Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Local Seattle sports story meets national political scandal.

Here’s a story that, on the surface, isn’t going to interest anyone who is outside the Seattle area, or isn't a die-hard NBA fan. Long story short, after eight years or so of being run into the ground by a combination of a terrible ownership group (Howard Shultz, Starbucks CEO) and a terrible General Manager (Wally Walker), the Seattle Supersonics, and their poor sisters, the WNBA Storm, were sold to a group from Oklahoma City. Both the old and new ownership groups mouthed the correct words about “wanting to keep the franchise in Seattle”. But, there were several things that made everyone feel very uneasy.

· Although Key Arena, where the Sonics and Storm play, was refurbished to make it almost a brand new facility just twelve years ago, both ownership groups had made statements about how it was an outdated facility and no one could make money with an NBA franchise while stuck there.

· Oklahoma City has a brand new facility downtown in the Brickyard area that doesn’t have a major league tenant, but played host to the New Orleans Hornets of the NBA after their facility, the Superdome, was laid waste by Hurricane Katrina and its unfortunate aftermath. This season, the Hornets thanked their erstwhile hosts and packed their bags, back to New Orleans. While there, the Hornets, an orphan team that did not belong to OKC, played to full houses.

· Seattle has seen several attempts in the last 20 years to move our local, established major league teams elsewhere. The Seattle Mariners were eternally on the verge of moving somewhere, usually Tampa Bay, as they played in the concrete mushroom called the Kingdome to crowds that could only generously called “anemic”. The Seattle Seahawks were actually gone for several weeks, as Ken Behring, packed up the company offices and equipment such as weight machines, and moved everything to Los Angeles. He gave a statement on TV saying how “sorry he was” but the move had been forced on him, etc. etc. Only last minute maneuverings by politicians and local heavyweights to put local ownership groups together, back by, in the case of the Mariners, money from Japan’s Nintendo, saved the franchises and put together packages that produced two new, state of the art stadiums, Quest Field for the Seahawks and Safeco Field for the Mariners.

With interest in the NBA at a very low ebb and Seattle suffering from multi-million dollar stadium fatigue, everyone here saw the Sonics being ripe for the picking. And since the new ownership group was from OKC, everyone here automatically assumed that was the ultimate goal of the new owners, regardless of what they said. Seattle has been lied to in very recent memory by rich owners with an agenda that did not match that of the city. And given that one of the first things that happened is the team traded its two players that could be called stars, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, things did not bode well for the future.

In the beginning, the majority owner made some statements about how he wanted to find a way to build a new stadium. However, his time frame made no sense if that is really what he wanted. Given the history of Seattle and the constant threat on its sports teams, you would think that any new owners who really wanted to put together a new stadium proposal would move slowly and diplomatically. However, it was not long before the threats changed from veiled to outright. Given that the state legislature would go into recess in a matter of months by the time the new owners time frame ran out, it seemed it was a fait accompli. The move was going to happen. And mostly, Seattle responded with a big yawn. Since these two franchises are the only ones that have ever provided the city with a national championship (the Seattle Totems hockey club won the Stanley Cup in something like 1908, but no one counts that one), the collective “I don’t give much of a fig” attitude is very indicative of how much Seattle has had its fill of greedy owners who only want what they want, and don’t care about the city.

Now, however, one of the minority owners decided to open his big mouth to a newspaper in OKC. In that interview, this guy actually admitted that they never bought the Sonics to keep them in Seattle, and the plan was always to move them to OKC. Which everyone already knew, but since it was never actually said out loud, everyone could always deny it if they felt like it. The first stirrings of passion are being felt in Seattle. We may not care much about the NBA anymore (crooked refs, anyone?), but boy, we detest being screwed over.

Here’s one little tidbit that I found interesting.

Understand: This was a calculated move. McClendon wants to enrage Seattle. He wants to stoke the resentment. He wants to provoke me into reminding you, mostly liberal Seattle, that McClendon was a big contributor to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the reprehensible and completely discredited group that distorted and lied about John Kerry's war record during the 2004 election.

Great. We have, as part of the ownership group of our original sports franchise, one of the people who swift boated John Kerry. If that doesn’t tell you anything about this particular man’s ethics, I don’t know what will. That is, he has none. He will do and say anything to achieve his goals, and only goes through the motions so that he can persuade someone, maybe only himself, that he has some sort of plausible deniability about what is going on.

Personally, I haven’t liked the NBA for years. I used to be an avid watcher of the Sonics, back in the days of Gary Payton and Shaun Kemp in their heyday. The made the NBA finals one year and lost to Jordan and the Bulls, 4 games to 2. That’s how good they were for a while. But gradually, I lost interest. The game is boring. Great, teams score 120 points a game. Tell me, would you like to have one ice cream cone? Or twenty seven? All at once? After the third or fourth ice cream cone, they start losing their attraction. The teams have great players who are superb athletes, but the team concept has been totally lost. I don’t care about the game as it is now played, and I get a kick when the U.S. loses to one of the international teams who do know how to play as a team.

I am also fed up with this idea that glittering palaces that would have made Kublai Khan envious is the ultimate goal in sports. What ever happened to just going to watch a game? That is why I like going to the local college basketball games (or did like, until UW imported an Athletic Director from the SEC, who has decided to run the sports department like a Fortune 500 company, soaking anyone he can) instead of the professional variety. I recently went to a Suns game in Phoenix, which has a brand new stadium downtown. I was shocked and almost sick when I saw it. The thing was like going into an upscale mall. It contained a veritable maze of shops and places for food and beverage. Half of it seemed to be luxury boxes (which I was able to sit in for once in my life), which were equipped with 12 hi-def televisions, even in the bathroom. The pre-game was a cacophony of noise, blaring music, flashing lights, girls dancing, inflatable gorillas, air-guitar contests, etc. It was truly an assault on your senses. When the game actually started and all the noise and lights shut down, it was BORING. I realized then, the game had become secondary, at least to the people who matter. Games are where the deals are made in the luxury boxes. Owners make bundles of money on every single thing that is sold. The game itself is almost a sideshow.

That is what the NBA is now. Although I will be sorry to see the Sonics leave town, as it will seem that the city has lost a bit of itself, just as if we lost the monorail or the Space Needle, I will not miss the NBA at all. I especially do not like an industry where multi-million dollar arenas go from "state of the art" to "outdated and never able to make a profit" in only twelve years. Unfortunately for the future of the team, I am thinking that my fellow Seattleites feel the same.

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