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.