Originally posted to Substack on January 28, 2022.
The Seattle SuperSonics, 1967-2008. Gone, but not forgotten.
"On an economic basis, near zero. On a cultural basis, close to zero. We would still have two sports, and plenty of cities our size don't have three." — Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, Sports Illustrated, February 2006, when asked about the significance of the Sonics' moving.
"We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle. ... We know it's a little more difficult financially here in Oklahoma City, but we think it's great for the community and if we could break even we'd be thrilled." — Sonics (former) co-owner Aubrey McClendon, The (Oklahoma City) Journal Record, Aug. 13, 2007.
"I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!" — Sonics/Thunder co-owner Clay Bennett expressing support for moving the Sonics to Oklahoma in an email chain dated April 17, 2007, when he was publicly saying he was doing “everything possible” to keep the Sonics in Seattle.
The Seattle SuperSonics’ 2007-2008 season, the last in franchise history, was also its worst, a 20-62 live putrefaction. Of course, this wasn’t by accident, but by design. Since purchasing the team in 2006, Clay Bennett let the team rot, aided by an inept Sonics administration that had already been busy sluffing off team stars like Gary Payton and Ray Allen in favor of no-name role players, the lone bright spot that final year being their 2nd overall pick, Kevin Durant. (Wonder if you’ve heard of him before?) What became known only when it was too late was that Starbucks Man and Radical Centrist Howard Schultz had, basically in a sort of tantrum, sluffed off the Sonics and Storm for $350 million to a cabal of Oklahoma energy barons, who, in turn, secretly never planned to make a serious effort to keep the team in Seattle and had tacit, if not overt, support from then-commissioner David Stern to basically sell the team for parts before relocating.
Aside from 10 months in 2020 when I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, I’ve been in Washington state my entire life. I was born here, raised here, and honestly can’t see myself living anywhere else. It has everything I could possibly want in a place to live. I was born and raised in the Mariners and Cougars cults, to which I still happily belong, and I’ve fought with the demon bastards known as the 12th Man since I got into American football at age 8. But the Sonics were conspicuously absent from my life, despite the year I was born being their last Finals run. My family was just never into pro basketball, so my exposure to the NBA came mostly from the other kids at school, who were largely Sonics and (post-move) Blazers fans, and occasionally from my dad, who at least knew some players. I remember finding out in 5th grade that the Sonics had been bought by a group from Oklahoma, in 2006. This was more or less the beginning of the end. By the time I decided to follow the Sonics, it was too late. They’d moved to Oklahoma City.
I was so angry that I vowed to never watch the NBA until we got a team back, a vow that I have more or less (and recently, very reluctantly) kept. I followed the Will We Get the Kings? Saga religiously, and was extremely disappointed when we didn’t. After the NBA owners kiboshed the Kings’ relocation proposal (a proposal that, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have felt great about considering how we lost the Sonics), the NBA basically said, both in 2018 and 2020, that the only way we’re getting a team back is through expansion, which feels better morally but frustrating. However, I will be first in line to support the team I never had a chance to as a kid.
The narrative that I’d internalized in the 13, almost 14 years since that horrible April was that the Sonics were pawned off from Howard Schultz, who was in over his head both in terms of debt and how to operate a professional basketball franchise, to the Oklahoma group, who the local media from Day One already characterized as wanting nothing to do with seriously trying to keep the Sonics in the PNW. This characterization, we would find out a couple of years later, was accurate. But as I buried myself in Seattle Times pieces from those final years, the narrative truly unfurled itself to me, and it made me violently ill. Everything about this travesty was disgusting. State politicians not taking the warning signs seriously until it was too late. The prior ownership and management letting the team crumble before everyone’s very eyes. The new ownership laughing among themselves like the Enron traders playing Power Grid with California as they fleeced an entire state of their professional basketball team. And most unfortunately, a population that didn’t manifest pride in a professional sports team until 5 years too late.
This piece originally started life when I was talking to my partners about what it felt like to find out the Sonics left when I was 11 years old. It became much more than that.
Sports in the United States reflect the cultures in which they incubate. Gridiron football took hold in the Northeast, then moved to the Midwest and South, where it exploded as association football, known as soccer here, displaced it on the East Coast, where immigrant populations kickstarted the First Soccer Boom (see Addendum 1). Baseball, thanks to its simple rules and equipment, was able to spread and be played pretty much anywhere there were people wanting to play it. On the West Coast, thanks to the international port cities of San Francisco and Seattle and transcontinental rail, pretty much every sport found a group of people willing to play it, from baseball to hockey, from rugby to American football, and also basketball.
