By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - For Husky basketball - and for a city still stung over losing a chunk of its basketball soul to thieves - last weekend was more than a reunion.
It was also a revival.
And, yes, it has the potential to become a regular showcase at Washington. Huskies officials are already thinking of when it might put on another Husky Legends Return day in coming years.
"For the fans to come out like this shows we need the Sonics back," Seattle native Nate Robinson said in a hallway of Alaska Airlines Arena moments after a raucous alumni game Sunday reminded everyone how great a hoops Mecca this city is -- almost five years to the day after the carpet-bagging owners of Seattle's SuperSonics struck a deal to move the team to Oklahoma.
In case you missed it, uh ... where the heck were you?
It was like the Huskies were hosting UCLA or Arizona in early March for the Pac-12 title. It was Seattle basketball at its very best. Lenny Wilkens and Warren Moon were coaching. And it thrilled a roaring, sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 inside a steamy arena, a throng that exceeded everyone's expectations.
Someone asked me why it was so hot inside the gym on a gray, rainy Sunday.
Well, when's the last time there's been that many people inside ol' Hec Ed for a basketball game in late June?
Lorenzo Romar swished three consecutive 3-pointers and scored 11 points overall to delight the early arrivals and win the Most Valuable Player award of the legends game. Then Terrence Ross soared from dunks with 360-degree spins, Spencer Hawes nailed shots from outside and stonewalled lane drivers inside, and Isaiah Thomas scored 24 points to win MVP honors in the wildly entertaining alumni game. Thomas' post-2009 Purple team won that 107-103. Justin Dentmon won the 3-point contest during halftime of that second game.
The remarkable afternoon ended with a dunk contest. Darnell Gant won that, after he tossed a pass to himself off the shot clock high above the backboard. Fans helped determine Gant over Ross was the winner in a Twitter vote.
After they had given the jerseys off their backs for a postgame fan auction, Robinson and Thomas sat inside the players' lounge of the Huskies' locker room. UW's relentless point guard of a decade ago and his successor in being the little man so huge in willing Washington to titles weren't swapping stories about their soaring NBA careers.
They were already scheming on how to put this show on again.
"This was unbelievable," Thomas, the Sacramento Kings' undeniable starting point guard, said.
"Nate and I were just in here talking about how we've got to have this every year."
Tre Simmons, who played like it was 2005 again while leading Robinson's pre-2009 White team with 23 points in the alumni game, used the same words as Thomas.
"Man I didn't want the event or day to end," Simmons said. "We need to do this every year."
Brandon Roy was the Pac-10 player of the year 2006 and then NBA rookie of the year months later with the Portland Trail Blazers. The 28-year old had an injury comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves cut short this past winter and spring because his chronically pained knees failed him again.
I asked him if Sunday's was his final competitive game.
"No," Roy said, with a laugh, "I'll play in this again next year."
The man who created this uniquely Washington day is who will decide when and if it happens again.
It sure sounds like it will.
"Unbelievable. There's no way in the world I thought we'd fill it up in here like this - and have to turn people away, even," Romar said, standing on the court amid all the former Huskies and their families immediately after Gant won the finale dunk contest.
"I feel proud more than anything. Proud and gratified. ... This is just pretty special.
"This is definitely a positive toward doing it again."
That's not to say Romar or UW is committing to doing it every summer. I mean, it would be mighty hard to duplicate every single June the enthusiasm and commitment the Huskies got this time. Quincy Pondexterflew from Singapore and arrived five hours before tipoff Sunday, Bobby Jones flew in from Italy and got to the arena 20 minutes prior.
But Romar knows value when he sees it.
The 11-year Huskies coach, still sweaty from his MVP performance that made him flashback to his days as a Huskies guard from 1978-80, took the public-address microphone just before tipoff of the alumni game. He told the huge crowd: "You make a compelling case to do this again."
"THESE PEOPLE DON'T COME OUT TO SEE SOME SCRUBS"
Sunday represented more than 3-pointers and dunks.
It was a revival inside the program, as well.
This bottom-line society wants to know what you've done for it lately. People see foremost that the Huskies have missed the last two NCAA tournaments.
That pragmatic - or is it cynical? -- first glance misses the bigger picture. It overlooks that Romar has revitalized Washington hoops during 11 years that have spawned the most sustained success in school history. It misses that until this March the Huskies had a string of four consecutive conference regular-season or tournament titles. That Romar's Dawgs have been to six NCAA tournaments and three Sweet 16s since he arrived in 2002.
It wasn't so long ago that UW couldn't draw 10,000 for any regular-season game, let alone for an exhibition in June.
"We were starting at the bottom," said Robinson, who arrived at UW with Romar in 2002 playing football and basketball and is now an NBA free agent after an outstanding postseason for the Chicago Bulls. "We went 10-19 my first year. Then we got to the Sweet 16.
"My dad (Jacque, MVP of the 1982 Rose Bowl and '85 Orange Bowl) played football here. I know U-Dub has had so many football fans for so many years.
"But this," Robinson said, surveying the packed house Sunday, "this just shows the basketball program has come a long way.
"This was just special. This means everything."
This also means more than the wins or losses Robinson, Thomas, Ross, Hawes, Roy, et al, had at Washington. It speaks to the quality of not only the program Romar has built but the players that have been in it.
