Last week, Bothell High’s Zach LaVine became the latest Seattle-area kid picked in the first round of the NBA draft. That makes 11 first-rounders in the past 10 years, an unprecedented yield of basketball talent.
How unlikely is it for 11 first-round picks in 10 drafts to come from the same city? According to Basketball-Reference.com, only seven Seattle-area kids were first-round picks before 2005. In the dark times from 1954 to 1984, just one Seattle hoopster was deemed a first-round talent. (Blanchet’s Tom Workman was the eighth overall pick of the 1967 draft—he played just four injury-plagued seasons.)
It might just be coincidence, but the childhoods of the 11 first-rounders all coincide with the thrilling, volatile era of Sonics basketball when Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton ruled the court. The correlation doesn’t prove anything, but the connection between the mid-’90s Sonics and the area’s basketball flowering is more than correlative. Payton served as a mentor to many young Seattle hoopsters: For example, Nate Robinson, the 21st overall pick of the 2005 draft, played AAU ball for the Gary Payton All-Stars.
Now that Seattle is indefinitely NBA-less, will talented athletes move in a different direction? I’d argue that the best young athlete from the Seattle area in the past five years is a soccer player, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin. Even though Yedlin’s $92,000 salary would be a rounding error to some of Seattle’s NBA players, making your country’s national team—which Yedlin has done, playing a role in getting the U.S. out of the Group of Death in the World Cup—counts for more than a high draft slot.
This fall’s high-school freshmen were second-graders during the Sonics’ final season. They were preschoolers when the Sonics last made the playoffs. And, though the makers of Sonicsgate, sports apparel shops, and Macklemore have all done their best to keep the Sonics in Seattle’s collective memory, the Payton/Kemp years are old men’s stories to a kid born in 2000.
If the exploits of Seattle’s recent high-school stars are just stories to you, you have a chance to change that. The Seattle Basketball Pro-Am (formerly known as the Jamal Crawford Pro-Am) starts July 5 at Royal Brougham Pavilion on the SPU campus. Many first-rounders are scheduled to play: Martell Webster, Tony Wroten, and Spencer Hawes are all listed on rosters, and special guests typically show up as well—last year Nate Robinson, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving all made appearances. Tickets are just $5 for adults, and kids under 17 get in for free. It’s not the full NBA experience, but let’s hope it can manage some of the inspiration that Payton and Kemp did.