Seattle SuperSonics deserved to be saved by NBA, for fans

Rookies from every National Basketball Association team recently donned their new jerseys for a league-orchestrated photo shoot, one more rite of passage along the journey into the NBA. The often-ridiculous poses and uniform redesign debuts (as the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic did this year) serve to help curb professional basketball fans’ summer league hangovers as they wait for training camp to begin.

This year, however, something was different. Russell Westbrook and D.J. White, two of the Seattle SuperSonics’ first-round draft picks in June, were photographed in practice jerseys. Black ones. With “Oklahoma City” in plain white script on the center. Such is the evidence of the NBA’s most recent screw-up.

On July 3, the city of Seattle agreed to a financial settlement with Sonics principal owner Clay Bennett, enabling him to relocate the team to Oklahoma City. The saga leading up to this final, decisive blow began at the end of the 2006-07 season, when Bennett announced that he would likely uproot the team in the event that the city of Seattle would not finance a new arena. Last season, the Sonics played in KeyArena in downtown Seattle, a 46-year-old arena that seats more than 17,000. Bennett asked the city for around $500 million for a new arena upon acquiring the team but was rebuffed. The settlement was agreed upon because the Sonics had a lease agreement with the city for use of KeyArena through 2010, a contract that Bennett was bent on breaking.

When the impending move was announced, all sorts of protest measures ensued. Fans rallied to the cause, creating the “Save Our Sonics” movement and vocally protesting the move in city council and state legislature meetings. The city itself sued Bennett for breach of agreement regarding the KeyArena lease (this prompted the eventual settlement that uprooted the Sonics). Another lawsuit, yet to be settled in or out of court, by former Sonics principal owner and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, popped up in 2007, as Schultz accused Bennett of violating an agreement made at the time of the sale with regards to researching relocation.

Sonics fans, and some Washington legislators, feel betrayed by the NBA … with good reason. The Sonics became a professional basketball franchise in 1967 and won their only NBA title in 1979. Spencer Haywood, Jack Sikma, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan were among the best players ever to don the green and gold. During the 1990s, the Sonics were one of the best teams in the NBA and made their second-ever NBA finals appearance in 1996, losing to the Chicago Bulls. The team has history and a large market base on its side: The Seattle metropolitan area ranked 13th in the nation according to the 2000 census; Oklahoma City ranked 48th. What gives?

Bennett is an Oklahoma City native who runs an investment company in the city and is worth $1.1 billion. He’s a passionate sports fan with a supposedly friendly relationship with NBA commissioner David Stern, likely cultivated when Oklahoma City borrowed the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina. It has been widely insinuated, with overwhelming circumstantial evidence, that Bennett never intended to keep the team in Seattle upon purchasing the Sonics despite statements to the contrary. Schultz should take a fair share of the blame, having also demanded an arena from the city that his $1.1 billion net worth couldn’t buy before selling the team off despite obvious hints of a possible move.

Of course, it is Stern and the NBA who should take most of the heat for the Sonics fiasco. The evidence of a potential move was there from the moment the ink dried on the sale agreement, but the NBA did not seem to care. Stern’s statements to the press as the lawsuits were filed were equally aloof, suggesting that the city didn’t deserve an NBA franchise if the taxpayers weren’t willing to pony up for a new arena. Arena politics aside, the business-related motives for moving the Sonics are sketchy at best and suggest collusion. In light of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy’s trial and sentencing for gambling, Stern’s credibility as commissioner has been shattered, and his resignation would be a welcome step in introducing more credibility into the organization of the NBA.

I will freely admit that sentiment clouds my argument to an extent. I enjoy watching professional basketball and believe that teams as successful as the Sonics deserve a sort of tenure. After all, the NBA wouldn’t think of moving the San Antonio Spurs, who don’t play in a very large market and are younger than the Sonics but have four championships in 10 years. Committed ownership does not always exist (see Michael Heisley and the Memphis Grizzlies), but the NBA does not appear to be effectively maximizing its profit and exposure potential when dealing with franchises in the manner that it did with the Sonics.

The league had a competitive NBA Finals this June and has had an active, drama-filled offseason that appeals to fans everywhere. The Michael Jordan hangover is being replaced with a cadre of young stars and upstart teams that play quality basketball. It appears that, in some aspects, the NBA gets it, but the league’s dramatic botching of the Sonics’ relocation issue suggests that professional basketball still has a long way to go.



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