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April 21, 2008

Stop the Shady Move of the SuperSonics from Seattle

Professional basketball in Seattle died what may be a final death on Friday, when NBA owners voted to approve the team's relocation to Oklahoma City. Now, only pending lawsuits stand in the way of the demise of the Seattle SuperSonics.


Team owners holding their cities hostage – threatening to up and move to greener pastures barring the construction of new, publicly financed stadiums and arenas – is nothing new, of course. What’s especially appalling about Seattle’s case is the dishonesty of the owners involved, the complicity of the league leadership, and the betrayal of one of sports’ most devoted and loyal fan bases.


Not since the twin back-stabbings of the 1990s that were Cleveland Browns fans vs. Art Modell and Minnesota North Stars fans vs. Norm Green has such a betrayal happened to a better group of fans, in the middle of a season.


A brief rundown: Howard Schultz, best known as the man who built Starbucks, led the group that owned the Sonics until 2006 when the team was sold to a group of businessmen from Oklahoma City led by Clay Bennett.


The Oklahoma capital had temporarily hosted the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina, and had widely been expected to be first in line for a team of their own. Bennett and his group, however, claimed at first that they were happy in Seattle, yessiree, and that they were committed to keeping the team there – provided, of course, they could get a publicly-financed replacement for KeyArena.


Unfortunately, the new owners had trouble keeping their mouths (and e-mail accounts) shut about their true intentions. In mid-2007, minority owner Aubrey McClendon – an energy mogul who was also a major backer of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – was quoted by an Oklahoma City business journal as saying that they “didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle,” a bit of off-message talk that earned McClendon a $250,000 fine from NBA Commissioner David Stern.


Bennett, however, denied that McClendon spoke for the group, and the gaffe did nothing to slow the owners’ plans. Indeed, later in 2007, they formally announced plans to move to Oklahoma City, pending litigation over whether the team could exit its lease.


Despite the efforts of groups of city elders, led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, to put financing together for KeyArena improvements and a fan group called Save Our Sonics – and even the support of influential ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons – attempts to stop the relocation have mostly failed.


Meanwhile, the commissioner has not only stood foursquare with Bennett, but has vowed repeatedly that if the Sonics leave, Seattle will not receive a new team any time in the foreseeable future. The owners have followed him, as demonstrated by Friday’s vote.


More recently, e-mails among the owners from 2006 have surfaced that again showed they had no plans to even pursue keeping the team in Seattle – which led to a lawsuit from Schultz himself, arguing that since the Bennett group violated the terms of the sale agreement the team should be returned to him.


For now, hopes for keeping the team in Seattle rest on the dispute over the lease, as well as the Schultz suit. But even if they remain in town for two more years, the lease is up in 2010 and the team would likely be out the door then.


The idea of this move is ridiculous for several reasons: Seattle is a strong, vibrant basketball town, and the Sonics are the only one of its three pro teams that have ever won a championship. The arena in such dire need of replacement was renovated only 13 years ago. Seattle is the nation’s 13th-largest television market. According to the Media Info Center, Oklahoma City ranks 47th. And the NBA is failing in several cities – Memphis and Charlotte spring to mind first – so why not put those teams in Oklahoma?

And even more unfortunately for Sonics fans, their team is being whisked from them just as they appear primed for a run of sustained on-court success. The team presently has a promising core, led by budding superstar Kevin Durant, with lots of high draft picks in the near future and visionary executive Sam Presti in the general manager’s chair. 


The NBA has stepped in before to stop a shady-seeming sale/relocation – the Minnesota Timberwolves’ aborted 1994 move to New Orleans by boxing promoters – so it would behoove Stern and the owners to take the side of Seattle in crafting a solution that puts more honest bosses in charge, and keeps the Sonics where they belong.

© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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