What if the Sonics Played the Thunder? The English Premiere League Provides an Example

Tensions fly high. - Jan Kruger

Last week, AFC Wimbledon and Milton Keynes played a match together for the first time. The parallels between this match and a Sonics-Thunder game are chilling, and perhaps even a metaphor for what's to come.

Although we, as Thunder fans, would very much like to forget our history as the green and gold franchise from up northwest, there will always be that black mark on our backs. No matter how successful or likable the Thunder are, disgruntled Seattlites will continue to complain about how this team was stolen, and how any achievement we make is a farce.

Oklahomans range widely in their opinions about the matter. I know people who outright admit the team was stolen, express remorse, and support the team anyway. On the other hand, I know people who could give a flying you-know-what about what happened to the Sonics and maintain that Seattle lost the team because of poor funding, poor attendance, or whatever.

Yet, no matter where you happen to stand in the spectrum of Thunder fans, you've probably pondered the question in your mind once before. "What if the Sonics played the Thunder?" What if Seattle was able to obtain an expansion team, or move a struggling franchise to their city? How would Seattle fans react? How would Thunder fans react? Where would the first game be held? Would there be violence? How epic would the atmosphere be? Questions abound.

Despite the hypothetical nature of the situation, with David Stern's pledge to get a team back in Seattle before his retirement on February 1st, 2014, the fantasy could very soon become reality.

There have been several instances in the past of a city losing an NBA team and re-gaining another one later down the line. But in all but one of these instances, the move of the old team had happened before 1979. During this period, basketball wasn't really an important sport in the American consciousness, and the NBA was facing stiff competition from its' rival league, the ABA. The only modern instance of it happening was when the Charlotte Hornets re-located to New Orleans in 2002. Two seasons later, Charlotte got a new franchise in the Bobcats. However, it's still not nearly as significant, because the Hornets only had a 14 year history in Charlotte. To make matters worse, owner George Shinn refused to re-sign his stars and fell into trouble with the law, turning away the Charlotte fan base and drastically dropping attendance by the time the Hornets had left Charlotte. By the time the Bobcats showed up, passion for the NBA in the city was lukewarm.

In short, there's never been a situation like this in the NBA before. When the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, they left behind 40 years of history, lots of sustained success, great attendance, and even an NBA title. Never has such a historic and successful franchise been moved, much less returning a few years later and facing their former selves.

So, where can we look to draw a good comparison? Some might point to the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens of the NFL, but I feel that's been overdone, and it happened 13 years ago. I'm looking for something more fresh, more recent.

And in this sense, no more comparable situation springs to mind then that of AFC Wimbledon and the MK Dons of the English Football (Soccer) League.

In order to understand this situation, here's a little bit of context.

My parents lived in many different places, and after receiving a job offer, my Mom and my Dad decided to move to England in 1988. Specifically, they moved into the Wimbledon district of Southwest London, the namesake of the world famous tennis tournament. On the first day of their arrival, there was pandemonium at the train station. People were celebrating and going bananas. My Dad, understandably, was totally baffled as to what was going on. He asked a bystander, who responded, "Where have you been? Wimbledon's just won the cup!"

The cup to which the man was referring was the FA Cup, a pre-seeded tournament in which every English soccer team worth a darn competes. This year, there were 758 teams participating. Winning the FA Cup is a big deal, and for Wimbledon FC, considered to be huge underdogs, it was a gigantic deal.

Sadly, that championship victory would prove to be the crowing achievement of Wimbledon FC. They would endure a long string of success throughout the late 80s and early 90s, regularly challenging traditional English soccer powerhouses for championships and finishing high in the standings. But things began to fall apart for the team in the late 90s, and they were eventually relegated to the second tier of English soccer in 2000.

Behind the scenes, Wimbledon was constantly having stadium issues. They had enjoyed a unbelievable rise from low-level tiers of English soccer to the top league, and as such, their stadium had to be improved. In a sprawling metropolis like London, this basically means that you have to re-purpose a site. Wimbledon knew their current stadium couldn't be improved where it stood, so as a stopgap measure they moved to a stadium 6 miles away in 1991. Fans were unhappy with this move, as it was technically in another district of London, and they wanted the team to play in their neighborhood. As a result, the team spun its' wheels for 9 years trying to get a stadium deal done in Wimbledon itself, but to no avail.

