As Thunder enter Finals, Seattle sulks over team's bitter departure
After dismal '08 season, Seattle Sonics moved, became Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant spent rookie year in Seattle, showed promise of a bright future
For Seattle fans, seeing Thunder in Finals like going to ex-girlfriend's wedding
SEATTLE -- The marquee at KeyArena, the former home of the NBA team that now charms Oklahoma City, advertises hot upcoming acts such as Neil Diamond, Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions and -- everyone's favorite -- How To Train Your Dragon Live.
It is a desperate and deprived place where old Seattle Supersonics banners are tucked away in the bowels and 41 years of history is left to decay. Perhaps if you look closely enough, you could see the skid marks from moving trucks that sped away four years ago.
We're not in hell. We're not in the NBA Finals, either.
While the Oklahoma City Thunder prepare to face LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Seattle sulks in NBA purgatory, debating a proposal to build a new arena to bring back the NBA and pondering how the Thunder's bitter Finals run can be considered sweet elsewhere.
"This is the worst feeling I've ever had as a Seattle sports fan," Sportsradio KJR host Dave "Softy" Mahler said. "It's a helpless feeling, absolutely beyond helpless."
It's bizarre and downright cruel. In 2008, the Sonics posted a franchise-worst 20-62 record as disingenuous new owner Clay Bennett hired whiz-kid general manager Sam Presti, stripped down the roster and rebuilt while alienating local fans. The team re-emerged as the Thunder, finished the job, and the rest is enough to make any Seattle diehard turn Sonics green with envy.
Who loses a franchise when it's in the middle of building a championship roster? Seattle can spell futility backwards, but still, this is an all-timer. It was unbearable enough for the city to lose its oldest and most successful pro team. Now, it is getting shown up in a game with no mercy rule.
"Now, you're just rubbing salt in it," said Ron Dino, a local bartender.
Dino is a former Sonics ball boy. He has worked in restaurants and bars near KeyArena for most of his adult life. He figures 70 percent of his customers hate this situation as much as he does. He was chatting at the bar at Belltown Pizza a few days ago with several patrons, searching for the exact analogy for what's happening to Seattle.
They came up with this: "It's like being in your ex-girlfriend's wedding, and she looks better than she ever looked with you."
The Sonics had a nice history before things ended ugly. Of the three major pro teams in Seattle, the Sonics' .524 winning percentage in 41 seasons was far better than the Seahawks (.475) and the Mariners (.467). The Sonics went to the playoffs 22 times. The Seahawks and Mariners have a combined 15 postseason appearances. And the Sonics, who went to the NBA Finals three times, won the 1979 NBA title, the city's only championship in the NBA, NFL or MLB. (That trophy remains in town, on display at the Museum of History and Industry.)
In a relatively young sports town that has experienced too much disappointment, the Sonics were the closest thing to a model franchise. But Starbucks czar Howard Schultz sold them to a group of Oklahoma businessmen in 2006. And two years later, after one of the nastiest divorces in sports history, they were someone else's team.
"ROBBED," the popular Sonics T-shirts say.
"It's especially hard to watch this team because they're a great team playing that fast-paced, in-your-face basketball like the great Sonics teams in the past did," said Jason Reid, the director of Sonicsgate: Requiem For A Team, a brilliant documentary on the team's departure. "We were robbed of that opportunity. That's something that makes me very frustrated and angry."
Those emotions have created a new genre of Seattle sports fan. Previously considered reserved and über polite, heartbroken Sonics fans have become the exception. They yell injustice any chance they get. They despise Schultz, Bennett and NBA commissioner David Stern, among others. They spar with Oklahoma City fans who wish they'd go away and let the Thunder's story be a feel-good tale.
"I think the Oklahoma people get very frustrated with Sonics fans," Reid said. "They think we're attacking them. We're not. We think they did everything they needed to do to deserve an NBA franchise. We just wish it wasn't our team. And as long as they have a shared history with Seattle and act like it's the same franchise, we're going to keep raising our voices. We're going to stay at it until we have a team back here."
Chris Hansen, a San Francisco-based hedge fund manager who grew up in Seattle, has offered to try to lure the NBA and the NHL back to Seattle by paying $290 million toward a $490 million arena. He's currently seeking an agreement pending his ability to acquire an NBA team first, and he needs only city and county council approval to make it happen. And so, fittingly, the attempt to get the NBA back comes back to the reason the Sonics left -- the need for a new palace to create more revenue. Schultz couldn't get it and sold out the city. Bennett tried half-heartedly and then moved. Now comes Hansen, who has presented the fairest deal of all, but this being Seattle, there's ample skepticism.
In the meantime, there's this nightmare from which Seattle can't wake up. Oklahoma City is legit and should remain so for at least the next five years. Kevin Durant, who played his rookie season as a Sonic, has become the superstar everyone knew he would be. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who were in the last draft class in Sonics history, have become stars. Nick Collison, who still lives in Seattle during the offseason, is a valuable reserve. The Thunder are nothing like the team that left here four years ago, but in some ways, they're hauntingly familiar.
"The whole situation is unprecedented," Reid said. "The fact that Clay Bennett and the team are on this stage so soon, it's crazy. If it had been 10 or 15 years later, maybe it would've been easier to take. But it's not a distant memory. It feels we drafted Durant like just yesterday."
Oh, but a lot has happened since the Sonics left town. The Mariners are working on their fourth losing season in the past five years. The Seahawks have endured four straight losing seasons. The University of Washington men's basketball team just failed to make the NCAA tournament after winning the Pac-12 regular-season title. And the primary tenants at KeyArena, where Shawn Kemp used to fly and Gary Payton used to jaw, are a WNBA team with a 1-6 record and a Seattle University men's basketball team enduring a painful transition back to Division I.
On the worst days, it seems the post office across the street from the arena provides more thrills.
No worries, though: The old band Rush, formed in 1968, is coming to town soon.
It's not exactly Heat vs. Thunder or Durant vs. LeBron, is it?
"Just another kick in the [groin]," Dino said.
Just another torturous time in basketball purgatory.
Jerry Brewer is a columnist for The Seattle Times.
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