First off, I just want to let you know this is not a hate post directed at fans of the Thunder. I did a little research before posting and this community seems to have a general respect to what happened and is still happening to the Sonics. Which, honestly, is a big breath of fresh air in contrast to the other Thunder fans I have come across. I came here to share my story and my teams history with you guys.
"My love of basketball wasn't born in an arena. It wasn't born because I was watching millionaires. It was born because my brother and I nailed a coffee can to a tree in our front yard and played with a roll of tape"- Sherman Alexie
1960s (Beginnings of a Franchise)
In December of 1966, two loaded businessmen and a group of minority partners were awarded the right to start an NBA franchise in the city of Seattle. Named after Boeing's recently awarded contract, the SuperSonics were Seattle's first professional sports team. The new team did not exactly hit the track running, with a 144–116 loss in their first game, and ended the season with a 23–59 record. All-Star Walt Hazzard was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in the 1968 offseason for Lenny Wilkens. Wilkens brought a strong all-around game to the SuperSonics, averaging 22.4 points per game, 8.2 assists per game, and 6.2 rebounds per game for Seattle in the 1968-1969 season. Seattle had a rising star in Bob Rule, who improved on his rookie season with 24 points per game to go along with 11.5 rebounds per game. The SuperSonics, however, only won 30 games and Lenny Wilkens was promoted to a player/coach during the offseason.
1970s (Lenny Wilkens Leads Sonics)
In the 1969-1970 season, the Sonics finished with another losing record. Wilkens and Bob Rule were the team’s best players, and represented Seattle in the All-Star Game. In the 1970 offseason, owner Sam Schulman threatened to move the team to Los Angeles to be rivals with the Lakers, in order to bring in more revenue. The team stayed in Seattle however. It wasn't until the 1970-1971 season when the Sonics had their first winning season lead by Rookie of the Year Spencer Haywood and the lovable leader Lenny Wilkens. In the offseason though, Wilkens was traded to Cleveland, a move that was hated by Sonic fans. The next season, the Sonics fell to a 26-56 record. The lone bright spot in the 1972-1973 season was the continued rise of Spencer Haywood.
The legendary Bill Russell was hired to coach the Sonics in the 1973-1974 season, and he took them to the playoffs in 1975, led by Fred Brown, Slick Watts, and Spencer Haywood. The Sonics traded Spencer Haywood following the Sonics playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors. Even though they lost their star, the SuperSonics again made the playoffs in 1976, this time led by Brown, Watts, and the young Tommy Burleson. Watts led the NBA in both steals and assists, while being selected as to the All-NBA Defensive First Team. Coach Bill Russell left the Sonics in 1977, and Bob Hopkins was brought in to coach. After a 5-17 start to the 1977 season, the Sonics brought back Lenny Wilkens to replace Hopkins, and the Sonics turned things around, finishing the season 47-35. The Sonics went all the way to the Finals that year, though they lost to the Washington Bullets in 7 games. The next season the SuperSonics finished 52-30 and went all the way to the NBA Finals again. It was a rematch of the 1977 Finals, but this time the Sonics beat the Bullets in 5 games. This remains as Seattle’s first and only major sports title. After the radio sang the end of the game, there was a party in the streets of the city, as people gathered to share the new pride of Seattle. The Sonics led the league in attendance the next two seasons.
1980s (Failing To Build Off Championship)
The first season of the new decade saw the Sonics finish 52-26, proving to be one of the NBA’s true powerhouses. They made it to the playoffs that season, but lost the Lakers in 5 games in the Western Conference Finals. The Sonics fell to a 34-48 record in the 1980-1981 season, as several key players had disappointing years. After two more mediocre seasons, the SuperSonics were sold to Barry Ackerley for $11 million. In 1984 Sonics legend Fred Brown retired after 13 seasons, all spent with Seattle, and his number was retired in 1986. The second half of the 80s saw Seattle finish with underwhelming results, although they did make the Western Conference Finals in 1989.
