SEATTLE -- For one, perhaps final, night, optimism trumped doom in Seattle.
If this really was the last time the SuperSonics played in this city, nobody convinced the more than 15,000 fans who showed up to watch their beloved team rally to beat the Dallas Mavericks 99-95 on Sunday night.
They chanted "Save our Sonics!" and had a far less gracious chant for Sonics owner Clay Bennett. They roared "GP!" when Gary Payton, the star point guard during Seattle's last heyday in the mid-1990s, took a seat near the Dallas Mavericks' bench early in the second quarter.
They carried signs. One read, "E-mail Clay: C.U. in court!" Another called Bennett, who intends to move the team to Oklahoma City, "a liar" and "a thief."
And they just kept roaring.
"I almost cried, to be honest with you," Sonics rookie star Kevin Durant said. "It was phenomenal.
"The whole arena was into it. The ushers were clapping."
When the public address announcer introduced Payton during the next timeout, it was like 1996 again. Everyone -- fans, police officers, equipment men, ushers, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- stood and delivered the loudest, most sustained joy KeyArena has heard in years. Bennett has said the place isn't viable, but at that moment, it was rocking.
"It will be a disaster if they move them after 41 years," Payton said before halftime. "I don't think these fans deserve that.
"But anything is possible. Everybody just needs to keep their hopes up and it will work out."
Unless a Seattle judge rules in June that the Sonics must occupy the arena for the final two seasons of their lease, Bennett will take them to his hometown of Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season.
But nobody's convinced Sonics forward Nick Collison this was the end, either.
"I'm still optimistic something will happen to keep us here," Collison said an hour before the game.
Collison just bought a house up the hill from KeyArena. The former star at Kansas is married and wants the family he is just starting to grow up in Seattle.
"It will be a sad, sad day if that happens," Collison said of moving to Oklahoma. "It would be a tough thing for a city that has been so good to the NBA.
"There's not a lot of positive things we can say as players about this situation. But I'm still optimistic."
So is Lance Bergren. He still loves the Sonics, even though this is they're having their worst season ever [18-62 entering Sunday]. The construction worker was born in Seattle the same year as the Sonics, 1967. He owns a 12-game season-ticket plan and drove up from Portland, Ore., to see this finale.
"This is supposed to be the worst season ever, and look at us," Bergren said over loud "Save our Sonics!" chants during a rally by the grass-roots group of the same name at a restaurant a few blocks away from the arena.
Eric Evers, a 23-year-old from Seattle who grew up coming to games, didn't see this as the end, either.
"No, it doesn't feel like the end. It really doesn't," Evers said. "It's possible -- but I just don't see us losing the court case."
Bennett unsuccessfully lobbied the state Legislature last year for a $500 million arena in the suburbs funded primarily with public money. Now he is arguing that the team's lease permits him to write a check to fulfill the final two years of the deal. The city demands the team play in KeyArena two more years, with the hope of buying time for local investors to buy the team and keep it in Seattle. A judge will decide who's right beginning June 16.
Bennett estimated he lost $20 million last season and is allegedly losing many millions amid declining attendance this season on the team he and his Oklahoma partners bought for $350 million in 2006. The optimistic view in Seattle is that Bennett will tire of losing cash, and that the NBA will tire of the ugliness from what would be, if the court sides with Seattle, two lame duck seasons in town before Bennett moves them to Oklahoma.
"This is not the last game in Sonics history! They will be here next year! Be loud and look for big news!" Brian Robinson yelled above the din at the fan rally.
Robinson, a lifelong Seattle resident, is the co-founder of "Save our Sonics." He admitted Sunday his fight has been far more protracted than he expected, and that he was exhausted.
Yet there was Robinson, imploring 100 or so fans to "Dig in! Fight the fight!"
Earl Watson felt that fight. The first memory Seattle's point guard has of the Sonics is sitting high atop KeyArena with the rest of his UCLA Bruins, who were in town for the Final Four, watching Payton.
"A lot of people don't realize, it's not about the NBA player, the professional career. You pretty much expect one player won't stay with one team anymore," Watson said. "When I came into this arena today, my main thing was I looked at the young kids that won't understand if you explain it to them. And for me, it was the ushers that have been here forever. What do they do?
"There are situations like that where you show their appreciation for them."