Op Ed: How the NBA Failed the Seattle Sonics

Steve GMarch 8th, 2008
By: Steve G

No! Not in our house!

That phrase used to be a rally cry of home defense for Sonics fans. Today, it sounds more like the swan song of the SuperSonics in Seattle.

Its been very hard times for Sonics fans.

During the All-Star Game Weekend in New Orleans, NBA Commissioner David Stern dropped the biggest bomb in my life as a Seattle Sonics fan.

Its apparent to all who are watching that the Sonics are heading out of Seattle.

As those words came out of his mouth, my heart sank. Every pulsating beat was sharply felt through my body. I thought I might have misheard him, but then Stern followed through with another punch.

I accept that inevitability at this point. There is no miracle here. The Sonics savior? Far from it.

Fans thought of Stern as the NBAs white knight the one man who would have the common sense to realize that moving the Sonics was a mistake. Instead, Stern pulled a fast one on the Sonics fans, by siding with team owner Clayton Bennett. Only three words could sum up my feelings: betrayed, angry, and abandoned. I realized, along with everyone else, that this team is going to be taken away from me.

David Stern came to the aid of the Sacramento fans when team owner Maloof contemplated moving the Kings to Las Vegas. Just like the Sonics, the Kings were lobbying for public funding for a new arena. When the public vote rejected the proposal, the Maloofs wanted to relocate the team closer to their hotel, the Palms. Stern pledged to use all of his NBA resources to ensure the Kings remain in Sacramento. It worked. Why couldn't he similarly intervene for the Sonics? Two words: Clayton Bennett.

Bennett has had a long relationship with Stern -- fifteen years to be exact. During the mid-90s Clayton Bennett was one of the principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs and held a position on the NBA Board of Governors. Given how closely the NBA Board and the Commissioner work together, it should be no surprise that Stern turned a blind eye to the Sonics fans.

Sterns main argument for moving the SuperSonics is that there is a general lack of local support and no public funding for a new arena. In terms of support, I could understand if the team had the worst attendance in the league and a lack of history in the city. Its not like the Sonics have been in Seattle for 41 years Oh wait, yes they have. Well, that's alright because the attendance at Key Arena is the worst in the NBA, right?

Nope, that trophy goes to the Indiana Pacers at a whopping 12,204 fans per game. Seattle isn't even the second worst or the third. The New Orleans Hornets are ranked third worst in attendance and yet they are sitting in third place in the Western Conference standings.

Clayton Bennett and his ownership group pledged make a good faith effort to exhaust every possibility before even thinking about the relocation process for the team. On the day of his announcement of the sale, Bennett stated, The No. 1 objective, our primary and sincere efforts, will be driven towards being successful [in Seattle]. It is not our intention to move or relocate the team. We fully intend to fulfill our obligation to Key Arena.

It's funny how things change in a New York minute, or two Seattle years.

Bennett has filed for relocation with the NBA to move the team out of Seattle. The Sonics have traded most of their talented players, such as Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, drastically reducing payroll. The Sonics are also trying to buy out the lease of Key Arena, which would facilitate a quicker move to Oklahoma City.

Bennett has only given the public one option on an arena: the $500 million mega arena located in Renton. Taxpayers would be stuck with $300 million of the construction costs, and the City of Renton would have to put up $100 million of its own. If the stadium construction costs go over budget, the team owners will not pay for the extra costs. After construction is completed, the stadium would be publicly owned but virtually all of the money from arena events would go directly into the pockets of the Sonics.

It seems that all of the risk is squarely placed in the hands of the taxpayers with most of the benefits going directly to Bennetts pockets. In Bennetts defense, it's a similar deal to Safeco and Qwest Field, but with two small problems.

Safeco offers twice the capacity and more games a year; Qwest Field was built for almost half as much at $320 million and can hold almost triple the capacity (72,000). Therefore, it's no wonder that the legislature didn't agree to such steep demands from Bennett. If Seattle did acquiesce to his stipulations, it would set horrible precedent for other cities with NBA teams. Seattle was not going to do that. Obviously, Bennetts plan was rejected.

After the failure of his proposal, Bennett immediately dismissed all other possibilities and worked on moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City. Thus began the systematic alienation of the Seattle fan base.

The Sonics cut ties with KJR-AM, ending a 19-year relationship with the only sports radio station in Seattle. Lenny Wilkens, Sonics legend and President of Basketball Operations, was marketed as the face of the franchise but he didn't last very long and resigned from the team a few months after. The final blow was their implementation of new media policies. The Sonics only allowed one 15-minute session with a player per week for all local media outlets. The team was isolated from the fans and the gap would continue to grow.

With the Oklahoma City vote for arena improvements passing on March 4th, the Sonics are set for a uneventful move out of Seattle. David Stern and his longtime pal Clayton Bennett are sure to be the easy targets to blame for this, but there's another person who had a hand in things as well: the Starbucks CEO and former Sonics majority owner Howard Schultz.

Schultz relationship with the Sonics started out as a romantic courtship. After buying the team from the locally-based Ackerley Group in 2001 to the tune of $200 million, he pledged that this acquisition was the start of a public trust that would bridge the gap between the basketball players and their fans.

Sadly, the relationship soured rather quickly. Schultz said it was a five-year plan. The fans thought they were in for a championship. In reality, what they were really in for was the potential sale and departure of the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

I'm not a true Sonics fan. At least, not in the same sense as those who were born and raised in Washington. I wasn't born in Seattle, I'm from L.A. and moved to Seattle in 1990. I never wore a Sikma or Wilkens jersey. Dennis Johnson was a Celtic as far as I knew. I was barely six months old when the Sonics won their only championship.

Over the years, I've become a big enough fan to have an emotional connection to the team. The first NBA game I ever attended was the Mavericks v. Sonics at the Coliseum. The first jersey I ever wore with pride was a Champion Sonics replica jersey with a big #20 on the back.

I rooted for Derrick McKey, Ricky Pierce, and Michael Cage. I was one of the many who was screaming when Eddie Johnson hit that 3-pointer from the top of the logo at the end of the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in the 93 playoffs. The image of a sprawled out Dikembe Mutombo clutching a basketball still lives with me to this day.

No, I'm not a born-and-bred Sonics fan, but I'm sure Ill be welcomed with open arms when I wander into a bar next to an empty Key Arena and reminisce about the days when Seattle had a basketball team.

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