For a few years, the Sonics were the only professional sports team in town, after the Pilots left in 1969 and before the original Sounders, Seahawks, and Mariners arrived in 1974, 1976, and 1977 respectively, and for a solid while they were the most successful. The Mariners foundered to find a winning season, let alone the playoffs, until 1991, and the Seahawks found comfort in mediocrity with just enough winning to keep fans coming to the Kingdome. The Sonics, meanwhile, were red-hot, finding the playoffs five times in the ‘70s (including two straight Finals appearances, winning the ‘78-’79 Finals), six times in the ‘80s, all but one year in the ‘90s (including a Finals appearance, the lone exception being the strike-shortened ‘98-’99 season), and twice in the ‘00s.
The Sonics’ 20 playoff appearances between the 1968-69 and 1999-2000 seasons is almost triple that of the Seahawks’ (5) and Mariners’ (2) playoff appearances in the same time span. Until the legendary 2001 Mariners, and the Seahawks’ first Super Bowl run in 2006 and really until the Legion of Boom era, the Sonics were, and functionally still are, the most successful professional sports team in Seattle history this side of the Sounders. Until Super Bowl XLVIII, they had the city’s most prestigious professional sports championship, unless you count the Seattle Metropolitans’ 1917 Stanley Cup. Their winning percentage in the regular season (.524), postseason (.493), and overall (.522) is better than the Mariners’ (.472, .441, .471) and Seahawks’ (.517, .486, .515) records in all three categories. For context, the Seahawks made their 19th postseason appearance in franchise history in 2020, their 44th year of existence. The Sonics did it 20 times in 31 years.
The Mariners were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first to be mired in such a problem. The Kingdome was decrepit and decomposing in front of everyone, including chunks of roofing falling onto seating. There was a dire need for a new ballpark, but state political leadership was heavily reluctant to make a move for it considering that the Mariners were, well, very bad. They’d only achieved their first winning record in 1991, and in 1995 were playing for their existence. The Double saved Seattle baseball, the Washington State Legislature calling a special session afterwards to approve an alternative funding package that resulted in Safeco Field being built.
The Seahawks followed almost immediately in a very bizarre turn of events that saw then-owner Ken Behring summarily pack up and move the team to Los Angeles, give some sort of excuse about Seattle being too earthquake-prone (while…moving his team to Los Angeles), seismologists saying that he was full of bunk, the NFL fining him $500,000 a day until he moved the team back to Seattle, and then him selling the team to Paul Allen. They got a new stadium in 2002.
The Sonics avoided the earlier drama because unlike the Mariners and Seahawks, who played in SoDo, they played in Key Arena, one of the centerpieces of Seattle Center, built for the 1962 World’s Fair in the heart of downtown, but also like the Mariners and Seahawks, started angling for a renovation deal. Key Arena was by far the smallest NBA stadium, and the farthest behind by 1990s NBA standards. Unlike the Mariners and Seahawks, though, the Sonics had the on-court wherewithal to ask for such a renovation. Theoretically.
Howard Schultz bought the team a year into the new millenium and immediately made plans for a $200 million expansion to Key Arena, publicly funded. These fell through. Over the course of the Schultz Era, the Sonics decomposed. Sonics legend Gary Payton, with whom Schultz feuded and tried to turn the Sonics locker room against, was traded away after not showing up for training camp in 2002. The Sonics managed two playoff appearances, the last of which being in 2003, and what little argument they had for a renovation deal crumbled. The Sonics pulled in the lowest revenue numbers in the league, and Schultz immediately started looking for an out as he hemorrhaged money.
The 2005-06 Sonics finished 11th in the Western Conference and the team entered its fateful 2006 offseason. Schultz decided to sell the team, and after a hasty search yielded no local group willing to buy he started courting offers from out of state, seeing potential suitors from Kansas City, St. Louis, Las Vegas, San Jose, and Anaheim before, through a process much too complicated to detail here, agreeing to a deal with a group out of Oklahoma City, a city that’d been fishing for a team for at least a decade, and certainly after hosting the New Orleans Hornets for two seasons. The decision to sell was not popular with the Seattle adminstration, and the vote passed but only barely. The NBA owners rubber-stamped the sale on October 24, 2006, and the Seattle SuperSonics became the property of Clay Bennett and his consortium for $350 million. Attached to that sale was a stipulation that the new consortium make a “good faith effort” to keep the team in Seattle, either through a new arena, renovations to the Key, or a new lease on Key within 12 months.
