We got our Sonics back the messy way
by Art Thiel
Seattle City Council members Mike O'Brien (left), Sally Clark, and Tim Burgess discuss a letter to Chris Hansen. Credit: Matt Fikse-Verkerk
Maybe if I hadn't covered the trial in July 2008 while thousands of fans stood in the courtyard of Seattle's federal courthouse futilely and forlornly chanting, "Sooper! Sonics!" I'd feel different. But pro sports is a nasty business, never more so than when the Sonics were allowed to be sold out of Seattle, leaving behind a slag heap of lies, greed, embarrassments, betrayals and heartache.
Seattle's voters (via the I-91 ballot measure) and politicians told the monopoly extortionists of pro sports to drop dead. But the leagues know how to manipulate the musical chairs to make sure there's always one less chair than players.
It's Sacramento's turn to be left standing, because wealthier Seattle wants back in and the NBA wants the Addams . . . er, Maloof family out.
Yes, I'm glad to hear the NBA is on the verge of returning to Seattle, but it is a guilty pleasure. Particularly when you know that the fans who supported the Kings in Sacramento, on a per-capita basis, were more committed to the franchise there, creating seasonal sellouts in 19 of the team's 27 years.
I traveled to Sac-town in 1996, when the Kings hosted the Sonics in a playoff series. The Sonics won 3-1 and went on to meet the Chicago Bulls in the finals. But I swear that the headache I developed in then-Arco Arena, bursting with maniacal fans and their damn cowbells, only left me about two weeks ago.
But for reasons not of their making, the Kings fans are about to be hosed by the same forces that left Sonics fans wet and shivering. That is until a skinny little kid from Roosevelt High School, who used to wash my dishes after I ate at the Leschi Lake Cafe along Lake Washington Boulevard, showed up with a billion dollars and an inexplicable passion to restore the Sonics.
Chris Hansen's preposterous story is at least as good for Seattle as it is bad for Sacramento. But the franchise-extrication saga has two mitigating differences worth noting.
Pending approval by NBA owners as well as survival of two lawsuits and an environmental impact study over Hansen's proposed arena location in SoDo — none of which are guaranteed, so keep your confetti dry until the opening tip — Hansen is buying the franchise with the express purpose of moving it to Seattle.
None of the prevarications, dissembling and mendacity that accompanied Howard Schultz's 2006 sale of the Sonics to Oklahoman Clay Bennett and his fellow plains pirates will be a part of this deal. No balloons-and-cookies press conferences, no phony trips to potential new-arena locations, no hiring of Lenny Wilkens and Bill Russell as front men. Just a check, a handshake and the beep-beep of moving trucks backing up to the loading doors.
This doesn't heal the hole in the soul of Kings' fans, but compared to Bennett's butcheries, this will be laser surgery. And Kings fans had to know, from the Maloofs' many muddy footprints to the doors in Anaheim and Virginia Beach, VA., that the dirty deed was going to be done.
The other mitigating difference is . . . well, Sacramento, how did YOU get this team?
The same way, it turns out, that Hansen proposes to.
When the Kings were failing in Kansas City — after failing in their original home of Rochester, NY., and later Cincinnati — a group of business people purchased the franchise for $10.5 million in time to call them the Sacramento Kings for the 1985-86 season. Joseph Benvenuti, Frank and Gregg Lukenbill, Bob A. Cook, Frank McCormick and Stephen H. Cippa were the Hansens of their day in the Delta.
The Kings made the playoffs their first year, then not again until that '96 series against Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, et al. The Kings had some great teams and seasons in the early 2000s, with a couple of splendid playoff series with the Lakers, but for the biggest part of its pro basketball life, the franchise has been largely the Seattle Mariners of the NBA. (Though the Kings' hardwood grandfathers, the Rochester Royals, did win the 1951 NBA title. )
Now the wanderers are about to put down roots . . . no, that's not accurate . . . about to drop anchor in Elliott Bay for awhile. They will be Kings no longer. They will be Sonics, inheritors of the legacies of Wilkens, Bob Rule, Slick Watts, Fred Brown, Sikma, D.J., J.J., X-Man, Reign Man, the Glove, Ray Allen and, yes, Kevin Durant.
What about the history of Oscar Robertson, Nate Archibald, Chris Webber and the rest of the Royals/Kings? Who will recall fun stuff such as the fact that both the Kings and Sonics hired and fired Bill Russell and Paul Westphal as head coaches?
Hansen and Sonics fans want back Sonics history, and figure to get it. If there is a Repository for the Sporting Dispossessed, I am unaware. The vagabond chronicles will be another casualty of the rough business of pro sports. No one in Seattle has to care, of course.
I would have preferred the cleanliness of an expansion franchise. I would really have preferred that Durant, Westbrook, et al, start playing dramatic games in town today. But I get that Hansen's massive, elaborate workaround to avoid a direct public subsidy for the arena required him to bust a move now for the one and only NBA franchise that's on wheels.
In a year or two, a relative few in this market are likely to remember that the team in green and gold used to be the Sacramento Kings. But for some of us, it will be equally hard to forget those thousands outside Seattle's federal courthouse in the summer of 2008, reduced to helpless chanting in order to save a passion.