Sonics Legends Enjoy Outdoor Adventures While Waiting for Expansion Franchise

When the NBA left Seattle, Sonics legends like Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp fought valiantly for its return. But as the years passed by, they began filling their time and staying in shape and volunteering with The Mountaineers. See what they've been up to lately!
Chris Williams Chris Williams
April 01, 2015

In 2008, the NBA and Howard Schultz broke Seattle's heart by picking up and moving to Oklahoma City (and then failing to win a championship that Seattle fans would have delivered). Local legends who lived in the area, and enjoyed the praise that no other city would lavish on them like Seattle can, stood awestruck that such a rich and proud tradition like Sonics basketball could be gone in an instant. Legends like Slick Watts, Gary Payton, and Shawn Kemp stuck around and lobbied for another NBA franchise, however, David Stern and the league resisted, telling every other team that needed a new arena, "those Seattle sharks are always willing to swoop in and steal your team if you don't make your taxpayers pony up for a new building."  As time went by, the Sonics faithful remained dedicated to the cause, but realized they needed to keep their minds and bodies fresh as the waiting dragged on. Who did they turn to to keep themselves fresh? The Mountaineers, that's who. 

I never realized how similar Peak Bagging would feel to dunking on people. - Shawn Kemp

Shawn Kemp

After taking the Basic Climbing Course, NBA legend Shawn Kemp realized quickly that reaching the summits of peaks like Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker was just as exhilarating as embarrassing his defenders on national television with his never-before-seen athletic domination at the rim. When pointing this out at a coffee shop on lower Queen Anne, his longtime friend and nemesis Chris Gatling admitted he was jealous he'd never taken the course and gotten to the top of two of the most beautiful locations in North America during his career like Kemp had. "I've made million of dollars and become a household name, but nothing is as rewarding as leading a team of new climbers to the top of the PNW" Kemp said.  

"These NBA legends really took to the outdoors" said former coach Lenny Wilkins. "We were training so hard during our playing days that we never got to enjoy the unbelievably spectacular Pacific Northwest, but a few years after the trial and the Sonics leaving town, we realized we had to do something to keep our spirits and minds fresh.  His former players couldn't have agreed more. 

 Being on the water as a Sea Kayaker is the best thing that's happened to me since I got traded to the Bucks. - Gary Payton

Gary Payton

"Ten years ago I couldn't have imagined that I would spend most of my time planning 'human-powered' trips from Seattle to Orcas Island on a yearly basis" said Hall of Fame guard Gary Payton when I met with him at a put-in near Deception Pass during The Mountaineers annual "Paddlers Development Weekend" for Sea Kayak Instructors and Activity Leaders. He proudly told me how much pride he had that he'd taught the 2014 Basic Sea Kayak Course and had been given his Leader status in 2010. "I've seen things you wouldn't believe on the waters here. Nothing in the NBA has given me the peace of mind and respite that paddling my group across a long crossing in the Salish Sea can give me" he said while zipping up his drysuit. "I've gotta go, but you should sign up for one of my paddles, I make sure everyone feels safe and included in the trip planning; even when the weather is making it hard to make forward progress in your paddle-plan," he yelled over his shoulder while shoving his boat into the water. Yes, "the Glove" has love...for the great outdoors. 

Each one of the Sonics players I interviewed mentioned how grateful they were that The Mountaineers had given them the chance to use their physical talents while also giving back to the community. For example, German-born Sonic legend Detlef Schrempf could barely contain his sense of glee when telling me how glad he was when he instructed at the 2012 Intermediate Climbing Course. 

Detlef Schrempf

Basketball wasn't a very popular sport in Germany, so I spent most days climbing at Frankenjura, building up strength in my arms and legs that would ultimately make me the basketball player I was destined to be. But giving back to the climbing community by teaching with The Mountaineers has really brought things 'full circle'  and given me a greater sense of purpose than the NBA ever did. - Detlef Schrempf

Each legend has logged an impressive number of trips with The Mountaineers over the past few years. There have been over 200 participants on the trips led by Kemp (climbing and naturalist courses), Payton (kayaking and wilderness first aid), Schrempf (climbing and sailing), Coach Wilkins (hiking and backpacking), just since the summer of 2014. Other players, still showing the work ethics that made them fan favorites, such as Steve Scheffler and Desmond Mason, have also contributed greatly by heading up youth programs that have introduced the outdoors to thousands of inner-city youth who rarely get to safely experience the magic of the outdoors. Adding his voice to these efforts, Shawn Kemp added "I feel like every child in Seattle is my own in some way. I have a responsibility to give back to the next generation and The Mountaineers provides me a great platform by which to change lives and preserve the outdoor experience." 

While giving tips to some children at Barnett Park in the Central District of Seattle, Slick Watts put it best, "these kids have no idea what joy comes from pushing yourself to the peak of God's creations and realizing that you put yourself there. You feel like you can 'kiss the sky' like Jimi sings. Teaching these kids that they can reach those peaks has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever experienced...oh yeah, and winning an NBA Championship, they're both pretty great. And since the NBA won't give Seattle it's due, I've been putting my time into The Mountaineers since they respect me more than the league I spent my professional career with." 

When the NBA returns to Seattle, it may have a hard time getting these Sonic legends to put down their ice axes to make time for the celebrations. 

Happy April 1st Everyone. 

*When this article went to press, calls to Vin Baker, Jerome James, and Robert Swift had gone unanswered. 


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