The Oklahoma City Thunder have spent the past 2 seasons in Oklahoma City but not before having a long, drawn-out ordeal in Seattle with a number of “attempts” by the Washington State Government to prevent the team from moving to OKC. For those of you who have not seen the brilliant documentary Sonicsgate, that covers the entire ordeal, I implore you to do so (please see the bottom of this entry). But even if you do not, I will run down the events leading up to the move that were explained in the documentary. Unfortunately for Seattle fans, they do not have a franchise and have no real way to express their thoughts and frustrations, and the entire situation received very little attention. The No-Look Pass is empathetic towards Sonic fans as they see the Oklahoma City Thunder heading into the playoffs with their leader Kevin Durant; the team and the franchise player that is rightfully theirs. Let’s rewind and look back at the history of the Sonics and the events leading up to the departure.
The Seattle Supersonics had been a franchise since 1967 and saw a number of successful seasons, including their first playoff appearance led by the legendary Hall of Famer, Bill Russell in 1975 and their 1979 NBA championship.
Things continued to go well into the 90’s with their seemingly unstoppable duo of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp and in 1995, Key Arena had its first renovation, just in time for the Sonics’ trip to the NBA finals against the Chicago Bulls.
But things started to slowly deteriorate from there as Sonics GM Wally Walker offered Jim McIlvane a hefty contract which angered their star player Shawn Kemp, ultimately causing him to demand a trade. The team could not seem to recreate its success in previous years with the addition of Vin Baker in place of Kemp.
The current owner at the time, Barry Ackerley, decided to sell the team to Starbucks coffee king Howard Schultz. Former Sonics guard Gary Payton believed that’s when things began to change since Ackerley attempted to run his basketball team in the way that he would run his coffee business.
Not long after Ackerley’s acquisition of the team, the franchise began losing money and went to the state Legislature along with NBA commissioner David Stern and asked for a $220 million Key Arena renovation but to no avail.
The biggest mistake came on July 18, 2006 when Schultz announced that he was selling the team to a group of Oklahoma businessmen. He stated that he believed that these businessmen, despite being from Oklahoma were committed to keeping the team in Seattle. One might question his motives and his commitment to the city by looking at the amount of profit that he made off of the deal. In 2001, Schultz purchased the team for $200 million and sold the team for $350 million 5 years later.
One of the businessmen in the group that purchased the team was Clay Bennett. Bennett already had an established relationship with Commissioner Stern when he helped move the New Orleans Hornets to Oklahoma City temporarily following the hurricane. One would have to be naive to believe that Bennett had no intention of moving the team to Oklahoma.
The city voted against putting tax money into Key Arena and so Bennett went to the state, with a proposal for a $500 million arena that obviously was not serious and made no effort at all to be taken seriously.
In 2007, Vice Chairman Lenny Wilkens left the Sonics claiming that his position in the organization had not developed the way he would have liked it to but Bennett had already distanced himself from all of the people involved with the organization before his arrival including former player and assistant coach, Jack Sikma who also departed and another former Sonic Detlef Schrempf. In hindsight, it was a way for him to prepare for the eventual move to Oklahoma City.
Bennett’s intentions became more clear when he filed for arbitration before the start of the 07-08 season to cut the lease short on Key Arena.
In an attempt to counter this move, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels filed a lawsuit against the Sonics for attempting to break the lease which stated that the Sonics would play in Key Arena for another two seasons.
Around this time, emails exchanged between Bennett and his fellow owners began to surface:
- “In one e-mail [at the time of the team’s purchase] sent to Bennett and Ward, McClendon celebrated the news with the subject line: ‘the OKLAHOMA CITY SONIC BOOM (or maybe SONIC BOOMERS!) baby!!!!!!!!!!'”
- “On April 17 last year, team co-owners Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward talked about whisking the Sonics away to Oklahoma as soon as possible even though it would mean breaching the KeyArena lease, according to the city’s motion filed in U.S. District Court in New York City. ‘Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?’ Ward wrote. Bennett replied: ‘I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!’ Ward: ‘That’s the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year.’ McClendon: ‘Me too, thanks Clay!'”
