It was one of those days where people remember precisely where they were when they got the news. Like assassinations, market crashes and so many other seismic world events, the day Seattle lost the SuperSonics — officially, July 2, 2008 — didn’t just come and go. It seared itself into the hearts and psyches of NBA fans in that Pacific Northwest city.
“It killed me, man,” former Sonics coach George Karl said Wednesday night. “I was in the Seattle area with my daughter, in Olympia. There were rumors and then it was over. It happened so quick.”
There had been promises, there had been worries, there had been political wrangling. When the clock ran out, all that remained were accusations, recriminations and, yes, tears. The reality was stark: Starbucks impresario Howard Schultz and his partner had sold the SuperSonics to an investment group headed by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett. Talks about a publicly financed arena broke down, and the Sonics were headed to Oklahoma and a new life as the eventual Thunder.
Forty-one years of NBA history was over. The source of some of the league’s biggest names and most entertaining teams — and the only Seattle franchise to claim a championship in major professional sports — was gone.
“Destroyed,” was the word chosen by Boston’s Jason Terry, who grew up in Seattle and starred at Frankin High, which is about 5 miles from the Sonics’ old haunt, Key Arena. “There [were] all kind of ‘Save the Sonics’ shirts, signs and blogs.”
As of Wednesday though — four years, six months and seven days since the moving vans rolled in — Seattle is as close as it’s been to getting the NBA back. Investor Chris Hansen was close to a deal to purchase the Sacramento Kings and relocate them to the Emerald City, according to multiple media outlets.
First reported by Yahoo! Sports, Hansen — who already has a deal to build a new arena, this time largely through corporate funding — was offering the Maloof family that owns the Kings more than $500 million. The team’s future in Sacramento has been shaky for several seasons because of squabbling over a new arena in the California capital, with possible destinations such as Orange County and Las Vegas mentioned in the past.
Seattle, via Hansen, has been an interested party from the start, though. According to Yahoo!, the Kings would be renamed the SuperSonics, begin play in time for the 2013-14 season and be based in KeyArena for two years while their new home is constructed.
Just how imminent the sale might be morphed through the day Wednesday; some reports out of Sacramento had the Maloofs reconsidering Hansen’s offer. Details of Hansen’s financing for the arena in Seattle’s “SoDo” section — south of downtown — still must be worked out. In October, he reached an agreement with local government to build the $490 million facility near the city’s other stadiums, Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field. An estimated $290 million would come from private investments, with $200 million in public financing repaid through rent, admission taxes and Hansen’s own sources, the Associated Press reported.
The NBA, meanwhile, has its own requirements for a franchise sale and relocation. For the former, an application for transfer must be filed, due diligence is performed on the people and finances involved and then the league’s Board of Governors votes, with 75 percent approval — 23 out of the current 30 teams — needed for new ownership.
For relocation, a team must apply by March 1 if it wants to move in time for the following season. The NBA’s relocation committee than has 120 days to study the proposal and make its report to the Board of Governors. When the owners vote, a simple majority — 16 of 30 — is needed for approval.
The NBA declined to comment on Monday’s news reports. It is believed that KeyArena, the Sonics’ home before their departure and the driving force in Schultz’s decision to sell, would be acceptable as a temporary home should the deal go through.
Hansen is a Seattle native and San Francisco resident who made his fortune working with Blue Ridge Capital and, since 2008, as managing partner of the Valiant Capital firm he founded. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and two members of the Nordstrom department-store family are among his fellow investors in the NBA deal.
His co-conspirators, of course, would be the Sonics fans who had their hearts broken in the first offseason of Seattle rookie Kevin Durant’s career. And that’s what many of them would feel like co-conspirators if they gain re-admittance to the NBA at the expense of some equally passionate Sacramento fans.
“There are a lot of people here who don’t want somebody else’s team,” said Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist who began covering the NBA in Portland in the 1970s. “They feel like the pain was so great when the Sonics left, they would rather have, say, an expansion team in 2016 than take another city’s team.”
Expansion isn’t on the league’s radar, however, and this might be Seattle’s best hope for the foreseeable future. Besides, even subtracting the Sacramento sympathizers and those still resistant to the slightest public funding of a private sports enterprise, that leaves a large group eager for their Sonics.
