[The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Tao of the Passing Big Man, and other essays. Due out if and when we survive this global pandemic.]
When people bring up the city of Seattle, its typically to talk about Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain (maybe even Quincy Jones’ depending on who you’re talking to), coffee, and months of rain.
Outside of the diehard NBA fans, the normal American does not think of basketball. Seattle, however; is a fertile hotbed for talented basketball players. On top of that, it is a really dope city–one of the dopest cities in the United States. So dope– that the majority of the millionaires living in this country, live in Seattle. It is downright head scratching that a city so dope, does not have an NBA team.
What the average person does not know is that Seattle has a rich history of hoop dating all the way back to 1967. They won an NBA title in 1979, and from 1993 to 1998–led by Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and a collection of high level role players–had a 60% winning percentage.
Things took a tumble for Seattle when they signed center Jim McIlvaine to an enormous contract (mistakenly) believing that he was the final piece to a championship puzzle. This alienated the franchise face Shawn Kemp (who was lobbying for a new contract) enough to the point that he demanded a trade before his contract was completed [Folklore has it that Kemp had already been dangled in a trade once before with the Chicago Bulls for then small forward Scottie Pippen]. The Sonics traded Kemp to the Cleveland Cavaliers–for a two piece and a biscuit meal– starting a gradual decline that culminated with George Karl not getting a contract renewal in 1998. The 1998-99 lockout immediately followed; which hurt the Sonics revenue when not all their fans returned to the Key Arena when the basketball did.
In 2001, the Ackerley family sold the team to Coffee baron Howard Schulz, and to quote Gary Payton, “he tried to run the basketball team like a coffee business.” Frustrated with low attendance, poor team performance, and a venue that was outdated compared to the new wave of NBA multi purpose arenas, Schultz sold the team to an Oklahoma City investment group–led by Aubrey McClendon and Clay Bennett–that had just seen promise while hosting the New Orleans Hornets for an interim period during post Hurricane Katrina.
After realizing that the city was not going to pay for either a new arena or renovations (the city eventually passed initiative 91 More Important Things i.e. no sports subsidies) despite spending over $517 million on SafeCo field (for the Mariners) and $430 Million for the Seahawks’ new stadium, Questfield. The Okies saw their chance and took it, using this initiative as an excuse to move the team to OKC, even though they were sued for breaking the lease. The city settled for a 75 million dollar buyout, with 45 million of it paid upfront and the rest of the 30 to be paid out over the next 5 years; if the city could put together a renovation plan for the Key Arena (Are you confused too? Okay. Good I’m not the only one who can’t make sense of this deal) The city never put together that plan an forfeited the 30 million from the settlement. There is a prevailing thought that had the city of Seattle fought harder to keep the team, that the OKC based group would have eventually caved, and sold the team as majority stakeholder (Aubrey McClendon lost over 90 percent of his fortune in the upcoming 2008 economic recession).
While it is true that the OKC buyers ( and arguably the league—err–David Stern) probably did some underhanded actions to acquire the team; with the agenda to move the team, the city of Seattle did everything it could to help give away their franchise. One could argue that in Seattle, basketball was this esoteric sport that only urban kids and hipsters supported. The city ponied up the funds for their baseball and football teams, but left the basketball team dangling in the wind. I know that no one wants to see a bad product, but historically, the Sonics were the only franchise at the time consistently winning [my argument against this would be Warriors fans who supported their team through thick and thin–although Oaklanders eventually lost their team too once it started winning].
The Mariners had a brief run in the late 90’s and early 2000’s (with an expanded playoff format starting in 1995), and the Seahawks were perennial doormats until the early 2000’s. Sonics fans just have to face up to the fact that the city didn’t care about basketball enough. They even let Bennett and the other okies take all the team records, banners, stats, and history with them to Oklahoma. Say what you will about the whole process being unfair, the fact is that the city didn’t want it enough. As Sir Mix A lot said, Seattlites were always “fair weather fans when it came to the Seahawks and Sonics”, comparing them to the wine and cheese crowd that 49ers fans are reknowned for. He called them “Upscale cats drinking 4.50 cups of tea.” I WOULD LOVE to see a team back in Seattle (and Vancouver while we’re at it. Move Memphis to the east where they belong) but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Outside of the hardcore hoop heads up there, no one in Seattle really misses basketball.
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found in the KDVS studios making on air playlists. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org