The Great Sonics Swindle of 2008

by lestro

Many thoughts on the Great Sonics Swindle of 2008.

Not being a Sonics fan, I do not have a stake in the team, but I see in the Sonics saga the potential fate of any professional sports team city that has the audacity to stand up and tell billionaires that they are going to have support their own investments.

What happened is this: Former owner and Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz sold the team after failing to get a many hundred million dollar handout form the city and state to renovate the arena they use and reap the profits from. After Schultz realized the people, still sore over the extortion the Seahawks and Mariners laid on them to get Qwest and Safeco Fields, respectively, weren’t gonna pony up for a new stadium, he bailed, selling the team to the group led by Clay Bennett, of Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City picked up a basketball jones after Hurricane Katrina forced the Hornets to relocate to the capital of Flyover Country while their city was pumped out and rebuilding began. Since there is nothing to do in Oklahoma City, the arrival of the NBA was HUGE and the people came out to support the team.

Once the Hornets went back to New Orleans – because the value of a sports team to a city cannot be measured in dollars alone – Oklahoma City got itchy. Sensing opportunity as well as the realization that yes, a sports team has a value that can;t be measured in dollars alone, Bennett turned his sights on the Sonics.

Bennett promised Schultz and the city that he was not there to steal the team – despite internal emails which revealed he was telling his investors exactly the opposite. But even Schultz said he knew selling the team to a guy from Oklahoma City would spur the government into coughing up money for a new stadium.

So Bennett pledged to negotiate in good faith with the city and state to get his shiny new stadium, knowing full well that what he was asking for demanding was ridiculous. Everything went as expected – excepting the offers from other local cities that were also dismissed – and even the NBA Commissioner – and the guy that inducted Clay Bennett into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame – David Stern approved the outright theft of the team.

The owners, of course, were looking out for their own good, knowing that when they wanted shiny new showplaces for their product, their host cities would have no choice but pony up. After all, if the No. 13 market in the country could lose a team to Oklafuckinghoma ( No. 45), anyone could be next.

Meanwhile, Seattle fans struggled and tried to keep their team, which had been systematically run into the ground at every level at nearly a Bush Administration level, ruining almost every last ounce of goodwill the team had built up in its 41 years, while the non-basketball fan majority in the city (which is probably not a Seattle thing, but is proportional to most cities) stuck to its financial guns and refused to sell their city’s financial future to the Sonics new owners.

So there was a lawsuit, with the City seeking to force the Sonics to adhere to the final two years of its lease at Key Arena. The City’s hope was to find a way to force Bennett to stay sometime in the next few years, but after a flailing season of piss poor attendance dominated by more legal strategy headlines than game strategy headlines, the odds of that were slim at best.

Last week, about two hours before the judge was expected to announce her decision in the lawsuit, the City and Bennett reached a deal and the City took $45 million in exchange for its team. It was over. The Sonics were gone.

But by letting them go, the City kissed a little David Stern ass and put itself at the top of the running for any new franchise to come. The only sticking points remained the team’s name and history, it’s championship and its records. The deal has the two cities “sharing.”

Like the Cleveland Browns before them, the Seattle Sonics are now a logo awaiting the team. When Art Modell stole the Browns about 10 years ago, he just took the franchise, renaming them the Ravens when he got to Baltimore (a city, by the way, that lost its team, its logo and its history in one of the most famous abandonments ever).

Usually, the name and colors go too. It’s how San Fran got the “Giants” (New York), Utah ended up with the “Jazz” (New Orleans), Los Angeles got the “Lakers” (Minnesota) and Dallas got the “Stars” (Minnesota again). Sometimes, however, it is clean break, as in the Avalanche (formerly the Quebec Nordiques) or Nationals (Montreal Expos) or even the aforementioned Ravens.

Fans seem to be split.

Here’s what I think, as a Seattle(-ish) resident, but not necessarily a Sonics fan: Let them have it. Go. We should treat the team like a family member that died and any new team we may get like a new baby to love with all the capacity this city has, free from the bad taste left by all the bullshit and weight the name “Sonics” now carries.

No, like a family member that was murdered, not one that died. This team was brutally ripped away from the basketball fans in this city. Its life was cut short.

Any new team should not have this baggage, it should not have to be constantly compared to or live up to the (admittedly lackluster) record of the team that once lived here. A new team and a fresh start is what basketball needs in this town.

Seattle’s distaste for the Sonics was not just Clay Bennett. Years before Bennett’s shadow ever darkened Seattle’s doorstep, the failure by Howard Schultz to build a decent team and GM Wally Walker’s horrible decisions and leadership had been turning off fans for years.

Bennett is just a vulture and you cannot blame an animal like like that for searching out carrion.

So let the name and colors go. The team Seattle loved is dead now. It’s time to move on. If Oklahoma wants the name, fine (though I think the Bandits or the Vultures would be a better choice…), but let them carry the colors like the Mark of Cain, acting as yet another warning to all other cities that are home to a professional sports team.

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