1990s (Shawn Kemp/Gary Payton Era)
The 1990s are associated with the rise of the two best players in franchise history, as Seattle’s first round picks Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton (along with Seattle Mariner superstar Ken Griffey Jr.) became Seattle sports icons. The first two seasons of the 90s saw the Sonics miss the playoffs. In 1992, Seattle hired coach George Carl, which marked the resurgence of a basketball powerhouse.
With the continued improvement of Payton and Kemp, Seattle finished 55-27 in the 1992-1993 season, and made the playoffs. In the 1993-1994 season the Sonics were the best team in the NBA, finishing with a 63-19 record, but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. They made the playoffs again in the 1994-1995 season but were eliminated again in the first round. Their current coliseum was renovated and was renamed the Key Arena, which was to be the Sonics new and final home.
In the new arena, the team finished 64-18 and were led by Payton, Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins, Nate McMillan, and center Sam Perkins. They played Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals, but lost in six games.
In the 1996 offseason, the Sonics gave center Jim McIlvaine a 7 year/$33 million contract. This is the reason you there is an Oklahoma City Thunder. Fan favorite Shawn Kemp perceived the signing as disrespect because McIlvaine was now the highest paid player on the team. Kemp demanded a trade, and was sent to Cleveland in a deal that brought Vin Baker to Seattle. The crumbling relationship between Coach George Karl and general manager Wally Walker led the Sonics to not renew Karl’s contract after a 61 win season. After the strike-shortened 1998 season, ticket sales to Sonics games plummeted. This was the beginning of the slow decline of Seattle’s greatest sports franchise.
2000s (The Ending of a Dynasty)
Nate McMillan was brought in to coach the Sonics in the middle of the 2000-2001 season. The team was put up for sale and on January 11, 2001 owner of Starbucks Howard Schultz bought the team for $200 million. Because of the event that followed, Starbucks should be the most popular place in Oklahoma City.
Gary Payton and Howard Schultz did not get along. After failing to come to training camp before the 2002 season, Schultz began to publicly criticize Payton. At the 2003 trade deadline, Payton was flipped to Milwaukee in a deal that brought Ray Allen to the Sonics. It was an end of an era in Seattle.
The Sonics failed to make the playoffs the next two seasons. In 2004 Howard Schultz began publicly complaining about Key Arena not matching up to other teams arenas. Despite coming off an exciting playoff run in 2005, pleads for a new arena fell short at the state legislature. Now that the new NBA business model relied on revenue streams that Key Arena could not provide. The Sonics began losing money tied to their stadium lease. Howard Schultz asked state to provide $220 million to update Key Arena, but state declined. It was obvious Schultz was done with the NBA and was ready to pounce on the highest deal out there. After running the Sonics into the ground and losing $60 million dollars, Howard Schultz sold the team to a group of Oklahoma City businessmen led by Clay Bennett on July 18, 2006 for $350 million. The franchise was valued at $234 million at the time of the deal. At the press conference, Howard Schultz stated "At the end of the day we were not trying to seek out the ultimate purchase price but to do everything we could to ensure long term stability in the Pacific Northwest for the Sonics". From the beginning, it was obvious that Bennett’s plan was to move the team. With zero ties to Seattle and Oklahoma’s vacancy in the NBA, Bennett and his business partners were determined to bring the Sonics and its 41 years to Oklahoma City.
The Seattle Sonics Final Years
"It was a very well done manipulation. And they took advantage of a lot of circumstances here"- Brian Robinson
To make it look like he was trying to keep the team in Seattle, Bennett proposed a $500 million stadium to be built in Renton, Washington. Clay Bennett was never serious about this proposal, and his plan was still to move the Sonics to Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the Sonics finished with their worst record since the teams sixth year of existence, and they were rewarded with the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. In the offseason, Ray Allen was traded to the Celtics in an obvious shedding-of-payroll and Rashard Lewis left in free agency
On January 28, 2007 the Seattle SuperSonics selected Kevin Durant out of the University of Texas with the second overall pick. The lanky 18 year old was thought to be the savior of tnhe franchise. Shortly after the draft, Bennett quietly cut all ties with Sonics past. Team president Lenny Wilkens resigned after disagreements with the ownership group, and Assistant Coaches Jack Sikma and Detlef Schrempf were let go after their contracts expired. These front office moves reassured what everyone expected. Bennett’s plan was to gut the team, shed payroll, and prepare the move to Oklahoma City. In a 2007 interview with the Oklahoma City Journal, part owner Aubrey McClendon let out the true intention of the Sonics. "We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle. We hoped to come to Oklahoma City." Bennett proceeded to cut the stadium lease by two years stating that the Key Arena was not a feasible stadium for an NBA basketball team. The new way of the NBA was to bring in extra profit through the stadium not directly tied to the team, by selling overpriced food and drinks.
