Thunder Shakes Seattle Where Fans Ask Why NBA’s SuperSonics Left

Brian Robinson sat on the couch with his children, 11-year-old Bryce and 9-year-old Kayla, trying to explain why the euphoria of winning no longer belonged to them.

On the television was Kevin Durant, the National Basketball Association’s leading scorer, hugging his mother as the Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated the San Antonio Spurs for a spot in the championship series. One family’s celebration was another’s lesson in losing.

“I was trying to explain that it could have been our city,” Robinson, co-founder of the fan initiative “Save our Sonics,” said in a telephone interview. “We could have been getting ready for a parade.”

The Thunder, who host the LeBron James-led Miami Heat tonight in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, have been in Oklahoma City since the 2008-09 season. For 41 years prior to that, they were the SuperSonics in Seattle, where the city embraced basketball and coaches and players such as Lenny Wilkens, Slick Watts and Gary Payton.

“I think it’s one of the great travesties in our game, that the city of Seattle does not have an NBA team,” Greg Anthony, an NBA TV analyst who played for the Sonics in the 1997-98 season, said on a conference call yesterday.

The SuperSonics won the NBA title in 1979, the city’s only major men's sports championship of the past 95 years, and became the pride of the city when baseball’s Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee in 1970. In Oklahoma City, the Thunder ownership found what it had been unable to secure by Washington’s Puget Sound -- a new arena.

Winning Record

This season, the Thunder finished 47-19, the second best record in the Western Conference, and averaged 18,203 fans per game, 100 percent capacity for Chesapeake Energy Arena. The team is worth around $348 million, a 6 percent increase from last year, with an operating income of $24.5 million, according to Forbes magazine’s annual valuations.

“If I’m Oklahoma City, I want a team,” Charles Curran, a 38-year-old venture capitalist who grew up outside Seattle, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t blame them.”

The team’s departure began in 2006, when owner Howard Schultz, chairman of Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., sold the SuperSonics to an investment group led by Oklahoma City natives Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon.

When the new owners couldn’t get a commitment of $500 million in public funding for a new arena, they explored the possibility of relocating to the Oklahoma capital, a city with no major sports teams. The owners and the city of Seattle waged a legal battle that was settled in July 2008 and the team was allowed out of its lease.

Players Sold

“Every year it seems like Seattle incubates a few good players that get sold to other teams,” JD Klein, a 42-year-old resident of Redmond, Washington, said in a telephone interview. “Here we just kind of sped the process up and said, ‘Here, take the whole damn team.’”

Durant, drafted by the SuperSonics in 2007, was named NBA Rookie of the Year in his only season in Seattle, showing flashes of the talent that has made him a three-time All-Star and scoring champion. Though the SuperSonics made the playoffs once in their final six seasons in Seattle, they averaged 13,355 fans per game in the final year at KeyArena, 78 percent of capacity, according to ESPN.

In the offseason before the move became official, the team drafted guard Russell Westbrook and forward Serge Ibaka. Durant and Westbrook, both 23, each ranked among the NBA’s top five scorers this season. Ibaka, at 22 the youngest player on the NBA’s All-Defensive first team, led the league with 241 blocks.

Thunder Favored

The Thunder are favored by Las Vegas oddsmakers to beat Most Valuable Player James and the Heat in the Finals. Durant finished second in MVP voting, his third consecutive time in the top five.

Following the Thunder’s June 6 conference-clinching victory, the Tri-City Herald, a newspaper based in southern Washington, ran a headline: “Sonics Advance to Finals, Oh Wait.” The subhead read: “Oklahoma City Steals Team, and Steals Game From San Antonio.”

Some SuperSonics fans blame Schultz, the former owner, and fellow Seattle residents who opposed a new arena. Others find Bennett and McClendon responsible for the team’s departure.

“They timed it perfectly but I don’t know if they will be able to keep the team forever,” Klein said. “They’d better enjoy it while it lasts.”

Schultz was unavailable for comment, according to Starbucks spokesman Corey duBrowa. Bennett was also unavailable to comment, Thunder spokesman Dan Mahoney said in an e-mail. McClendon had no immediate comment, spokesman Ron Hutcheson said in a telephone interview.

McClendon Questions

McClendon, the chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Corp., was fined $250,000 by the NBA in August 2007 for telling an Oklahoma City newspaper that his group didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle. In the last six weeks, Chesapeake shareholders have called for McClendon’s dismissal as the second-largest U.S. natural gas explorer faces growing debt.

Curran said the city’s residents chose to reject the arena deal after spending more than $600 million in city and state money to help fund venues for football’s Seahawks and baseball’s Mariners.

“The city was fatigued paying for stadiums and they made a choice to lose the team,” he said.

Chris Hansen, founder of the San Francisco-based Valiant Capital Management, has proposed a multipurpose arena that may give Seattle a second chance at basketball. Hansen’s investment group is willing to put up $800 million and is asking for $200 million in public loans to be paid off with revenue generated by the arena, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

New Target

Hansen has said he would like a basketball team by 2017. The Sacramento Kings are battling with city officials for a new arena in the California capital. Hansen didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Robinson, 39, said he’s looking forward to sharing his love of basketball with his two kids in person and not on the couch, with another NBA team back in Seattle. That might come with a bit of guilt if the new team moved from another city.

“Sure, there’s a small part of me that would,” he said. “But it wouldn’t stop me from doing it.”

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