10 Questions with John Best

First impressions are lasting, and John Best certainly proved the perfect choice to lead the original Sounders out of the Memorial Stadium for their debut back in 1974.First impressions are lasting, and John Best certainly proved the perfect choice to lead the original Sounders out of the Memorial Stadium for their debut back in 1974. Handsome, charming and articulate, his figure was synonymous with the Camelot era. He was Seattle’s coach from 1974-76, then returned as general manager in 1982 before starting-up the Tacoma Stars. These days, Best is trying to get back on the golf course between kidney dialysis treatments. Hearing his voice on the phone brings back many a pleasant memory of those innocent evenings under the Space Needle, back in the mid-Seventies.

Does it seem so long ago that the Sounders first played in Memorial Stadium?
It really does. I suppose, with the events that have occurred, it’s almost a different lifetime. Although they were some of the greatest memories and they’re brought back to me frequently by both people that I meet and they recall those times as fond memories.

When you returned to the Sounders in 1982, you had the Kingdome reconfigured? Was that the first sort of soccer specific stadium?
[laughs] Maybe, I’ve never thought of that. Obviously we had to do something there. When we came back they had drawn only about 5,000 people for games in that huge stadium. It was fortunate that the Sonics had the portable seating which was set-up for the basketball configuration, so I was able to take advantage of that and create a smaller arena within the larger stadium. It significantly improved the atmosphere and, of course, the team did exceptionally well in the latter part of that season. All those things came together and we started to get some excitement and fun back into it.

How are you and Claudia, and where do you live and travel?
We bought a place down in Palm Springs, largely because of my health. I’ve found with the condition I have, every fall and winter, when people start going down with colds and flu, if I pick up those, they put me in hospital. So we decided to go to a dryer climate, which is Palm Springs, and we’re in the process of remodeling a condo down there. Eventually, in three years or so down the road, we will spend up to 8 months down there and then come back up home here for the summer. I just started golfing again. I didn’t have a very good year, I had a surgery about six weeks ago which has been very helpful just started hitting golf balls again, practicing. I played nine holes just the other weekend.

You started up the Tacoma Stars. As an Englishman raised on the traditional game, was it difficult getting your head around on indoor soccer?
It really wasn’t. I saw that somewhat differently. It’s a very different game, it takes some sort of common skills on the players’ part, but it also takes some unique applications. I saw it as it operating side by side with an outdoor club. I saw this area having two distinctly different teams, although there might be 2-3 players who might cross over. I saw it as developing certain skills in certain players, which would help them in the outdoor game. So I saw them as quite compatible. That [chuckles] view wasn’t really shared a lot of people.

What’s your assessment of how far the game has come in the U.S., and how far it has to go?
I’ve followed the Sounders, and have been to some games. My wish, of course, is for the success of the game. It’s an absolutely wonderful game in all respects, and I’d like to see it truly succeed as a spectator sport. It hasn’t done that yet. But when you look at the big picture, you see so many young players now who’ve gone from here to Europe and have succeeded there, which is very difficult to do. You see the national team improving and getting more difficult to play against all the time. I want it to succeed on a local level, and I think it can. There’s no magic formula, that’s for sure, and there’s many of the same issues facing the game now as back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

And what issues are those?
How do you put together teams are very competitive but also have a style of play which is attractive to fans? I don’t think that’s easily done. You’re searching for publicity at a time when generally when you’re competing with other, more established sports. Those are many of the same the things we faced.

The game itself has gone through a lot in the last 40 years. What has been the biggest change?
It’s a totally different game. I think the game is faster. Pace is a real requirement at the top levels today. It’s always been a great asset, but there was not the requirement there is today. And so tactics have changed, demands on players have changed. It’s almost a completely different game. But all sports evolve and, generally speaking, I think players adapt and change to provide what the game is looking for today. I suppose the better of yesterday’s players would adapt to today’s game.

Another one of your ideas in ’82 was a Sounders reunion game? Why, what spurred that notion?
One of the unique things about the early going, we had such a great relationship with the fans, and I do mean it was a relationship. People had a genuine care and concern for the club and the players, and we tried to do things in return which considered the fans. My visualization of where we’d been is that there had been a divorce and we had to mend relationships. That was part of it. To bring back the players who were such a big part of building those relationships, and then invite the fans to come back and meet them again. I think we were playing Vancouver, and the reunion game was the pregame, and we had a large, large attendance considering what we were drawing at that time, all there for that pregame. I think it showed we were on the right track in trying to get that support back. I think, good can gained by referring the to players of the past and linking them in thoughtful ways. I’m not sure how that would fit in now. It’s a different thing, now compared to back in the ‘80s.

It’s early, but what are your early impressions of the MLS Sounders?
I think they’re intelligent people and they’re giving it a good shot. There’s Kasey Keller, and I’ve always liked him. He’s obviously a very good goalkeeper, and I think his heart and drive will certainly be in the right place, coming home, so to speak. I also must say I was pleased to see that they stayed with the tradition of soccer in the area and gone with the name Sounders. I think professional sports are really all about building traditions.

Finally, think about those first few days, the Camelot period, if you will. Can that feeling be recreated in this day and age?
There’s no doubt in my mind that you could generate similar feelings. But you also have to remember that professional sport, in it’s own right, has gone through a lot of changes since that time. It’s certainly not as it was in those days. When we came to town there was the Huskies and Sonics, and that was it. Now, unfortunately, there are no Sonics. The Seahawks are very dominant in how much space they take up and so forth. Obviously they are a fine sports organization and, rightfully, they will demand a lot of attention. All teams establish their own relationships, and I can’t think of any reason why you could not do build such relationships with fans today.