Not a few weeks later, Seattle voters passed an initiative that banned tax money from being spent on stadium projects unless the city or county could show that the project would turn a profit. The committee behind the initiative, Citizens For More Important Things, and its founder, Chris Van Dyk, argued that tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on sports stadiums because the cultural significance, or insignificance in this case, of the Sonics didn’t warrant a multi-billion dollar arena project. This was countered by one Sonics employee arguing that just because one doesn’t like a thing doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have cultural value (see Addendum 2). The initiative won with 74% of the vote.
Despite this, Clay Bennett went ahead with a $500 million arena proposal in February of 2007, and abandoned it by April after failing to reach a deal by the end of the legislative calendar. Emails released by the city in 2008, after the Sonics had already left town, dated to mid-August of 2007 showed members of the ownership group already making plans to move the team to Oklahoma City, with one character in particular, Aubrey McClendon, infamously saying that keeping the Sonics in Seattle was never a priority for the new ownership group; Bennett vehemently denied this, and the NBA fined McClendon $250,000 for the comments (see Addendum 3). Reported at the time but surreptitiously absent from most current narratives about these events is McClendon’s comments about the Storm, Seattle’s WNBA team that the consortium had also bought from Schultz. Specifically, that he “didn’t want those kind of women” in Oklahoma City, referring to lesbians. McClendon and another co-owner had donated over $1 million to anti-gay marriage groups.
The last real hope Seattle had for retaining the Sonics came on September 23rd, when the city filed a lawsuit in an attempt to keep the Sonics in Key Arena until 2010. During this, then-CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer proposed a $300 million renovation to Key Arena, for which he would pay half, with the city and county paying for the rest. The state legislature waffled and waivered on delegating the funds to the county until April 10th, 2008, when the deadline passed without a deal and Mayor Nickels said that the city’s hopes now rested entirely on the pending lawsuit.
On Halloween of 2007, Bennett told NBA commissioner David Stern that it was the goal of the ownership consortium to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City as soon as legally possible. This was met with a harsh response from the city attorney, given that this was the day after the Sonics’ 2007 home opener, who said that Bennett was trying to intentionally alienate and divide the Sonics fandom in pursuit of his own personal agenda. On November 2nd, Bennett publicly announced his intentions to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City as soon as it could get out of its current lease with Key Arena, which ran to 2010. This was extremely unpopular and prompted Seattle’s mayor, Greg Nickels, to warn that the city expected the Sonics to fill out their lease. An initiative that would’ve prevented the city from accepting a lease buyout gained support, and the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance heavily modeled on the initiative. This apparently meant nothing. On April 13th, the Sonics played their last home game in Key Arena, beating the Dallas Mavericks 99-95, and on April 18th the NBA Board of Governors approved the relocation of the Sonics to Oklahoma City. On July 2nd, 2008, a settlement between the city and the ownership consortium was announced. The consortium agreed to pay the city $45 million for breaking the lease early, and an additional $30 million if Seattle wasn’t given a replacement team within five years (which, guess what, we weren’t).
The conditions laid out a weird and somewhat tortuous path forward for any prospective expansion team in Seattle. Instead of something like the Browns, where the intangibles of the team remained in Cleveland for a future expansion team to assume and the Ravens began as functionally an expansion team with an already existing roster and staff, the conditions of this settlement said that the Sonics’ name and colors remained in Seattle to be assumed by any future expansion team, although such an expansion team was never actually promised, or even talked about in anything but the sheer abstract, in a groundbreaking use of postmodernist writing in legal statements. What stung even more was the “shared history” condition, where the newly-rechristened Oklahoma City Thunder retained all of the Sonics’ history, but would “share” it with the aforementioned theoretical expansion team. But for now, all of the Sonics’ history, banners, jerseys, and the 1979 NBA Finals trophy reside in Oklahoma City.
There’s another chapter to this, perhaps the most frustrating of all. After the city of Seattle released the emails showing that the Oklahoma consortium had no intention of “good faith negotiations” and were really just biding their time to rob Seattle of a basketball team, the outcry from people who’d previously shown little to no interest in really keeping the team in Seattle was enormous.
Governor Christine Gregoire, who’d previously only approved a task force to look into Steve Ballmer’s proposal and had publicly wavered on using public funds to keep the Sonics home, issued a statement about how Washington political and business leaders had been “lied to” from the start, and perhaps even more eyebrow-raising: Howard Schultz tried to buy back the team. He filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma consortium, stating that the group had breached the good faith part of the agreement. Despite that part being objectively correct, Schultz was forced to drop the suit after it was shown that the sale had also come with Schultz agreeing to not renege on the deal.