Seattle mayor Greg Nickels tried to overturn the stadium lease that was cut by two years. In the meantime, the Sonics fell out of the gate to a 3-15 start. The media had very limited access to the players, and the owners continued to trade expensive players. Bennett wanted fans to lose interest in the Sonics so he would have less resistance moving the team to Oklahoma.
"Sad to say, as heart breaking as it was, it’s a fascinating story. The politics, the money, the greed factor, the sense of betrayal, the uprising of the fans that just came out of nowhere that just felt they were having a loved one ripped from them. It is a fascinating story. It truly is."
E-mail exchanges that became public between Clay Bennett and the Sonics other owners proved that the plan all along was to move the team to Oklahoma City. Bennett denied the reports, and called the e-mails a misunderstanding. The man who stated his commitment to build a winning team in Seattle, was proven to be a liar. More E-mail exchanges came out, this time between Bennett and David Stern, which showed the two friendship and Stern empathizing to Bennett over his struggle to move the team.
Like dropping from heaven, a group of Seattle businessmen announced they are interested in buying the Sonics and raise $300 million towards revamping Key Arena. Bennett and Stern though, were still focused on Oklahoma City and building a world class facility there.
The Sonics finished 20-62 in 2008, its worst and final year in franchise history. There was an NBA board of governors held in New York City. They held a vote for the relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. The vote was 28-2 in favor of the relocation. Bennett got his wish, and it was only a matter of time the Sonics were to move to Oklahoma.
The Sonics still had one last chance though, as they had a court date in June to try to overturn the two year stadium lease that was cut by Bennett. The plan was that if the team was given more time, they could get enough money to build a new state-of-the-art arena. Led by mayor Greg Nickels and former owner Howard Schultz, they used the e-mail exchanges to argue that the ownership failed to negotiate in good faith, prompting Schultz to file a lawsuit looking to withdraw the sale of the team and transfer the current ownership to a court-appointed new owner. Lawyer Brad Keller was able to get Greg Nickels to admit that under the current stadium the team had become economically dysfunctional. The NBA claimed Schultz's lawsuit was invalid because Schultz signed a form forbidding himself to sue Bennett's group prior to selling the team, but also argued that the proposal would have violated league ownership rules. The case for both sides were even, and early reports indicated that the Sonics staying in Seattle had the early lead. When the case was still being disputed, there was a report that mayor Greg Nickels was persuaded to drop the case, as Clayton Bennett offered $75 million to the city of Seattle in exchange for the case being dropped. The Seattle City Council agreed to take the money, and the Sonics were gone.
The Sonics and its 41 year history had given up and Clay Bennett and his wealthy business partners got their way. The Seattle SuperSonics, my childhood, and millions of others, were gone.
"The thing is if we get a team.... its going to be somebody else's team. Its not going to be a new franchise. I keep up, so I know who's in trouble. We could get New Orleans, Milwaukee, Indiana, Memphis, Sacramento. To get a team I'm going to have to break the hearts of people just like me. Who will then have to go in front of cameras and talk about their pain like this. And that's the only way we're going to get a team"- Sherman Alexie
My point of this post was not to make you feel bad. I am happy Oklahoma has a basketball team. I am not happy that Oklahoma has my team. Our team. I am not happy the way it was done. I am not happy the NBA and its media is trying to bury Seattle's greatest sports team and its history under the success of the Thunder. And I am not happy Clay Bennett owns our Sonic championship banners, retired jerseys, and our 1979 championship trophy. For a long time, the Sonics were not just a team. The Sonics were the pride of Seattle. The Seattle SuperSonics were the home of the greatest memories of many childhoods.