Keeping Score

Sadness in Seattle: Sonics Fans Mourn as Oklahoma City Preps for NBA Finals

As the Thunder face off against the Heat, the Pacific Northwest still sees green and gold

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Elaine Thompson / AP

Yonah Tripp, 7, of Tulsa, Okla., clutches a Seattle SuperSonics' Kevin Durant jersey as he and his dad, Charles Tripp, shop in the team store Thursday, July 10, 2008, in Seattle.

Adam Brown hears it all the time: get over it. It’s been four years since the Seattle Supersonics, led by Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant, left the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma City, where the franchise was renamed after a common weather occurrence. Like many Seattle residents, Brown, a lifelong Sonics fan, is still heartbroken, especially since his former team is now in the NBA Finals, representing a city 2,o00 miles away from its original home. “The team was here for 41 years,” says Brown. “People have no idea how that feels, to have something ripped away from you. Talk to me in another 37 years. Maybe I will start to get over it.”

In 2009, Brown and five other Seattle friends made Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team, a critically acclaimed film that started out as a web documentary, and will now re-air on CNBC on June 15, the day after Game 2 of the Finals. The film explores the circumstances surrounding the Sonics’ departure, and lays out plenty of blame. Villains include former Sonics owner Howard Schultz, who feuded with star player Gary Payton in the early 2000s and mismanaged a losing team; current owner Clay Bennett, the Oklahoma City businessman who bought the team from Schultz in 2006 and was supposed to make a good-faith effort to keep it in the Pacific Northwest; and the local politicians who failed to broker a deal for a new arena. “A perfect storm of corporate greed and political ineptitude stole a shining jewel form the Emerald City,” Brown says.

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Brown has no beef with Thunder fans. He just wants them to remember that Seattle’s pain is OKC’s gain. It was years of losing in Seattle—which Brown is convinced the current owners orchestrated in order to alienate the fans and make it easier to move—that put the team in position to draft Durant, Russell Wesbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden, the core of the Thunder team.

The Sonics should be remembered. “The team was sewn into the fabric of the community more than any of our other sports franchises,” Brown says. Seattle is an underrated basketball town— the area has produced a slew of NBA players, including Dallas sharpshooter Jason Terry, former Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Brandon Roy, and Jamal Crawford of the Blazers. The Sonics also came to the city first, in 1967, before the Mariners and Seahawks. It’s still the only major Seattle pro sports team to win a title—the 1979 NBA championship. That team was led by Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Gus Williams and “Downtown” Freddy Brown, and was coached by Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens. The ’79 Sonics are often forgotten since they played in the NBA’s dark ages, the late-1970s era before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came along, when the league was plagued by drugs and dwindling ratings. But that team had talent and flash.

The Sonics were also strong throughout the 1990s, just as the city’s grunge music scene and Starbucks were giving Seattle more cultural caché. Payton and Shawn Kemp were the stars: the ’96 Sonics reached the Finals, but ran into maybe the greatest NBA team of all-time, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, which won a record 72 regular season games that year.

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Durant looked awfully good in Sonics green and gold. (Everyone did, really: I, for one, loved those unis.) Although Oklahoma City may have the best fans in the NBA, part of me wishes Durant was still wearing that Seattle jersey in this year’s Finals. (The players, however, might be happy they’re avoiding the 3,330-mile, cross-country flights between Miami and Seattle).

The NBA may someday return to Seattle. The city’s mayor, Mike McGinn, just met in New York with NBA commissioner David Stern to lobby for a team. San Francisco hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, a Seattle native, has offered to build a $490 million arena, which would include a $200 million government bond contribution repaid by arena tax revenues and rents from sports tenants. His investment group is organizing a June 14 rally in downtown Seattle to build support for the plan.

One problem: the NBA has said it has no current plans for expansion. So another team would have to relocate to the Pacific Northwest, and rip the hearts out of its fans, just like those of the Sonics fans were destroyed. “Sure, people have called us hypocrites,” Brown says. “But we didn’t make up the rules of the game. Seattle deserves a team.”

For now, however, all Seattle can do is shout two rare words: “Go Heat!”

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