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Seattle’s Battle To Keep The SuperSonics

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This article was planned as a mid-season report card for the Seattle SuperSonics, my home team that I care deeply about. No really, I do. Despite what you may have heard from David Stern, I and a lot of people in the Seattle area care deeply about this team. The Sonics were the first professional franchise of the modern era in Seattle. The team brought Seattle its first and, for a long time, only championship. The team has been here for 41 years, two years longer than I have been alive.

In 1987, I was in the Army in Germany on all night duty watching the Sonics take on the Lakers. It was a thrill to have all the Lakers fans around me get quieter and quieter as Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers, and "X-Man" Xavier McDaniel give the Lakers all they could handle and more.

In 1992, I got a black Sonics practice jersey to wear for lunchtime pickup games and pretended I was Gary Payton. I had all the attitude and mouth with none of the skills but I would knock you down before I let you drive the lane on me.

In 1994, I was in the Army in Colorado, working on a Saturday while the Sonics, winners of 63 games and the top seed in the playoffs, played Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets. I was exhausted after driving to Denver to watch Game 3 from the very top row of McNichols Arena. There were three other Sonics fans there apart from me. When I was finally released to go, I ran to the parking lot to meet my wife. I sat on the sidewalk and turned my walkman on just in time to hear the Denver announcers going crazy, screaming that Dikembe Mutumbo was on the floor clutching the ball. I starting crying right there in my uniform. I threw my Walkman across the parking lot where it exploded in a thousand pieces. My boss started talking trash to me the next day about it but stopped quickly when he realized it was way too soon to mess with me about the Sonics.

In 1996, I almost got fired because I took a 3-hour lunch to watch the Sonics play the Bulls in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. I offered to change my time sheet to leave without pay to make up for it. My boss looked at me with sadness and said no — her husband was a Sonics fan too.

Now team owner Clay Bennett wants to move the team from its home for 41 years to Oklahoma City. I don’t necessarily hate him for wanting to bring a team to his hometown. I can understand why and I wish him luck with it. I do hate him, though, for trying to take mine. And I hate him for how he is trying to do it.

He is telling people in Seattle that it won’t hurt the city at all if the team leaves but then turning around and telling the people in Oklahoma City that the team will be a boon for the economy.

NBA commissioner David Stern, who helped induct Bennett into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, stands idly by making grave announcements about the death of the NBA in Seattle in one breath while talking about expanding into Europe and Asia in another. Franchises flounder in Charlotte, Memphis, and New Orleans while the team in Seattle is so beloved by the people here that when Bill Simmons of ESPN asked for emails from fans, he received over 3000 in less than 24 hours.

Management has traded away or let go every player that the public had a connection with in recent times to create a disconnect with the public. They ask for $500 million from public funding to pay for a new arena way out of town on an impossible time line. (By the way, that’s more than Safeco Field or Qwest Field cost to build.) Stern claims Key Arena is terrible despite saying in 1995 when the arena was rebuilt that it was the state of the art. Stern says it needs to be replaced and paid for with public money despite there being three current and one former privately funded arenas in the NBA (Staples Center in LA, the Rose Garden in Portland, Pepsi Center in Denver, and the GM Place in Vancouver, Canada.)

The problem is now that Stern has put the line in the sand; his ego won’t let him back down. If he caves in here in Seattle, every government that an owner tries to blackmail into a new arena will stand up to him. So he seems willing to move a team from the 14th largest market in the US to the 45th largest. Somehow this makes sense to him. He’s put other owners and the league at risk for the sake of one team and one owner. The only good thing that could come of that is that Seattle might get someone else’s team in the future.

Although there are more than enough reasons to blame Bennett and Stern, another culprit that deserves a lot more venom is Howard Schultz, the head of Starbucks. He bought the Sonics with the idea that he could be the next Mark Cuban. When things started going south on him, he started raising the cry of franchise owners everywhere, “we need a new arena to be competitive” and “we’re losing money on this deal.” When the City of Seattle and the Washington State government — already tapped out from the rebuilding of Key Arena for the Sonics, Safeco Field for the Mariners, and Qwest Field for the Seahawks — told Schultz there was nothing they could do right now, he sold the team to the group headed by Clay Bennett despite there being another local group interested in buying the team and told the press that the reason he sold it to the out of towners was the hope that the threat of an impending move would scare the lawmakers into action, thereby poisoning the well that Clay Bennett claimed to be drinking from when he told the press he had no plans to try and move the team.

