavericks, the Spurs, and the Timberwolves.

What can be said after just two games is that the young Sonics are . . . young. Brent Barry, the old man at 31, plays both guard positions well at times. He can score, dish, play defense, and, perhaps best of all, provide the odd arcane pop-cultural reference. (Name an obscure movie. Barry's probably seen it.) Barry possesses the levity that usually eluded his father (grouchy NBA great Rick Barry), and he might be terrific in the broadcast booth someday (soon, if his knees give out).

BARRY IS PLAYING point, but there's that new guy: Luke Ridnour. He may be the nearest thing to an assist machine we've seen in Seattle since, uh, Gary Payton. Ridnour played in that charming Oregon b-ball chapel known as "The Pit," where believers still rise, gaze northward, and chant, "Rid is God." After watching the Bellingham product dish, shovel, feed, and no-look an array of assists in the final Sonics warm-up game Oct. 19, indeed I sensed I might be in proximity to a budding point-guard deity and pronounced myself a changed man.

Speaking of change, Lewis, just 24, might be moving toward what some have insisted would be an inevitable membership in the NBA pantheon. His 75-point total in the first two games shows that he'll get (and deserve) plenty of looks at the basket, even after designated ball hog Allen gets back. Until then, the supposedly weak Sonics bench has shown unexpected depth. A guy named "Flip" Murray filled in for Allen and got 46 points in Japan, and the team didn't even need its question-mark center to help win the games.

That Q-mark is in the person of the Sonics' own James, who, alas, is Jerome, not LeBron. Plenty of NBA teams are weak at center, which is probably why there are so many mid-February weeknight games with 16-33 teams playing each other in front of 2,000 "fans." For the Howard Schultz-owned Sonics to avoid this fate, either Jerome James or Calvin Booth will have to prove to be a much better center than anybody expects. Otherwise, Starbuck Schultzie's five-as-ones will leave fans feeling less like they've been jolted by a quintuple-tall contender and more like they're watching the basketball equivalent of lukewarm decaffrom Tully's.

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