Around this same time, a group of businessmen were interested in developing Milton Keynes, a town about 60 miles to the north. They wanted to build a soccer stadium as part of a larger development plan. They couldn't justify it though, because Milton Keynes' soccer team was in the eighth division, and could hardly support a 30,000 seat stadium.

The owner of Wimbledon, Sam Hammam, had enough of looking for a stadium, and sold it to two Norwegian businessmen. Long story short, an independent panel voted 2-1 to move the club to Milton Keynes. To put this in context, this is like moving the Sooners to Stillwater, or vice versa. Fans immediately rebelled, and created a new team named AFC Wimbledon. The old Wimbledon FC had a couple of lame duck years, where fans largely abandoned the team. Eventually, the team lost so much money that it fell into bankruptcy, and their on-field performance suffered. After falling to the fourth tier of English soccer, they finally moved to Milton Keynes in 2003. The team re-named themselves the Dons, which was a former nickname for Wimbledon FC.

Since that nickname, the Dons, is pretty much a nickname that belongs to Wimbledon, there's currently a movement, led by Wimbledon's newspaper, to get the name removed. Similarly, Clay Bennett still owns all of the hardware won by the Sonics over the years and countless pieces of memorabilia. It has, as of yet, not been returned to the city.

For further insight on the move, here's a snippet of an interview with Pete Winkelman, the leader of the group of businessmen that wanted to develop the Milton Keynes area. (In other words, he's the Clay Bennett of this situation.) Via the Milton Keynes Citizen:

"We did do a deal with Norwegian billionaires, and we did mistakenly give them Milton Keynes as an option, when they were going to go to Dublin, because I naively thought that might be better.

"But they didn’t really have any other option, and the fans won because they formed AFC Wimbledon, and went and had their first promotion in their first season, and made sure that the club went into administration.

"So actually, it wasn’t the big Norwegian billionaire owners that moved the club to Milton Keynes, it was an administrator that said ‘I’m going to liquidate this club tomorrow unless you come up with the money to keep it going’. And the only way I could come up with the money to keep it going was to move it to Milton Keynes.

"For the first seven weeks of that administration we did nothing. I will never understand why AFC Wimbledon didn’t buy their club. That’s the bit that always confuses me, that we actually had the opportunity to buy the club in the end.

"Once we made that decision – a very difficult decision – we have never taken our foot off the gas. I’ve tried to make a bad decision a good decision by the things that we’ve gone on to do.

I know it seems like I'm getting off-track here. But even though the stadium issues and the way in which the team re-located are different, the basic premise remains the same. A well-loved local team has issues funding an arena, they start to lose games, the owner sells, and the team moves against the fans will. But perhaps even more telling is how similar Oklahoma City is to Milton Keynes.

Milton Keynes is a town that was artificially planned and created in the 1960s, and placed equidistant from the towns that surrounded it. There was too much overcrowding in London, and it was thought that giving people an incentive to move out to surrounding towns would help alleviate this problem. They were right, and Milton Keynes developed into a thriving city. Since it was planned more recently, unlike most ancient European towns, the city is laid out like a grid and easy to navigate.

Oklahoma City, like Milton Keynes, was artificially created. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 saw the US Government let settlers move into Oklahoma territory that wasn't held by Native Americans. Oklahoma City was a convenient spot along the North Canadian river and practically smack dab in the center of the state, so it became a popular place to settle. Because it was settled semi-recently, like Milton Keynes, the streets are laid out in a perfect grid.

So, why is any of this relevant? Well, the two clubs, the Milton Keynes (MK) Dons and AFC Wimbledon, played for the very first time last Sunday after several years of being in different tiers.

The MK Dons have been somewhat successful since their departure from Wimbledon. After initially being relegated to the fourth tier of competition, they shot back up to the third tier and have recently been serious contenders to move into the second tier. AFC Wimbledon, meanwhile, had a much bigger ladder to climb. They had to start in the 9th tier of English football, which probably isn't very good. But with the help of the support of their fans, they climbed the ladder, division by division, eventually moving into the fourth tier of English soccer early in 2011. Since then, they've stuck around and run into some difficulties, but their rise has still been very impressive.

With the teams still being a tier away from each other, it's impossible for them to face each other in league play. But, in situations such as the aforementioned FA Cup, it's possible for teams from different tiers to meet. And this year, with both teams winning their first round matches and the luck of the draw, AFC Wimbledon finally got their first chance for revenge against the MK Dons.

