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Friday, 11 January 2013

NBA: Expansion, Relocation & Resurrection

The NBA is a business and, while it's true that final decisions rest squarely on the shoulders of Commissioner David Stern, the power lies with the franchise owners. If your team's owner feels there is more money to be made in a large market, far away from your home town, there's not much you, as a fan, can do about it. 

The fans in a market without basketball are desperate for a franchise to be sold and moved to a venue near them. On the other hand, fans of small-market teams are constantly looking over their shoulders, as they are never too far away from their team being bought up and shipped off to the other end of the country. 

NBA basketball: you better appreciate it while you can, because next year it might not be back. 

It seems all but settled that NBA basketball will be returning to Seattle, only five years after it was bitterly snatched away and taken to Oklahoma City. Seattle fans have been through it all. They've celebrated the highest of highs - winning the Championship, and the lowest of lows - losing the franchise. Now, it appears, they've come full circle: celebrating the demise of another team, in the hope of once again securing NBA basketball. 

Let's take a look back at the SuperSonics and see how the franchise went from expansion team, to relocation, right the way through to its apparent present day resurrection.  


1966, December 20: Sam Schulman, Eugene V. Klein and a group of minority owners were awarded an NBA franchise for the City of Seattle. The expansion team were named the SuperSonics in reference to Boeing's SST Project, in which the plane manufacturer was tasked with creating commercial supersonic air travel. The project was later scrapped.

1967, October: The team made their NBA debut, losing 144-116 to San Francisco in their opening game. The debutants went on to finish the season with a record of 23-59.

1970: SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman, who was a member of the ABA-NBA merger committee, threatened to switch allegiances to the ABA and move the team to Los Angeles, to compete with the Lakers, if the NBA did not accept a merger with the ABA. 

1975: Under the managerial expertise of Bill Russell, the SuperSonics made the playoffs for the first time.

1978: After finishing the season 47-35, the SuperSonics won the Western Conference Finals and led the Washington Bullets 3-2 in the NBA Finals before losing in seven games. 

1979: Seattle won their first division title and set up a rematch with the Bullets in the NBA finals. Seattle were crowned NBA champions, winning in five games. Dennis Johnson took home the title of Finals MVP.

1980: The Sonics once again made the Western Conference Finals, after a strong 56-26 regular season record. However, the SuperSonics were beaten in five games by the Los Angeles Lakers. 

1983: Owner Sam Schulman sold the SuperSonics to Barry Ackerley. Mediocrity followed.

1989-1993: The team drafted Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, and the hiring of George Karl sparked the franchise back into playoff contention. The SuperSonics finished the 1992-93 campaign with an impressive record of 55-27.

1994: The team finished with what was their best regular season record (63-19) at the time, but the team suffered a first-round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets. In doing so, Seattle became the first #1 seed to be beaten in the playoffs by an eighth seed.

1995-1996: The SuperSonics assembled perhaps their strongest ever roster - Kemp, Payton, Schrempf, Hawkins and Perkins - and finished the regular season with a franchise best 64-18. The team reached the NBA Finals, but lost in six to a Chicago Bulls team led by Michael Jordan. 

1998-2003: The SuperSonics endured a steady decline, with Seattle losing their 11-year streak of finishing the regular season with a record above .500. Paul Westphal was fired in '01 and replaced by Nate McMillan. SuperSonics stalwart and All-Star Gary Payton was traded in the 2002-2003 season. 

2004-2005: The team shocked many by winning the franchise's sixth division title. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were the SuperSonics' stand-out performers, leading the team to a 52-win season. Nate McMillan left the Sonics during the offseason in favour of the head coaching job at Portland. 

2007-2008: The SuperSonics went into rebuilding mode, drafting Kevin Durant with the 2nd pick in the 2008 draft and trading Ray Allen for future draft picks and role players. The Sonics also sent Rashard Lewis to the Orlando Magic, in exchange for a trade exception and a second-round draft pick, via a sign-and-trade. 