Of course, that was a lie. On Aug. 13, 2007 Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon told an Oklahoma newspaper, "We started to look around, and at that time, the Sonics were going through some ownership challenges in Seattle. So Clay, very artfully and skillfully, put himself in the middle of those discussions and to the great amazement and surprise to everyone in Seattle, some rednecks from Oklahoma, which we've been called, made off with the team. … We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here."

No one is innocent here. Clay Bennett, Howard Schultz, David Stern, and the local government all played a part in this debacle but the saddest part is that I and fans like me are the ones getting our hearts torn out. We’ve done nothing except pour our hearts and souls into the team. We cheered the parade in 1979 for our first, and only, major championship. We cried and raged in 1994 as the team crashed and burned against Denver.

If you don’t think it’s important, that you somehow shouldn’t care about the situation in Seattle, just think, how long before your favorite team starts rumbling about a new stadium? How long before the threats of moving start happening? People in Cleveland, Baltimore, Hartford, and Minnesota — they can pay testament to what I am saying. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. Obviously 41 years of history don’t mean a thing when money and ego start talking to people like Howard Schultz, Clay Bennett, and David Stern.

In my time in the Pacific Northwest, Jeff Smuylan tried to move the Mariners to Tampa Bay. Ken Behring had the trucks moving the Seahawks to Los Angeles. They are both still here. David Stern says there will be no miracle in Seattle; forces are rising up to keep the team here. The local group that was interested before have expressed interest again in buying the team, sending a letter through a lawyer to Clay Bennett and David Stern. The government has talked about a $350 million project for Key Arena, $150 million coming from public money.

Fans are getting through the disbelief stage and making their voices heard around the world. There may not be a miracle here but there will be a fight, a fight to keep this team here in Seattle, where it belongs.

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About Russ Evenhuis

I'm a writer with a mid-life crisis. I'm into sports of all kind, a Seattle fan to my bones. A retired rugby player, now I punish myself with triathlons when I'm not hanging out with the family, drinking Guinness and playing PlayStation.
  • Very nice article. I’ve lived in the Seattle area my whole life. The Sonics were my first love . . . even before the Seahawks and Mariners. For me, there has always been Sonics basketball. And now they want to take them away from me . . . for no other reason than ego and greed.

  • I’ve always been surprised by all the talk of moving teams out of Seattle. I don’t get it.

  • I’ve never understood why the moving of franchises is allowed to happen so often in American sports. It’s clear that many team owners don’t give a flying fuck about the fans beyond their ability to buy tickets and merchandise. It must be absolutely devastating when a team you’ve supported all your life suddenly ups sticks and moves to BFE without so much as a by your leave.

    This kind of thing rarely happens in Europe – and here I’m talking soccer, which is the only mass-appeal spectator sport – because the teams are so intimately embedded in the fabric of the cities they play in. Any notion of a cross-country move would be inconceivable: imagine the Yankees, the Red Sox or the Cubs relocating to California. It would be that big of a deal.

    There are sometimes mergers between smaller clubs, but they stay in the same geographical area.

    The one time an American-style relocation has happened (in recent times) was the case of Wimbledon F.C. in England. Wimbledon were victims of their own success. They rose rapidly up the English league system until they eventually reached the pinnacle – the old First Division, which has now been replaced by the Premier League. They sold their stadium – which had been built when they were a small amateur club and was completely unsuitable for top-flight games – and began playing at the ground of another nearby team while they searched for a site to build a new home in their local neighborhood. But the council refused to give them planning permission and in the meantime they were losing money hand over fist as tenants of the other club.

    The owner began to argue that the only way the club could survive was to relocate to Milton Keynes, a town 50 miles away (a huge distance by English standards). The fans were livid and began boycotting games en masse; the team found themselves playing in – literally – an empty stadium.

    Reluctantly, the league agreed to let them move, but such was the cultural opposition that the club – under its new name of Milton Keynes Dons – had to agree to give up its historical claim to the trophies that the old Wimbledon team had won. It is now, in effect, a completely new team.

    Meanwhile, the fans who’d boycotted the games founded their own club, AFC Wimbledon. They’re moving rapidly up the English league pyramid and at the rate they’re going, will likely overtake the Milton Keynes ‘franchise’ within a few years. They’ve got high and by all accounts very realistic hopes of being able to achieve what the old club couldn’t: build their own stadium in the Wimbledon area.

    Would ‘fan power’ be able to work like that in Seattle?