As painful as reliving all of these memories was, perhaps nothing was more painful than reading opinion pieces in the Seattle Times and fan responses on the dedicated forum.
For some, like fan ambassador Lorin “Big Lo” Sandretzky and myself, watching the NBA became way too painful, especially as the Thunder, led by 2007 first round pick Kevin Durant and 2008 first round pick Russell Westbrook (one of the last actions taken while the Sonics were still the Sonics) became one of the league’s most successful young teams. But in my case, I kept asking myself: how did we let it get to this point? Blaming the owner that sold the team, the owner who bought the team, the politicians who said empty words about wanting to keep the team but ran the polar opposite direction away from doing anything about it, it’s all very easy for a narrative. But for me, this fundamentally rests on that age-old question: who owns a professional sports team?
First, it must be understood that the American and Canadian model of franchise ownership is rather unique, as is the way that professional sports in general operates here. To have no public involvement at all in the operation of the team is not super common. As I read somewhere and really wish I’d kept the link around, the chaos surrounding Wimbledon FC was seen as an atrocity to English soccer fans, but isn’t remotely out of the ordinary for American sports fans (see Addendum 4).
The detriments of franchise ownership in sports deserves its own essay, but suffice it to say that my longstanding opinion has been that professional teams should be publicly owned. This doesn’t even have to be straight-up nationalization. This can take the form of a nonprofit, like what the Green Bay Packers use, or creating supporters’ organizations and trusts that have a designated say in the operation of the team, similar to what many soccer teams have. Honestly, anything is better than the current model.
Professional sports teams are a source of civic pride, and are, whether people like it or not, a cultural boon. Sports are just as much culturally important as art and music. Working together on a team to not only accomplish superhuman feats on the court, or field, or track, or rink but to engage with the community they play in should be prized and valued and deemed a public good, and the people should be allowed to have a say in that. What’s happened to Seattle has happened to too many other cities before and after the Sonics, and in even worse situations.
I would love for nothing more than for the Sonics to come back. I will haul ass to Sonics home games. But really what I want is change. The Sonics should be a lesson in how we engage with sports as a society, and with teams that represent a city, state, or region.
When the documentary Sonicsgate won a Webby Award in 2010, Gary Payton, who was interviewed and had become close with the filmmakers, gave the acceptance speech, which in Webbies tradition was limited to five words. It consisted of the following, echoed by many before 2010 and even more after:
Bring back our Seattle SuperSonics.
Addendum 1: The term soccer comes from, incidentally, an English public school (read: expensive private boarding school) naming custom that shortened a word from a root syllable, so breakfast became brekker or brekkers, rugby became rugger, and association football became soccer. As for the First Soccer Boom, there was a time when soccer rivalled baseball for the title of most popular sport in the United States, around the final decades of the 19th and first two decades of the 20th centuries, and especially in port cities on the East Coast and rural New England and Pennsylvania. This period of soccer history actually somewhat reflected the development of domestic soccer in Europe, defined by teams that were less “franchises” and more neighborhood clubs that reflected a local cultural, ethnic, or class group. This period ended with the so-called Soccer Wars that resulted in the near-total destruction of domestic soccer sides in the United States until the mid-20th century, and the diminishing of the United States as an international power until the late 20th century. Anyway, back to basketball.
Addendum 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kKvPC_h9dM
Addendum 3: McClendon, who owned 20% of the Sonics/Thunder and later bought more shares of it from another co-owner, was the CEO of a natural gas company that still has naming rights to the Thunder’s arena. He was also a big proponent of fracking. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiring to rig bids for oil and gas leases in 2016 and died a day later in a single-vehicle collision that was ruled an accident.
Addendum 4: Sorry to go on about soccer again, but the long and short of it is thus: in 2001, English domestic side Wimbledon FC announced its intentions to move out of its South London home to a new site 56 miles to the north. This was incredibly unpopular with the club’s fans and soccer fans generally, but the Football Association approved the move anyway. Supporters formed a new side, AFC Wimbledon, that many fans switched allegiance to. The relocated Wimbledon FC side renamed themselves Milton Keynes Dons in 2004. Both AFC Wimbledon and M.K. Dons play in the League One tier of English soccer, meaning they play each other in what is regularly referred to as one of the top rivalries in English soccer.
This literally would not have been possible without the Web Archive.