When you think of Seattle, your mind probably conjures up the Space Needle, grunge music, Starbucks, and, in the distance, majestic Mt. Rainier. Starbucks will play a role in what follows, but our topic today is Seattle as a sports city, something you probably didn’t think of right away.
The first measure of a sports city is the devotion of its fans. The Key Arena, home to the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, is famous for getting so loud that the crowd noise drowns out the public address system. The baseball Mariners had a very nice run in the mid-nineties and are a trendy choice as a sleeper-contender this year. The football Seahawks are only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance. They got to the brink of a championship, but the aforementioned Sonics are the only Seattle (male) professional sports franchise to bring one home (’78-79). Such a distinction only makes it that much sadder that NBA Commissioner David Stern, is a willing participant in a cabal to hijack the team and relocate it to Oklahoma City.
I will attempt a brief recounting of the events leading up to this, the key players involved, and the egregious deceit transparent through the process.
The Seattle Sonics were owned, until recently, by Starbucks mogul, Howard Schultz. (This sordid story makes me even prouder that I’ve never consumed a single Starbucks product) In the run up to, and the inaugural stages of, ownership, Schultz made saccharine overtures about his intimate and intrinsic connection with Seattle, and how that should be collateral for proving his pride in, and dedication to, owning the Seattle Sonics. That was 2001.
Barely back from the honeymoon, the relationship turned sour. Schultz has spent considerable time bitching about the terms of the Key Arena’s lease with the city. Admittedly, I’m uneducated as to the specifics of that financial issue, but as wealthy as Schultz is, I have difficulty understanding how much it can affect him. (He dropped out of the Forbes 400 in 2008, but still checks in with a net worth of $1.1B), One Sonics fan characterized Schultz’s behavior as owner as that of a “a spoiled punk kid who’s already bored with his absurdly expensive Christmas present by New Year’s Day.” Schultz sold the team in 2006 for a $150M profit, despite complaining about his inability to make money running the franchise.
Enter Clay Bennett, a wealthy Hall-of-Fame oil tycoon from Oklahoma, new owner of the Seattle franchise. Oklahoma City has been flirting with the NBA for a while; two years ago it was awarded temporary partial custody of the New Orleans Hornets from ’05-’07. Despite the obvious conclusions to be drawn, Bennett commented publicly on numerous occasions about his intent to keep the Sonics in Seattle. It wasn’t long before he changed his tune.
Bennett first began complaining that the Key Arena was inadequate (translation: not enough luxury boxes). This is utter nonsense, especially since the Seattle taxpayers forked $125M to renovate the current arena just twelve years ago! Bennett claimed a satisfactory arena would cost half a billion dollars. Even more nonsensical when you consider of the NBA and NHL arenas costructed in the 90’s the one with the highest estimate on any approved project was less than half Bennett’s figure ($235M for Portland’s Rose Garden)Bennett was clearly shill-bidding in an attempt to contrive an excuse to relocate the team by pitting the taxpayers with an offer they couldn’t accept.
Basically, Bennett is holding the city of Seattle’s beloved pro basketball team ransom, bullying the city’s taxpayers and fans to build a billionaire a new toybox even though he already has a more than adequate one.
Now, you may be asking yourself if an individual can just purchase a team and relocate it as he/she pleases. The answer is, no! I’m sketchy on the actual process by which one is granted permission to relocate a franchise, but an attempt to do so can certainly be thwarted by other owners and/or the Commissioner of the League, currently David Stern.
Did you know that the state of Oklahoma has a Hall of Fame for Oklahomans? Maybe that’s not strange, and other states have Halls of Fame as well – but I certainly chuckled when I found this out. How did I find it out and why am I mentioning it here, you ask. Well, because Bennett was elected to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2007… and the induction speech was given by his close personal friend, David fucking Stern!
Do I need to expound on the respective sport market size estimates, and general population figures for Oklahoma City and Seattle? Take a wild guess, and you’ll be in the, ahem, ballpark.