  • Russ Evenhuis

    Good question. I’ve heard talk about boycotting outside Key Arena or everyone storming the floor but I doubt anything will come from that.
    Currently the talk is very much like the solution that happened in Wimbledon in your example. There is a group here looking to either buy the Sonics from Clay Bennett if he loses the upcoming court case with the City of Seattle or buy another franchise (Memphis or Charlotte being mentioned most often) and moving them up here.
    If that were to happen, my one requirement is that the Sonics name, traditions and banners all stay here. There is no way a fan in a different city should be standing under a Jack Sikma jersey in a different arena.

  • Right on, right on, right on!!!!! The SuperSonics were the first staple of the modern era of Seattle. The city really began to boom when they showed up. Not because they did, it was all part of the boom cycle.

    My work with musicians from around the world…usually goes like this “where you from mon?” “Seattle” “Oh mon, the SuperSonics, wicked!”. Hands down, always. Not the Seahawks or the Mariners. The SuperSonics is the identifying icon for Seattle, right behind the Space Needle.

    The coolest name in all sports. Regardless, we must retain ownership of the name. I have a rock guitarist in Belgrade who calls me “Seattle SupeSonic man”.

    thanks to the Seattle Sonics, players like LeBron James can actually enter the league when there was a time they could not play in the NBA due to age. Seattle’s Spencer Haywood changed that whole deal way back in the 70s.

    Key Arena is actually really cool. It is architecture from the same mindset of the Space Needle. Very well designed. The hand of God can come down and press his hand down on the roof. Will not collapse. See the desgn. You don’t see that ever built nowadays. Built for the 21st Century. About the best sounding arena for rock concerts also. And I have been to many venues around the country for the live music thing.

    Wow, someone locals just bought out the Seattle Storm. They will do great this year (they picked up on Cheryl Swoops yesterday!). the Sonics must stay in Seattle. Could you imagine the Oklahoma City Yankees? Yeah, same deal regarding the Sonics.

    Oh, I could rant on…I will when needed. Good article, keep up the fight. Just a matter of wrestling the team out of Clay Bennet’s greasy little fingers….

    full on!

  • And how about that, Ballmer might be throwing a few of his billions of dollars on the table…

    Yeah, this is a good thing. Ballmer makes Clay Bennett look like a welfare case…

  • Russ Evenhuis

    I’ve been afraid to comment on the latest developments. Thought they might be like a dream that would disappear when I woke up.

    Right now, it looks like it’s going to come down to the court case between the City of Seattle and Clay Bennett’s group. If Bennett wins, the Sonics are gone or at least the team is gone. No idea on if he’ll be angry enough to take the name and banners with him too.

    If the City wins and Bennett is forced to keep the team here for 2 more years, I can see him selling the team to the local investor group and buying either the New Orleans Hornets or the Memphis Grizzlies, both of whom are for sale at a cheaper price than he paid for the Sonics. The only sand in that vaseline is that Bennett may balk at getting less money from selling the Sonics than he paid for them.

    If you want to help, go to saveoursonics.com and call a Washington State Legislator. We only have a couple of days for action.

    Thanks and Go Sonics!!

  • Russ Evenhuis

    I’ve been afraid to comment on the latest developments. Thought they might be like a dream that would disappear when I woke up.

    Right now, it looks like it’s going to come down to the court case between the City of Seattle and Clay Bennett’s group. If Bennett wins, the Sonics are gone or at least the team is gone. No idea on if he’ll be angry enough to take the name and banners with him too.

    If the City wins and Bennett is forced to keep the team here for 2 more years, I can see him selling the team to the local investor group and buying either the New Orleans Hornets or the Memphis Grizzlies, both of whom are for sale at a cheaper price than he paid for the Sonics. The only sand in that vaseline is that Bennett may balk at getting less money from selling the Sonics than he paid for them.

    If you want to help, go to http://www.saveoursonics.com and call a Washington State Legislator. We only have a couple of days for action.

    Thanks and Go Sonics!!

  • Yes, we’ll see what is up. Politics….

    Remember, don’t quit till it is over. Remember when Ken Behring actually moved the Seahawks down to California then had to move them back?

    It isn’t over till it’s over. Relentless is a good attitude. Remain so…

    Sonics ROOL!!

  • Cannonshop

    Go Sonics, don’t let the door hit you where nature split you.

  • Regardless, the name and the banners and all that must stay. Pick up on the Hornets would be great. They have a very good team right now….

    Still would be the Sonics….

    Ugh! The politics of sports…

  • If the guy who owns the Sonics wants to move them to Okie, and the people of Seattle want to buy the Hornets to replace them, why doesn’t the owner just sell the Sonics to the locals and buy the Hornets with the proceeds?

    Wouldn’t that be a heck of a lot easier?