“Many people here are over-the-moon excited,” Kelley said. “Combine it with the Seahawks” — the city’s pro football team is advancing in the NFL playoffs — “and they’re like, ‘How can this week get any better?’ Fans here have been heartbroken and riding the roller-coaster [since the Sonics left], but I think most of them feel really good about this.”
For most of four decades, Seattle fans had one of the league’s most competitive franchises. The Sonics entered the league in 1967-68 as an expansion team and climbed above .500 by their fifth season. At the end of their 11th, they were playing in The Finals. A year after that, they were NBA champions.
Members of that team — Fred Brown, Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Wally Walker — became some of Seattle’s most beloved athletes ever. They had company from
Sonics teams before and after, including Lenny Wilkens, Spencer Haywood, Slick Watts, Tom Chambers, Derrick McKey, Nate McMillan (aka “Mr. Sonic”), Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, right on through Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Durant. Wilkens began his Hall of Fame coaching career while still playing, and legendary Bill Russell, Bernie Bickerstaff, Karl and McMillan had successful stints on Seattle’s sideline.
As recently as 2004-05, the Sonics won 52 games and the Northwest crown. But improvements to Key Arena in 1994-95 (the team played in Tacoma that season) weren’t sufficient to generate the revenue streams desired by ownership, and attendance sank to the bottom third of NBA teams over their final decade in town.
For some Seattle residents, the NBA’s exit led swiftly to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude toward the league. “People have largely ignored the NBA,” Kelley surmised, “to such an extent that a lot of them have embraced the soccer team [the MLS's Seattle Sounders].”
Any time Kelley wrote about the NBA, particularly the Portland Trail Blazers, he got cold, quick feedback that “We don’t care anymore,” he said.
That might have been their bruised feelings speaking, though. A local group set up SaveOurSonics.org, a site dedicated to returning the NBA to Seattle. And the players who made their names playing in the franchise’s green and gold uniforms still reign among the city’s sporting elite.
“This is a basketball town,” Kelley said. “Shawn Kemp is a hero here still. When Gary [Payton] comes to town, it’s like [Barack] Obama coming to town. Detlef Schrempf still is here and he’s loved. Kemp is about the most popular guy in town — even he’s taken aback by it. He’s like the Pied Piper — when he walks down the street, people are yelling out to him.”
Many NBA players, past and present, yell right back in their memories of and affections for Seattle.
“It was a great basketball town,” said Kendall Gill, who played for the Sonics for two (1993-95) of his 15 NBA seasons. “After they rebuilt KeyArena, I didn’t think the team was ever going to leave. I’ll tell ya what, fans there didn’t deserve it because that was a great basketball town. It’s also a great place to live — I was too young, I couldn’t appreciate it but it was a great place to be.”
Minnesota guard Luke Ridnour was drafted 14th overall by Seattle and played five seasons with the Sonics. He lives in Washington in the offseason and still sees, hears and feels the passion of jilted Sonics fans.
“So to get the team back, it’d be pretty cool,” he said. “I hear they would call them the SuperSonics and everything would be the way it was before, even the same uniforms they used to wear, so that’d be cool too. The Sonics have a rich tradition, they were there for 40 years and it’d be great to have them back.”
Said Terry: “My heart is in Seattle. I’ve always dreamed that one day they’d get a team back there.”
Boston guard Avery Bradley, a native of Tacoma, said: “People are going to be excited. Every time I go back home I see people wearing Seattle stuff, so I think it’s going to be big for the city.”
Said Karl: “I had so many good years. It revamped my career. I come back from Madrid, Spain, take a team that was under .500, makes the playoffs and wins the first round. The next year we go to the conference finals and then we stub our toe a little bit and lose to Denver [the first No. 1 seed upset by a No. 8]. The depth of that team’s talent, it was the most talented defensive team I ever coached. It was fun.”
So Seattle was a great NBA city? “I think it’s a great sports city,” Karl said. “It has an East Coast feel. Seattle is an individual city. Outdoors, entrepreneurs, there’s just a lot of mental action there.”
If the Kings deal goes through, there soon might be a lot of basketball action there again.
“A part of me is disappointed because I’ve enjoyed my time in Sacramento,” Karl said. “I’m not going to lie – I’m happy Seattle’s going to have a team but I am disappointed Sacramento can’t keep theirs.”
NBA.com correspondents Michael Kelly, Brian Robb and Randy Renner contributed to this report.