- “In June 2007, Tim Romani, an arena consultant for the Sonics, e-mailed Bennett that he would start ‘reaching out’ to Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch to ‘engage him in deal negotiations,’ the e-mails said.”
- In an e-mail exchange later in April, Bennett told McClendon it was ‘quite likely’ the team would play in Seattle another year but that he was ‘attempting quietly and without litigation’ to ‘work through the lease.'”
Former Sonics owner Howard Schultz received news of this and filed a lawsuit against Bennett for misleading him and believed that the emails were substantial evidence that Bennett had no intention to keep the team in Seattle. At that point, Sonics fans had reason to believe that Schultz might actually be an individual with some integrity and that he still cared about the franchise and going out of his way to do what he felt was right.
On June 16, 2008 the trial began between the city and the Seattle Supersonics. Sonics fans came out in full force outside of the courthouse and held a rally where former Sonics players such as Xavier McDaniel and Gary Payton came to show their support. However, things did not go so well inside the courtroom as Bennett’s attorney’s took over. They called Mayor Nickels to the stand to be grilled. When asked how many Sonics games he had attended, he regretfully admitted that he had not attended a single game.
Weeks later on July 2, 2008, a settlement was reached. In exchange for terminating the lease agreement 2 years early, Bennett agreed to a payment package of up to $75 million to the city of Seattle. Under the agreement, $45 million was to be paid immediately and an additional $30 million to be paid if the city of Seattle did not receive another NBA team within 5 years. But the $30 million would only have to be paid if the state Legislature approved $75 million in potential Key Arena upgrades by the end of 2009.
Mayor Nickels kept mentioning throughout the process that it wasn’t about the money, but rather about the city of Seattle and the Sonics fans but in the end it was about the money. He stated after the settlement that the enforcement of the lease would get them to find a better deal and felt that getting the money through the settlement was the best answer and by compromising, the NBA would be more inclined to grant them with an NBA team in the future. But Sonics fans know that this was a big mistake and that if they had allowed the case to continue and even if they lost, they would have been able to appeal and the lease would have been fulfilled during that time period. On top of that the “money bags” behind Bennett, Aubrey McClendon lost nearly $2 billion in the economic collapse of 2008. They would have most likely sold the team if they had lost that much of their funding while staying in Seattle.
The last bit of hope of was erased when Schultz dropped the lawsuit against Bennett and one of the last nails in the coffin came at the end of 2009 when the state Legislature did not approve the $75 million in Key Arena upgrades, leaving Bennett off the hook for the last $30 million.
So now the Supersonics for the time being are no more and now have a “shared history” with the Thunder as a part of the settlement. But Sonic fans are unable to root for the Thunder after everything that has happened. They have a connection to the players but bitterness and hatred towards Clay Bennett. I was unable to find any Sonics fans that currently root for the Thunder but I asked a good friend of mine, Sung Cho who is a longtime Sonics fan about supporting the Thunder:
I think the general consensus among true Sonic fans is that those boys are OUR boys and still support them on the under. We adopted Durant when he came into the league and I believe that many people cheer them on. The beef we have is with Clay Bennett for stealing the team after he said he would keep the team here. So I think that most fans have a love hate thing going on as in they dont want to support anything Clay Bennett is doing. We want our boys to do well yet we dont want anything good happening for Clay Bennett so it’s a love hate catch 22. Now that they are making a turn around and are going to the playoffs it hurts our hearts even more to see our team or what should have been if we had a chance to grow with Durant.
So not only did Seattle lose its team, they had success right around the corner. They had a franchise player in Kevin Durant who has improved vastly over the past few seasons, going from a rookie shooting 43%, to a sophomore averaging 25 points per game while shooting 47% and making the All No Defense Team to averaging 30 points per game and improving his defense and making the all-star team this season.
It’s definitely still up in the air whether or not Seattle will have another NBA team in the future but there is no doubt that the majority of the Sonics fans will be tuning in to see what Durant and his team can do in the playoffs and any success that they have will be bittersweet especially if they are somehow able to win a first round series as an 8th seed as a way to get revenge for 1994. Regardless of what happens, The No-Look Pass will be watching the Thunder closely in the playoffs and will be supporting the cause to get the NBA back in Seattle.