"These people don't come out to see some scrubs," Romar said Sunday, still marveling at the crowd.
"The way these guys handled their business while they were student-athletes here -- the way they carried themselves when they won, the way they carried themselves when they lost - that is why these people came out like this."
One of those non-scrubs, Pondexter, flew 15 hours from an NBA 3-on-3 event in Singapore last weekend through Tokyo. He arrived at SeaTac Airport at 8 a.m. Sunday and played in that afternoon's alumni game.
"This is amazing, this crowd," Pondexter said. "This shows how much people care about basketball here. And it shows what Coach Romar has done with this program. It's been an amazing event."
Will Conroy had a triple-double in the alumni game: 16 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists. The Huskies' career assist leader and the point guard on a No. 1 seed in the 2005 NCAA tournament marveled how UW hoops "has really put out some great basketball players -- and even better, high-class men."
ARM TWISTING NOT NECESSARY
How many programs in the country could pack their campus arena on a summer Sunday for an alumni game featuring 12 players who have been in the NBA within the last half-dozen years?
None in the Pac-12. The Marketing and Analytics Center at Emory University in Atlanta published a study last week that found in the time since Romar took over the Huskies, Washington has had the most players in the conference drafted into the NBA. https://blogs.emory.edu/sportsmarketing/2013/06/19/washington-usc-best-at-converting-talent-into-nba-draft-picks-ranking-the-pac-12/ .
Arizona has had its alumni and many NBA players back for alumni games as part of reunion weekends, specifically a decade ago when legendary Lute Olson was its coach. But many of that program's rabid fans who were in the 14,545-seat McKale Center for those games were season-ticket holders given priority seating.
The Huskies' spectacle was literally for the masses. Tickets were general admission - the earliest to arrive got the best seats -- for $15 each. Those 12 and younger were free. Joe Schmoe from Mukilteo could sit just off the court as easily as a longtime season-ticket holder. That helps explain why Washington's walk-up crowd Sunday alone was 5,000.
Ray Allen has come back multiple times to alumni games at Connecticut for coach Jim Calhoun's charity. But those games have been played far off UConn's campus, in the woods at the Mohegan Sun casino resort.
"The thought (of this) came to my head, it was put there - UConn has a big charity event they do, I don't know if it is every year or every two years. A lot of their alums come back, and they do something like this," Romar said. "But they have a big weekend, a golf tournament, dinner, a lot of things. I just thought, `Man, that would be special if we could do it.'"
Two weeks ago Kansas held its annual alumni classic. But it was at a high-school gym in Lawrence. And it had more of a sideshow affect than Sunday's hoops-centric day did at Washington. Former welterweight boxing champion Victor Ortiz, the 2013 viewer favorite from "Dancing with the Stars," played in Kansas' game this month simply because he is a big KU fan. At halftime Ortiz danced with four women who paid to a charity for the chance, according to an account by kusports.comhttp://www2.kusports.com/news/2013/jun/14/reed-game-winner-highlights-annual-ku-alumni-class/ .
Last fall Kentucky hosted the inaugural UK Alumni Charity basketball game in Lexington. Coach John Calipari's event attracted a crowd of 10,173, and came at the end of a three-day camp.
There were more than that inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Sunday, counting friends and family of the players, UW coaches and staff, kids - you name it.
When he first began putting this plan of a Husky Legends Return day into full motion in January, Romar expected maybe 3,000 people might attend.
"I thought I might have to twist some arms to get people to come," he said.
Officials expected a crowd of 5,000. That meant they staffed ticket sellers, ticket takers and concessionaires plus opened concession stands and stocked food for about a half-full arena.
Instead, Eldridge Recasner found this as he arrived 30 minutes before tipoff of the legends game in which he played:
"I came in here at 12:30, expecting there'd be a few people milling around outside. There was a line of people down damn near the Montlake Bridge!" said Recasner, the three-time All-Pac-10 sharpshooter from the Huskies of the mid-1990s.
Seeing the huge game-day demand, UW capped ticket sales to the public at 8,500; about 1,500 had already been distributed prior to Sunday to families and guests of the returning players. Fans packed the top rows of the west bleachers, directly under the signature windows from the building's original construction in 1927. The only reason those top-row folks got in before ticket sales were cut off? They had paid cash to a UW Ticket Office staffer. He walked down the long line with a fistful of tickets in one hand and a wad of money in the other, offering expedited transactions for those not paying with a credit or debit card.
Arena public-address announcer Eric Radovich twice asked fans to scoot closer together in the upper, bench seats so more people could get inside to watch the spectacle.
Yes, it was a roaring success.
And, heck yes, it's worth doing again.
"I wanted every Husky to know one another - that's one of the main reasons we did this," Romar told the former players and their families during the postgame dinner on the court named for the one Husky truly missed by all last weekend.
Then Romar specifically recognized Paul Blowers, seated in the back with his family. He played for the Huskies as a freshman in 1945 -- 1945! -- before he went to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Blowers starred in three sports there, became a navigator in the Merchant Marines and eventually a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy.
What else could have made this special Husky Sunday any more grand than a player returning from 68 years ago?
"The only thing that could make this day better," Romar told the diners, "was if Marv Harshman could be here to see it."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.