The Seattle Sonics: A City Robbed

In 2008-09, the Oklahoma City Thunder began their first season of play in the National Basketball Association. While commissioner David Stern and the league as a whole was excited about the new team in Oklahoma City, which served as an amazing temporary home to the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina misplaced the franchise, one city felt empty, betrayed and forgotten.

In order for the Thunder to exist, the Seattle Sonics had to disappear. And nobody in Seattle has ever felt the same from that day onward.

The saga begins in 2006. Then-Sonics owner Howard Schultz, corporate head for coffee chain giant Starbucks, announced that the team was for sale due to an inability to secure necessary funds to update the KeyArena, the building that housed both the Sonics and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. The team was purchased by Professional Basketball LLC, an investment group led by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett. In the agreement to purchase the team, there was an understanding between Schultz and Bennett’s group that the new ownership must do everything in their powers to keep the Sonics in Seattle. But, there was a clause that said if the ownership group was unsuccessful in finding funds for either a new arena or upgrades to KeyArena, the ownership group could move the team in 2010 to a different city.

However, once Bennett’s group won the bid for ownership over the Sonics, rumblings across the league already began to hint at the team moving to Oklahoma City. Though Bennett was public in his denial to such claims, others in the front office weren’t wise with how they felt, admitting in e-mails that have since been published in various publications saying the organization was destined for Oklahoma City from the very beginning.

Clay Bennett’s proposal for a $500 million sports complex to house the Sonics was rejected by the city of Seattle towards the end of the 2007-08 season. Upon the rejection, Bennett immediately began the process with the league and the city to relocate the Sonics to Oklahoma City. Almost immediately, the city of Seattle filed suit against Bennett’s ownership group that would enforce the team to honor the lease agreement the team held with the KeyArena. In July 2008, the team and the city came to a settlement that let the Sonics out of their lease, which was the last obstacle in their quest to get out.

The last hope for the city to keep the team came down to former owner Howard Schultz, who filed a lawsuit claiming the team was bought by Bennett and his partners without good faith to keep the team in Seattle like they had promised to do. The problem with Schultz’s lawsuit is that in the agreement to sell the team, Schultz had signed a clause that prohibited him from suing the new ownership group, so his claim became null and void. Schultz would drop the claim before the start of the 2008-09 season, clearing the path for the birth of the Oklahoma City Thunder once and for all.

While the Sonics had fallen on hard times when the team was sold, this was one of the most historically successful franchises in the NBA post-merger. The team battled constantly with the likes of the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls for supremacy in the NBA during the 1990s. The team had the likes of a dominant Shawn Kemp, future Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton and forward Vin Baker powering their offensive attack. Before injuries and drug abuse derailed his career, the argument can be made that Shawn Kemp was one of the most exciting and dominate players in the entire league behind only Michael Jordan.

As the team transitioned into the 2000s, they stayed competitive early on with Gary Payton still serving at point guard and the likes of Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen providing younger talent on the flanks. By 2007, Ray Allen was traded to the Boston Celtics and the team was sold in a whirlwind of action, signaling the beginning of the end.

The story of the Seattle Sonics move can only be shared with that of the Cleveland Browns when Art Modell moved the team in the middle of the night to Baltimore. Eventually, Cleveland was given another expansion team to replace the one that was robbed from them, but to this day, the Browns have yet to put together any sustained success, while the Ravens have won a Super Bowl.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA today. They finished this season fourth in the Western Conference, and with a young line-up headlined by superstar forward Kevin Durant and developing star point guard Russell Westbook, the Thunder are set up for long-term success for many years to come. In Seattle, people wait. They wait for any reason to be excited, any hope to regain an NBA team. When the Thunder moved, they agreed to leave the team history behind them and not claim it as their own.

The Sonics banners remain atop the KeyArena. This history is all in Seattle to this day. But, there isn’t a team.

Seattle is a city with a clear identity, but no team to call their own. There are no immediate plans outlined by commissioner David Stern to move an existing NBA franchise back to Seattle, or to expand the league to include a new team.

There have been a lot of promises regarding basketball and the city of Seattle. Evidently, those promises have gone unfulfilled.

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About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

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