As the Oklahoma City Thunder advanced on to the NBA Finals, there were celebrations and pandemonium in the state of Oklahoma. In the Pacific northwest, the feel was entirely different. As the Thunder face the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Finals tonight, let's turn our thoughts to a once-proud NBA city with no team to root for.
It's still hard to believe there's no team in Seattle right now. A city known for it's coffee, and in the early 1990's its music movement called "grunge", Seattle was also known as an NBA Championship winning city from 1979 and had one of the most exciting teams in basketball in the mid-90's (with another Finals appearance in 1996). The city also had the misfortune of being owned by Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz, who is the man that started the ball rolling toward an unfortunate demise of a team that was still loved by its city.
When Schultz (who was incompetent at best in running a basketball franchise) decided to sell the team in 2006, his fatal mistake was taking the offer of an ownership group from Oklahoma, headed up by Clay Bennett and billionaire Aubrey McClendon. Bennett and the people of Oklahoma City had ingratiated themselves to NBA Commissioner David Stern by kindly housing the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Big Easy. Everyone on the planet knew this meant the end of the Seattle Supersonics. With the city and the NBA embroiled in a battle to build a new (publicly financed) arena for the team, selling the team to Bennett was like selling security passwords to a thief. The inevitable was just going to happen.
What unfolded in the intervening two years between the Bennett Group's purchase of the Sonics and when they eventually moved after the NBA Draft in 2008 is enough to make one bitter about the brutal tug between public interest (incompetent city leadership), corporate lies, and the soul of a city who just drafted one of the most exciting players in recent history, Kevin Durant (in the 2007 draft). The primitive groundwork had been laid for the team that you see before you. Lest we forget that Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were both drafted as Sonics shortly before the move. Residents of Seattle see what's before them and ... well ... can you blame them for being bitter?
While none of this directly affects teams such as the Denver Nuggets, it does harken back to a time in fairly recent Nuggets history when the team's future was cloudy. In 1989, Sidney Schlenker sold the Denver Nuggets to Comsat Video Enterprises and Peter Bynoe and Bertrum Lee. In hindsight this was a move of colossal stupidity done for the best intentions, David Stern rush-approved the sale in an attempt to foster greater minority ownership in the NBA. Stern neglected to make sure Bynoe and (specifically) Lee could afford to run a sports franchise (even though they only owned 32% of the team, they were the managing partners), and thus embroiled the Nuggets in a decade-long descent into basketball hell.
Comsat executive Robert Wussler and Peter Bynoe publicly fought for years before Comsat finally sold the Nuggets (and the Colorado Avalanche) in 1997. By 1999 team President Dan Issel was openly complaining that he had so little funds to sign players because of pending sales for the team, which at that time was then owned by Liberty Media Group who made it clear they didn't want to keep the team when they bought them in 1997.
There were several bidders for the Nuggets when Liberty put them up for sale in 1998. One of which included Bill Laurie, Stan Kroenke's brother-in-law, among others. Some bidders wouldn't commit to keeping the Nuggets in Denver. The winning bidder Stan Kroenke, however, did commit to keeping the Nuggets in Denver. He ended up purchasing the Pepsi Center from Liberty as well as its lease with the city. Good faith was shown, stability ensued.
There was a time when it was up in the air that the Nuggets would remain in Denver. You can't help but wonder "what if". The Pepsi Center was mostly privately financed and owned by Comsat, and changed hands twice. However, the Pepsi Center may be the saving grace that kept the Nuggets in town. If McNichols Arena was still around would Denver still have a team?
You can't blame the citizens of Seattle for having (in their view) corporate welfare fatigue. They approved two stadiums and a healthy renovation of the Key Arena in the handful of years before the team moved. David Stern put them over a barrel to get a new arena built even though there was no literal guarantee they would stay in Seattle if such a thing was built. When emails surfaced between David Stern and Clay Bennett showing their rather cozy relationship and additional emails between Bennett and his partners showing they had no intention of keeping the team in Seattle, you got the feeling Sonics fans were getting screwed without the pleasure of a handshake.
It makes me sad. No basketball in Seattle is weird to think about. I'm so used to the Nuggets treks to the Pacific Northwest. Who can forget the Nuggets miracle five game series defeat of the Sonics in 1994? So many memories tied to a city so far away. It has made "rooting" for the Thunder a dubious proposition for those of us that grew up watching the Nuggets battle Seattle in the Western Conference and later the Northwest Division.
This isn't about the "fans" in OKC. They probably understand how fortunate they were to be gifted a team that was heading in the right direction. Now the fruits of that labor are paying off, you get the feeling that those fans haven't felt the biting sting of a team going the opposite direction, living, breathing and suffering through the good and the bad that the Seattle fans did with that team. It's a shame that they kept the "history" of the Sonics with the Thunder. It doesn't seem right but then again, nothing has felt "right" since they moved to OKC. It's not a personal thing, it's just a giant vacant space where you were used to seeing one before.
When you watch the Thunder and Heat play these games, remember all the historic names that have gone through Seattle, such as Gary Payton, George Karl, Shawn Kemp, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson, Lenny Wilkins, Ray Allen and so forth. Also remember that both Kevin Durant and Nick Collison are original Sonics. The team is still there, just not in the same place. I feel what transpired reflects poorly on the Bennett ownership group that moved the team, not the people of OKC who very clearly love their basketball team.
This will be a fantastic series featuring some of the most dynamic players in the league. I'm sure the fans in OKC will be loving life the next couple weeks and there's nothing wrong with that at all. Meanwhile, the suffering continues in Seattle...
...and there's just something wrong with that.
Watch Sonicsgate the documentary here.
In related news, read about Thunder co-owner Aubrey McClendon's financial issues here.