So, what does the NBA have to gain by allowing this relocation? About as much as the Suns did for trading for a broken down Shaquille O’Neal! David Stern is just hooking up his boy – this is like Jay-Z giving Memphis Bleek all his DJ Premier beats. Isn’t it great that you don’t have to get either of the two references in this paragraph, but just learned that the Shaq trade will be a bust, and some guy named “Memphis Bleek” is a shitty rapper (and another guy,“DJ Premier” is a talented producer)… I’m here to inform!
This is pretty “fierce, dangerous, pathetic, fucked up,” to quote a Nirvana lyric (or, “not fierce,” and “a hot-tranny-mess,” to quote Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano) Circumstantially it has the elements of collusion even, right? So why isn’t this a story – how come nobody knows or cares about it? Yeah, I guess because it’s happening in Seattle. Home of flannel, and mocha frappuccino , not sports.
To add insult to injury, although the Sonics have never revisited their 1979 glory, they and their fans can see some light at the end of the tunnel. After some dismal play in recent memory, they landed a future superstar, Kevin Durant, in last year’s draft, shed their bad contracts and stockpiled, through trades, 13 picks in the next three drafts – saving a ton of salary in the process (important because the NBA has a team salary cap). The team would have to hire Isiah Thomas to not be very good in a few years.
Sportswriting godsend, Bill Simmons (a.k.a. the only reason any sentient sports fan should be caught visiting ESPN’s website, and the widely-accredited pioneer of sports blogging) has dedicated two of his famously epic “mailbag” columns to giving a voice to dejected Sonics fans – forty pages worth, after claiming to be necessarily highly selective about which ones to print! He is the only nationally relevant, sports media, heavy-hitter I’ve read/heard talk about this; so, as usual, props to him.
Sports stories always pull my heart strings for some reason; I probably average at least one cry per Real Sports episode. Not surprisingly many of the emails moved me to tears (leading to several strange glances on the subway, the likes of which I haven’t received since the last chapter of Marley and Me). But, thumbing through the columns would be heart-wrenching for anybody. It may be hard for others to imagine, but any true fan knows that losing a team is really like losing part of yourself. Shit, I saw a serious discussion among a group of age 70-ish Brooklynites about going to Cooperstown to protest the induction of Walter O’Malley to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, even though they had to be in their 20s when he pulled the Dodgers from Brooklyn!
One email in the Simmons column was unlike all the others though, and, in truth, I’ve written this whole piece to provide necessary context to quote it in its entirety. It’s an entirely different take on the situation, though the commiseration with the feeling of loss is obvious in its undertones. So, Michael from Boston, have at it:
Seattle deserves our praise, not our pity. The people there should hold their heads high, even if there is a tear in their eye. They were adults — MEN and WOMEN — who held firm when residents of other cities would have childishly voted against their own best interests and capitulated like cowards. Seattle said no to Clay Bennett, and no to his greed. The city grew a steel backbone. Losing the Sonics seems like a small price to pay for collective courage and integrity. We should all be so lucky as to have looked an immoral thing clear in the face, and told it to go screw itself.
It worries me that people wouldn’t write you as many letters if Seattle had voted for the arena and Bennett had elected to stay. People might be so busy cheering they would forget the money that could have gone to schools, the elderly or even back to the taxpayers themselves. It worries me that many probably couldn’t be bothered to notice or care. People seem far more upset by this cost of doing good than they are strengthened by their courage. I wish they weren’t. Our loyalties and values tell us who we are as people, and, in your real life, stepping up to do the right thing for those who matter and count on you is a real brand of caring that you usually can’t find in ballparks or metaphors.
I am a fan. I am grateful that my loyalty to the Celtics is now bearing fruit. However, the ecstasy of sport must not morph into a willful ignorance or a denial of bigger realities, and there are real choices to be made when an owner’s push comes to a city’s shove. Owners are coming for your tax dollars. They have been. On the other side of things, Medicare and Medicaid expenses for the states are growing — they could soon be beyond our ability to cover them. We are fighting two wars and have entered a recession. We live in a time of national challenge. And Clay Bennett wants an arena. Thank you, Seattle, for showing us what caring really is.
The NBA’s community development arm, which calls itself “NBA Cares,” should read that last line carefully. We already know what David Stern really cares about.