Seattle didn't get to be North America's soccer capital overnight nor by osmosis. Along the way there were countless contributors and some colorful town criers. And without a doubt, the smoothest orator, the most polished salesman the game has seen in these parts was John Best.
It's a shame Best could not make it to last week's Sounders alumni and anniversary activities. Hopefully he had a view from on high, having passed away Oct. 5 at age 74.
Best loved celebrating history, celebrating the good times. In fact, it was one of the tenets of his management style. It was shortly after his return to the Sounders as general manager in 1982 that he organized the first reunion game.
It was a way of rekindling the warmth around the club, allowing fans to see the return of some heroes while introducing them to an exciting side that was deserving of more support on its drive to a division title. The crowd of nearly 30,000 more than doubled the season average. By the time the deciding semifinal game was played in the Kingdome three weeks later, no gimmick was necessary to draw 29,000.
Of course it was more than just a reunion game. That summer, interest rates on home loans were soaring into double-digits and unemployment reached 10.8 percent. Best responded with Hard Times Night. Whereas food and toy donation drives are usually held during the holidays, the Sounders did so in August. To assuage the pain of the ongoing recession, fans received free programs, coupons for free pizza and soda, plus movie tickets.
It was all about listening to fans, understanding what issues were on their hearts and minds at night, and then determining if, in some way, the Sounders could be part of the solution.
Best did that in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver and, though it helped that the teams themselves were successful on the field, each realized significant gains in attendance.
As a coach or boss, Best is best known for building camaraderie and character and lifting the individual and collective confidence. He once pulled a junior PR person (me) into his office to applaud a game program feature and, another time, a one-word sign-off on a league-wide game report. The word: Magic. The lesson: sincere praise is just as (if not more so) effective as a raise.
Best's players would tell similar tales. Jimmy Gabriel recalls Best using the carrot far more than the stick. "He would tell us we're great, and if (the manager) thinks I'm great, I've got to bring that greatness out," Gabriel says. "That's what John Best was all about."
In those formative days of 1974, Best was synonymous with the Sounders. He was building a team and building a connection to the community, all at once.
"He deserves credit for getting not only a lot of good players but he put together a team of character, who would go the extra mile and do the extra things," notes Dave Gillett, one of the originals.
Best wrote a newspaper column and co-hosted a primetime weekly TV program. He was naturally charming and eloquent. So suave. I never recall him shouting.
Frank Furtado, who doubled as both the Sonics and Sounders trainer, says Best was a magnetic personality
"It almost seemed John Best could've played a part in a movie; he could've been an actor," Furtado claims. "Most of the other fellows didn't think too much beyond soccer. John did. I thought he was very sharp."
It all came together -- the team, front office and fans -- and from that first night at Memorial Stadium, Seattle was smitten with soccer. The club's commitment to the city was palpable, and the crowd responded in kind.
What Best says of that time, would ring true to this day. "Our (playing) standards may not have been the highest, but it was well organized and the people involved cared about it. You combine those two basics and it gives you momentum. You build on that."
Build on it, indeed. Once their work was done on that May night versus Denver, they circled up and waved. The partnership was formed. Now, 40 years on, that same spirit of oneness Best helped foster has been taken to a new level with fan ownership in Sounders 2.
In sport, there are no sure things, no guarantees of victories or trophies. You can share with fans all that you know and all the tactics and technology being devoted to the cause. The term passion is too often used as a punch line. But what Best believed in '74, remains the same to this day.
"Demonstrate to the public at large that you're serious about this," he said last spring. "(Show them) you care about them and you want them to be happy with you. Do your best and try very hard." Do so, and you may just work some magic.