2008: Talks with the City of Seattle over a new arena broke down. Aside from rookie Kevin Durant, the roster had been stripped of its talent. Morale around the team, and the city, was at an all-time low and many were blaming the Sonics' hierarchy for deliberately attempting to turn fans away from the franchise. Ultimately, Clay Bennett won the rights to relocate the franchise to Oklahoma City. The 2007-2008 season was to prove the last.

Relocation, Relocation
In 2006, Seattle were in trouble; the ball club failed to persuade Washington State Government to provide the necessary funding for upgrades to KeyArena. As it was, the arena failed to meet NBA standards and as such the team would be unable to move forward.

Subsequently, majority SuperSonics owner Howard Schultz sold the team to a group of businessmen from Oklahoma City led by Clay Bennett. Schultz claimed he sold the franchise under the provision that Bennett kept the franchise in Seattle. 

After once again failing to raise the necessary funds to upgrade the KeyArena, Bennett notified the NBA that he intended to move the franchise to OKC. Bennett appealed for the SuperSonics to be released from their lease agreement, which dictated that the ball club had to play their games at KeyArena until at least 2010. Predictably, the City of Seattle reacted with uproar, taking Bennett and his business partners to court. The 'Save Our Sonics' campaign gained momentum and national recognition. 

Many had suspected all along that Bennett's sole aim was to move the franchise to Oklahoma City. Revealing emails were made public that seemed to back the theory up. The battle in the court appeared to be swaying in favour of Seattle.

However, on July 2nd 2008, Seattle-based fans were dismayed when a settlement was reached giving Bennett the green light to move the team to Oklahoma City. The deal included a payment of $45 million to Seattle and the possibility of an additional $30 million by 2013 if a new team had not been given to the city. It was also agreed that the SuperSonics' name would not be used and that the team's history would be shared between the Oklahoma City team and any new NBA franchise that would be set up in Seattle.

Fans have subsequently put together a documentary that they claim highlights the injustices of the team's move to Oklahoma City. 'Sonicsgate' is well worth a watch:

So what now? Five years down the line and the City of Seattle is left reeling from the loss of NBA basketball. They're still bitter - rightly so - about the back-handed, shady nature of the deal that took away their beloved SuperSonics. 

The sale of Seattle has always been a stick with which the NBA, and in particular David Stern, has been beaten. The reinstatement of NBA basketball in Seattle seems like the perfect way for Stern to sign off as Commissioner of the league. This scenario appears all but complete.    

Whatever your thoughts on the situation, you have to respect the dedication of basketball fans in Seattle and their commitment to bringing back NBA. Towards the end of 2012, the City of Seattle Council reached a tentative agreement and subsequently approved a deal with Chris Hansen to build a SoDo basketball arena, on the provision that some of the tax revenue pay for surrounding transportation improvements.

Only in the last couple of days have the media fully shed light on the situation, with it being reported that the imminent sale of the Sacramento Kings could lead to NBA basketball in Seattle as early as next season.

Once again controversy surrounds the ownership of a franchise, in particular the failure to form a feasible arena plan. This time it's the Sacramento owners, the Maloofs, in the crosshairs of the Kings fanbase. All seemed rosy at the beginning of 2012, when the Maloofs and the NBA announced a tentative agreement to keep the franchise in Sacramento. Yet, the framework of this agreement was non-binding and, much to the league's embarrassment, the deal was scrapped and the Maloofs walked away.

This issue isn't new, it's dogged the Kings franchise for years. Yet, successive governments and team officials have failed to make the necessary provisions to keep the team in Sacramento. In the end, like in Seattle, it's the fans who will suffer. The chances of being the next Charlotte - who were granted a franchise only four years after their team was sold and moved to New Orleans - is extremely rare. So too are the chances of a Sacramento-based investment group buying an existing franchise. You have to feel for the fans and the people of Sacramento who have been unwavering in their support for their Kings team. 

'Small Market, Big Heart' explains in detail the battle fought by Kings fans to keep the team in Sacramento and is also well worth a watch:

At the end of the day, relocation is an inevitable by-product of the franchise system and of capitalist culture. Teams will emigrate to where their owners believe the money is. As one fanbase celebrates, another mourns. 

1 comment:

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