On April 13, 2008, the Seattle SuperSonics play their final NBA game in Seattle, thus ending a 41-year run as one of the city's most successful sports franchises. A KeyArena crowd of 15,000 -- huge by the standards of this final, sorry season -- chants "Save Our Sonics!" They also direct an obscene chant toward Clay Bennett, the Sonics owner who plans to move the franchise to Oklahoma City. Former Sonics star Gary Payton is introduced in the stands and is greeted with a long, heartfelt standing ovation. Rookie star Kevin Durant says, "I almost cried, to be honest with you" (Bell). Other icons of the team's glorious past are in evidence, including the banner from the team's 1979 NBA championship -- in 2008 still Seattle's only major men's pro sports championship. The Sonics, inspired by this outpouring of fan emotion, pull off a comeback 99-95 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. In the larger sense, however, there will be no miracle comeback for the Seattle Sonics. They will soon cease to exist.
The SuperSonics' demise was set in motion a year-and-a-half earlier, when an ownership group led by Clay Bennett purchased the team in October 2006.
Bennett, an Oklahoma City oilman, said at the time that he wanted the team to remain in Seattle. Yet Bennett had already made it clear that -- if the team were to remain viable in Seattle -- a new modern arena had to be built. And he wanted the state or city to foot a large portion of the bill.
But state taxpayers were in no mood to finance another expensive sports arena -- especially not for the Sonics, which had fallen steadily in popularity and attendance over the last three years. In April 2007, Governor Christine Gregoire refused to call a special legislative session to consider funding a new $500 million arena. Bennett immediately announced that this meant the 2007-2008 would likely be the team's last in Seattle.
Basketball boosters in Oklahoma City already began crowing. "Tough love for Seattle," wrote sports columnist Berry Tramel from the Daily Oklahoman. "Blessed hope for Oklahoma City" (Tramel).
SuperSonics Sold Out
It wasn't long before word leaked out from other members of the ownership group that Oklahoma City had always been the destination. "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle," said Aubrey McClendon. "To the great amazement and surprise of everyone in Seattle, some rednecks from Oklahoma, which we've been called, made off with the team" ("Investment group").
Even the most optimistic Sonics boosters soon realized that the owners had little interest in reaching a Seattle solution. "I had some level of self-denial for a while," said Jack Sikma, one of the most beloved players from the 1979 championship team. "But after time it became very apparent that [moving the team] is the end game" (Booth, "Farewell).
Yet the struggle over the Sonics was far from over. In March 2008, the City of Seattle announced a $300 million plan to renovate KeyArena. Several Seattle business barons, including Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, agreed to foot half the bill. The city and state would pay for the rest.
When the Washington state legislature met later that month, an airplane towed a banner above the capitol reading, "Save our Sonics." Yet the legislators adjourned without approving funding for its portion of the plan, saying that those millions could be put to better use on a whole list of other priorities.
So by the time of that last home game on April 13, 2008, the Sonics' fate seemed sealed. Payton, interviewed at that game, called it a "disaster."
Barricading the Highway to Oklahoma
The highway to Oklahoma City still had a few roadblocks. The first was swept away a week later when the NBA's board of governors approved the move by a vote of 28 to 2, with only Dallas and Portland voting against.
The second roadblock was more formidable. The City of Seattle took Bennett to court to force him to honor the last two years of the team's lease with KeyArena. A victory would keep the Sonics in town through 2010 -- although as a lame-duck team.
The June 2008 trial had its moments of drama -- and comedy. Bennett admitted at one point that Seattle fans had become so hostile toward him that he couldn’t attend his own team's games.
Sherman Alexie, Washington's National Book Award winning novelist and a lifelong Sonics fan, was put on the stand to testify about the team's importance to the community. He said that as an American Indian he often felt isolated in an overwhelmingly white city. He said that loneliness vanishes when he sees the melting pot of fans and players at KeyArena. He called the NBA a "celebration of poverty," representing the hopes of poor kids. He said he wanted two more years of "the great gods" (Johnson).
Then Alexie complained that, since Bennett's group took over ownership, there had been no free popcorn or cucumber sandwiches for season ticket holders such as himself, nor did the new club personnel know who he was. Sonics lawyer Brad Keller responded, "I'm sorry the locker guy didn't know who you are. I'm sorry there wasn't any popcorn" (Johnson).
HOOPLESS in Seattle
In the end, the city settled the suit when Bennett agreed to pay $45 million to wriggle out of the last two years of the lease. (Bennett will have to pay another $30 million if the city renovates KeyArena and doesn't have a new NBA franchise by 2013.)
"HOOPLESS," blared the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's front page headline on July 3, 2008.
"Forty-one years," lamented Spokane Spokesman-Review columnist John Blanchette. "Even at $75 million, they went cheap."
Still another lawsuit provided one last desperate hope for Sonics fans. Howard Schultz, the former Sonics owner who sold the team to Bennett, filed suit to rescind the sale. Schultz said Bennett lied to him about wanting to keep the team in Seattle. But in August 2008, Schultz dropped his lawsuit as well.
Thunderless in Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City took possession of the team, renamed the Oklahoma City Thunder, and started the 2008-2009 season with high hopes. Enthusiastic boosters predicted they were bound to go straight up the Western Conference standings. Sonics fans ended up with only this consolation: The team did no such thing.
The Thunder got off to a 3-29 start, a record of futility unmatched by the Sonics in its entire 41-year history.