As you can imagine, the emotions surrounding the match flew high. Some took the stance of calling the match something that simply shouldn't exist, such as Andi Thomas of our very own SB Nation:

What makes the MK Dons interesting is the broad spread of opinion that agrees that they are, by virtue of their properties, or more accurately by virtue of that one specific, founding, almost-blasphemous property, fundamentally not a club. This isn't an all-encompassing or unanimous view -- some people don't care, some people allow it -- but it is significant enough to infuse the club, and particularly this tie, with an deep uncanniness. The meeting is hard to talk about because, while the strength of feeling is as intense as it could possibly be, it can't be described in the usual terms. It isn't a rivalry. It isn't a relationship. It isn't "the Dons derby". There isn't a word for how MK Dons stand in relation to AFC Wimbledon, or at least, there isn't a word that is fundamentally and straightforwardly a footballing word. It's bigger than that.

This is because MK Dons are, in footballing terms, an abomination. Not in the colloquial sense -- meaning a terrible, terrible thing; doubtless you'll have your own views on that -- but in the HP Lovecraft sense: a thing that should not be. I say this not to accuse Peter Winkelman and his merry men of being tentacled horrors from an Other Place, tempting as that is, but to point out that footballing chitter-chat it flounders when it bumps up against this in much the same way that those poor fisherman struggled when they opened the wrong door and let the mad thing out. When MK Dons play anybody else, it can be ignored; when they play AFC Wimbledon, there's nothing to do but gibber and wail.

Of course, there are MK Dons fans who would beg to differ. Via the MK Dons Supporters Association:

This day will be about us, and what we have created together, in spite of the venom and bile that has been directed towards us. This will be a day for us to stand tall and strong as we unite together, beaming with pride at all that we have achieved. From a club in freefall to league survival against all expectations, promotion back to League 1, the glory of victory at Wembley, three League 1 play-off semi-finals and praise thoughout the footballing world and the wider community for our club, both on and off the pitch. Perhaps more significantly, the building of a fan base strong enough to withstand anything that has been, will be and indeed, ever could be thrown at us. A fan base that continues to grow stronger by the day.

....

On Sunday, as you walk towards the stadium, if you see visiting supporters, smile at them. As easy as it would be to mock our visitors for their hypocrisy in attending a match against us, having asked so many to boycott before, we must not. We must see the positive side of this, shake them by the hand, thank them for coming and thank them for changing their minds. Let them know how pleased we are that they've come to view us in a more positive light, and let them know how much we appreciate their money. Welcome them to the home of the Milton Keynes Dons.

After reading that column, it's hard not to see the parallels between the MK Dons and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The people of Milton Keynes were gifted a team that was far more significant than any other team that had come before them. They heartily embraced their new club, and despite being the "villains" of English soccer, they stand proud. Yet, they also stand respectful of other fans, and seem to harbor little spite. Though Thunder fans probably haven't been ridiculed in the same way, they can relate to being the league's "black mark", at least in the couple of years before they started making deep playoff runs.

In terms of semantics, the game had some hiccups before it even began. Many AFC Wimbledon supporters were still so sour over the move that they refused to travel to Milton Keynes for the game, opting instead to donate to the team, which is run by a committee of fans. Some fans were even offered refunds after they had purchased tickets. In fact, the club officially stated that they didn't want to draw Milton Keynes at all.

The reason for some fans refusal to travel isn't immediately obvious to American sports fans. Why would you not want to see the bastardized club that you lost get crushed by your newer, better club? Well, in England, with the tiered nature of soccer, clubs are supposed to fight their way through the ranks. So with Pete Winkleman essentially transplanting a third tier team to his market, he wasn't only stealing them, he was outright cheating. It's hard to draw an exact American equivalent, but it would be kind of like creating a Division 1 college football team without having a university to attach it to. Going to an MK Dons game would be like making the cheating permissible, and the money they paid for the game tickets would be given to Pete Winkleman, the man they hate the most.

You can find a nice cross-section of fan's views here.

Obviously, with the blood running hot, the situation had to be handled with extreme care. In an effort to curb hooliganism, the club originally stipulated that AFC Wimbledon fans had to travel on specially arranged buses leaving from Wimbledon itself. (Yes, in England, fans travel together with their team to away matches. Weird, I know.) After some intense backlash, the club decided to sell tickets normally, but only to fans who had bought tickets to previous games.