  • The current owner (from OK City) is a jackass. the politics are so retarded….

    We’ll just see how it plays out. I swear, the Sonics have one of the worst records in the league right now. I think it is being done on purpose so the locals lose interest or something…

  • Russ Evenhuis

    I agree and to be honest, I’ve started checking out the New Orleans Hornets to see who plays for them.

    There is a story behind the reason Clay Bennett doesn’t want to sell the Sonics and then buy the Hornets, at least from what I’ve heard from a couple of different places. That reason is that he paid a lot more for the Sonics than he would get for them now that he’s slashed and burned the roster. Plus, the Sonics are supposed to worth more than the Hornets so he would not get the same money out of the sale that he put into the buying.

    It’s also a bad time because despite finally having a good GM, Sam Presti has done wonders to position for the future with what he has to work with in the aftermath of Wally Walker, it will take 2 years for the Sonics to be a powerhouse again. Can the fans in OK City support a team that loses 50 games for 2 years? Durant will be a stud but who will be with him?

    Whatever happens, at the very least this all shows that David Stern has told nothing but lies about Seattle and the situation here. His credibility is about as good as that referee that bet on games.

    If and when this all comes down, as long as some team named the Sonics are in Seattle, I will support them.

  • Yeah, this latest off handed statement by Stern really gives example of the state of the NBA. All FU’d, really. It is sitting on a house of cards as far as I am thinking.

    Cool, if you read the comic Tank MacNamara, they are covering the issue in this weeks funnies. It goes to show that this issue has more implications beyond just Seattle/OKC. It does apply to the structure of the whole league.

    Russ E., your posted article may be more insightful than you realize…

    That woul be so cool if Ballmer just bought the Hornets. Would not even have to do anything to Key Arena for a while. The name Sonics and every single banner an retired number remains. That looks like the win-win right now.

    Sonics ROOL!!!

  • We’ll, the trial of the City of Seattle vs. Seattle Sonics starts next week. Turning out to be a big deal. Actually it is cool because dear ol’ Seattle is pretty much challenging the NBAs ragged business structure.

    hhhmmm…The Sonics building a tradition of challenging and changing the league. Spencer Haywood (see comment #5) way back when, and now… The NBA will be a better league if the City of Seattle prevails in this court case.


  • And the trial has started! The mayor was grilled yesterday.

    You know, the Sonics are so much a staple in the city of Seattle, it becomes confusing when the headlines read Sonics vs. Seattle. It is hard to seperate who is who. It seems like the city is sueing itself.

    Damn, it is not the case. I mean, what town on the planet can have a team named the Sonics? Maybe Cape Kennedy in Florida (is it still called that or are we back to Cape Canaveral?). Or the place where they make Airbus in France.

    The OK City Sonics? Makes no sense. Anyway, in this day of modern business, professional sports has got to restructure their thought process a bit.

    In any sport, it seems to come down to playing facilities, and the ability to draw people. The way I see it, any professional sports arena in a city (baseball, football, basketball) should be a 50-50 financing between tax payers and franchise. My reasoning is that these arenas are quite the structure that has valid world-class purpose for a city beyond just the sport. That is how the Seahawks stadium came about. The Rolling Stones played a great show there. They probably would have not come to town if not for the Seahawks stadium.


  • It was really cool how, on Monday when the trial started, 2000 people gathered in front of the federal court with Gary Payton, Xavier McDaniel making noise and carrying signs.

    Bennett was grilled yesterday.

    Day 3 of the trial today….


  • Russ Evenhuis

    Yes, this trial has been very interesting in that I don’t think either side expected to be here today. They were playing chicken and neither side blinked. Now they are having to come clean on their dirty laundry.

    I also thought it was interesting too how David Stern was booed lustily every time he spoke by the Boston crowd last night when presenting the trophy to the Celtics. Could it be that his “retirement” is coming a lot faster than his ego predicted? Bad enough that he’s trying to rip the Sonics out of Seattle but his handling of the Tim Donehy (spelling?) affair has been bizarre. Things could have all been handled so much easier in both cases by just giving OK City an expansion team, which should be fine since he wants to expand to Europe and Asia, and then coming clean on the gambling scandal right away. Instead he’s trying to force through a move that is obviously not clean and natural as he claims and he’s constantly trying to sweep Tim Donehy (spelling again) under the rug. Then he has to gall to get upset and abusive when people don’t believe him? Really?

    It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. I’m just deeply saddened and frustrated that it is happening with my team in my city. I have nothing against OK City. I wish they could get their own team. I just wish their hero wasn’t trying to steal mine with lies and misinformation.

