Remembering a Pacific Northwest tragedy during Oklahoma’s ecstasy
On April 17th, 2008, the NBA’s Board of Governors approved the relocation of the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City. Less than two years before, on July 16th, 2006, coffee magnate Howard Schultz (he of Starbucks – heard of them?) sold the team to an investment group (led by Clay Bennett) from Oklahoma City for $350 million. In the complex dance that followed, Schultz would claim he thought he was selling to people who would keep the team in Seattle, and Bennett would claim he truly attempted to do so. E-mails obtained during a lawsuit brought forth by the city of Seattle showed otherwise – but the end result was a foregone conclusion – the Sonics were history, placed in mothballs.
The team took up residence in the Sooner state – a nickname earned by settlers of the former “Indian Territory” who snuck across the border early to claim land. A state born in skirting the rules earned itself a professional basketball team with similar shady dealings, robbing a world-class city of its most iconic franchise.
Fast forward four years, one month and ten days from the announcement of relocation – Sunday, May 27, 2012 – and you’ll find the Oklahoma City Thunder* playing for the right to go to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Pundits and observers praise the organization for conducting business in all the right ways – drafting well, developing players, and locking them up to long-term deals. Despite being in the nation’s 45th largest television market, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are legitimate stars, worthy of every word of praise they receive. Fans are rabid, the arena has energy – it’s fun to watch the Thunder.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the city they left behind, the city they called home for 41 seasons. As far as sports fans are concerned, things are pretty bleak in Seattle. The Mariners have lost 95 or more ballgames in three of the last four seasons, and currently show little hope of contention in 2012. The Seahawks have been to a Super Bowl (2006), only to lose it due to terrible officiating to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s been four seasons since they had a winning football team – and things are so bad, the MLS team (the Sounders) outdraws the baseball club. The people of Seattle are so shell-shocked and sports-starved, they’ve turned to the bleak pastime of soccer.
Seeing the Thunder succeed must be the sad frosting on the glum cake of Seattle fandom. They had Kevin Durant, who has since morphed into a top-five player in the NBA, for his rookie season, only to have him taken away immediately after. It might have been better had they never gotten to see him in person, been teased with his ability, humility and leadership, than what they got – which was a single season of bliss followed by emptiness, like a kid breaking his shiny new toy on Christmas afternoon.
The people of Seattle never got to appreciate the hilarity of their regional, divisional and conference rival, the Portland Trail Blazers, passing on Durant to select Greg Oden with the first overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft. The two teams in the “I-5 Rivalry” were almost equally matched – each had one championship, and the Sonics won the all-time head-to-head series narrowly, 98-94. Selecting Oden over Durant was the type of colossal misstep which set the franchises on divergent courses… though Sonics fans never got to revel in it. Imagine the Packers and Vikings or the Red Sox and Yankees had the top two picks in a Draft – one selects a bust, the other a future Hall-of-Famer. It would be fodder for decades of gleeful ridicule.
Instead, the franchise which brought home the only modern-day championship to the Emerald City was hauled away to the plains, name changed, elite young talent remaining the same. All they are left with are fond memories of the mid-90s Sonics – those of Kemp, Payton and Schrempf – who posted a .725 regular season winning percentage between 1992-93 and 1997-98. Only Michael Jordan’s Bulls (at .735) were better during that stretch. As fate would have it, during the Sonics’ only Finals appearance during that run (1996), they fell to His Airness.
Fewer fans can recall the 1979 NBA Championship team, with its top three scorers all 25 and under (Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, and Gus Williams) and Downtown Fred Brown as its anchor. They made it to the Finals in 1978, won it in 1979 and looked poised for an extended run of dominance– but Johnson was traded away, Williams missed an entire season due to a feud with the team owner, and the run was over before it began.
The same can be said for modern-day fans – Durant was almost unanimously considered a franchise centerpiece, and with high draft picks on the way (Rusell Westbrook, etc) a brighter future was ahead. Unfortunately for that rainy metropolis, it would be elsewhere.
There are rumors that a team could return, such as the Sacramento Kings, a team in an arena squabble eerily similar to the one in Seattle circa six seasons ago. Much like the city of Baltimore, who regained a football squad by stealing another city’s team (the Browns), Seattle might right its wrong with another wrong. If it does happen, the name (the Sonics) the color scheme (green and yellow) and the banners will all be waiting, courtesy of an out-of-court settlement keeping them in Seattle.
The solution to this sports injustice is not an easy one to decipher, and I’m not saying I have it all figured out. What I am saying is this – as we watch an entertaining young Thunder team, we should all give a thought to the city of Seattle, and take a moment to appreciate our own local clubs. They might seem like permanent fixtures, but they are as ephemeral as anything attached to a business: objects of a love affair (fandom) for multitudes, but mere assets to those who call the shots.
BreakTheHuddle passed through Seattle once, fell in love with the city and desires desperately to return there. Reach me at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, hit me up on Twitter @BreakTheHuddle and like the page on Facebook. Thanks for reading, everybody!