Coming into the game, the MK Dons were heavily favored. They're perennial challengers to get into the second tier, while AFC Wimbledon has had managerial problems and is currently in serious danger of falling back into the fifth tier. But it's clear that, despite the odds, the hearts of the public rested with Wimbledon.

Anyway, enough background. Here's the match itself. (Don't read below before watching the video if you don't want it spoiled.)

Yeah, the game was about as intense as you can get. It looked like it would be a Milton Keynes blowout at first, with the team getting some serious shots on goal. But through a magnificent header, Wimbledon was able to tie the game. They spent the rest of the match mostly sitting on their side of the field, playing defensive ball and hoping to grab a draw. But they had one golden breakaway opportunity, where if David Martin had tapped the ball in the other direction or perhaps given it a bit of air, Wimbledon would have won the game. The game appeared to be headed towards a tie, but a miracle back tap by one of the MK Dons forwards gave them the win. If you want a more detailed recap, you can find a live blog of the game here.

But, aside from the terrific competition that it turned out to be, emotions definitely boiled over during the game. Via Chris Osborne of BBC Sport:

AFC fans used a chartered plane to carry a message reading "We are Wimbledon" and MK supporters brandished a sign saying "We are keeping the Dons. Get used to it" - a reference to the nickname of the old Wimbledon.

....

Emotions boiled over at Stadium MK when AFC supporters entered the pitch after Jack Midson's equaliser and a smaller number of MK fans followed suit when John Otsemobor flicked in a dramatic late winner.

Despite the two incidents, which are likely to be investigated by the Football Association, Robinson said both clubs could be proud of how they represented themselves. "Two sets of fans entered the field, which you can't condone. But not one fan attacked or physically went towards any player," he said.

The aftermath of the affair is, perhaps, even more startling. The win/loss only affects the standings of the FA Cup, but the teams are on the verge of falling far apart once again. According to league standings, the MK Dons are close to qualifying for the second tier, while AFC Wimbledon is in danger of falling to the fifth tier. If both events were to happen, it's possible that it could be several years before these clubs see each other again. AFC Wimbledon fans definitely don't want to see a rivalry form, because they protest the MK Dons very existence. But it's still interesting to think how much of that resentment was bottled up in a single game.

So, there you have it. When you really think about it, it's not hard to imagine the very first Sonics-Thunder game unfolding in a similar way. The first game would probably be scheduled in Seattle, so the nation could get their first glimpse at the long-forgotten Sonics fans. Seattlites might be torn between going to the game and boycotting it altogether, protesting the sale of the team to Oklahoma City. A few incidents might spring up during the game, and there likely would be various anti-Thunder signs and a high security presence throughout the arena.

But, I think this is where the similarities end. While I think there would definitely be negativity on both sides of the equation, there would be much more potential for an intense rivalry between the teams. There's a variety of reasons for this. The most obvious is that the Thunder and Sonics would be in the same league, most assuredly in the same conference, and possibly even in the same division. They would see each other at least three times a year, and eventually forced to live with the fact that the other team exists. Secondly, the people of Seattle are more sympathetic to the cause of people in Oklahoma City, because the nearest NBA team is three hours away, and there would be no basketball team to cheer for otherwise. The case for Milton Keynes fans is not so clear-cut, as there are other teams to cheer for less than an hour away.

Ultimately, though, I think that the rivalry will be healthy because both sides just want to see some fantastic basketball. From my interview with Sonicsgate Director Jason Reid:

WTLC: Alright, so here's my last question. What do you think we can do to foster a better relationship between Sonics and Thunder fans?

Jason Reid: Yeah, I mean, we are really big on trying to bring our two fan bases together. What we want to foster is a rivalry without the negative personal attacks that come from both sides. It's a common thing where somebody from Oklahoma attacks Seattle and then someone from Seattle attacks Oklahoma and it's low blows. And that's not representative of Sonicsgate and most fans, I believe, on both sides of the coin. I think that what we do want to foster is a rivalry when we get a team back. Because I really do believe that the Oklahoma City Thunder vs. the Seattle Supersonics rivalry will go down as one of the greatest sports rivalries in history once we get a team back. So, we want to root against you guys, but we want to do it as sports fans do it, not with personal attacks or slights against each other.

I don't think there's any better way to put it than that.

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