  • Oh yeah, it is coming out. Clay Bennett sure isn’t looking too good. Then Stern, who made such threats of Seattle never being issued another team? When he said that, I just figured that he isn’t going to be head of the league forever…

    Time to clean the assholes out of the NBA. The thing that Bennett did not count on is that he is dealing with Seattle. For those who live here, it is a different personality. He is learning how that whole peace love passiveness can actually put one on the spot…

    Sonics belong in Seattle!!!

  • Oh well,the decision came down.

    Clay Bennett gets to move the team to OKC.

    Well, not bad though. the city cut a great deal. $45million out right. that will pay off some bond money spent on Key Arena renovation from the mid 90s.

    Then another $30million if Seattle does not have another NBA within a 5 year period. Seattle retains all rights to the Sonics name and everything related.

    It would be good to get a new Sonics instead of trying to repair the broken business model of the former Seattle NBA squad. A new Sonics still counts as our Sonics.

    An example would be how the Seattle Sounders from the old NASL maintained their name in soccer, even during times of no team or seeming activity. We now have Sounders FC of the MLS starting 2009. Look out for that team!

    Overall a good deal for Seattle. Gives us a break and allows us to get a better working model. Maybe get a new arena designed by Frank Gehrey to put with the baseball and football stadiums at the edge of the Sound downtown. Turn the current Key Arena into a start of the art concert house. That place had amazing acoustics for rock concerts with it’s original ceiling design.

    The new Sonics. NBA beware!!!!


  • Russ Evenhuis

    I wish I had your optimism, my friend, I really do. I sincerely hope your comments are how it turns out but my more realistic (read pessimistic) side just doesn’t see it panning out that way.

    The way I read it, the city was winning in court when Bennett’s lawyers pulled out the “poisoned well” piece. The irony there is that Slade Gorton, the man that saved the Mariners, was a key member that ended up losing the Sonics. Nevertheless, his plan was good and showed a key attack to the NBA owner blackmail plan that David Stern has used for years with owners to get new arenas.

    Without the “poisoned well” piece, Bennett and the NBA would have had to pay a ton more and promise a team to Seattle. With it, they cut their payment and only had to promise to “notify” the city when there was a team for sale or when there was a possibility of an expansion team. In other words, “Hey Steve Ballmer? Yeah, David Stern here. There’s a team for sale. Who? According to our agreement, I don’t have to tell you. BWUHAHAHAHA”

    Okay, that’s a bit extreme and probably wrong but after the way this whole process has gone down, I feel slimy and hurt. My love of the sport and the team has been damaged by the men in suits.

    Despite that, when the Sonics return, I will be there in my Shawn Kemp jersey because of my love for the sport and for the team.

  • Russ, yeah, hhhhmmm… about it all. If you read this morning’s Seattle P.I. (July 8) and head to the ‘letters to the editor’, I got the lead off opinion about the subject.

    Anyway, Stern won’t be around forever. And now we have an NBA owner (Bennett) who has to lobby his ass off to get us a new team. Or else it will cost him $30million.

    And now he will realize how much it will cost to keep his team in a market not as well suited for professional sports upkeep.

    On to the next step. The issue continues. Schultz’s lawsuit against him may not bring the team home, but for Bennett, it is sure a costly hassle.


  • Now, how about this. Signatures are being gathered to have a public vote to overrule the judge’s and mayor’s decision.

    Vote yes to hold the Sonics to the lease.

    Can you dig it? I knew that you could.

    Hopefully enuf signatures will be gathered by the filing deadline.

  • Russ Evenhuis

    Is that an online petition?

  • Russ, don’t know. I imagine they have to do it like every other initiative. Get those people with clipboards hanging out at grocery stores, on Broadway or the Ave. or Westlake Mall and gather live signatures.

    It is something I read in the paper and saw on the news.

    We’ll see what becomes of it.


  • Russ, at least we have Kevin Calbro staying true to our town. He did not follow the Sonics to OKC to broadcast the games. They offered him a good chunk of coin too! We are not ‘sellouts’ in this town. Well, some are, but…

    So he got signed up by Sounders FC. Great! It will be great to hear him cover the matches from Qwest Field. All their matches will be televised locally.

    Good move, KING T.V. Now if they would sign up Lisa Gangel to do on field coverage or color commentator from the booth. That would be a great team.

    The Sonics will return in some form.


  • Kevin Calabro… I need more coffee, I might spell better that way. Your local Starbucks being closed down? Just go across the street to the next one…