I keep reading that Clay Bennett is great friends with David Stern, and it kind of baffles me. It’s not that I don’t think a suspiciously tan Jewish authoritarian commissioner guy and an ultra-crude Bush Ranger Oklahoman with a head that looks like a boiled ham wouldn’t have anything in common, but…I mean, what do they have in common? Do they just raise jewel-encrusted goblets in toasts to avarice and new arenas? Discuss literature?
Anyway, it’s academic: Stern did nothing to stop Bennett’s heist of Seattle’s basketball franchise, and after Bennett cut a $45 million check (and may have to pay another $30 million later) to the city of Seattle yesterday, the SuperSonics are officially bailing to Oklahoma City ASAP. They’ll leave behind the team colors and name, which means at least the WNBA team in Seattle (which is staying) will get to play in green-themed jerseys in an arena with a Spencer Haywood jersey in the rafters. It’s not really something anyone other than Clay and his homeboys — and presumably the people in OKC who approved a $121 million sales tax hike earlier this year in order to help expedite the move — is excited about. A couple of current and several former Sonics go on record saying as much in The Bellingham Herald — “I’m really, really mad,” Damien Wilkins says, “I’m disappointed for the city of Seattle” — and it’s not difficult to find opinion columnists saying similar things in the Seattle area papers.
But I live in New York and have visited Seattle all of once, and it pisses me off. What’s my problem? (Generally, the answer is: “a vast array of smaller problems”) In this instance, I think TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott, in a rare editorializing moment, gets it pretty much exactly right:
It was never, in my mind, an Oklahoma City vs. Seattle thing. It’s an owner vs. fans thing.
Sports operate in a bizarre realm. The fans, who are the paying customers, provide the revenue, passion, and love that make any league worthwhile. But those same fans who are such an essential part of the franchise have no legal standing at all. They have no signed agreements. The team has no obligation to them at all.
So fans are, legally, vulnerable. And although everyone acknowledges they are central to the enterprise, they can be trampled by owners, who pay for the right to do what they would like with a team. I’m from the school of thought that says just because you have the tiger by the tail doesn’t mean you must yank. I’m for respecting the people involved, even if you can get away with hurting them. That’s character.
…In most cases, I believe a business is really nothing more than the people who work on behalf of that business. But in the case of a local NBA team, it’s more than that. It’s also a region’s lone outpost for the best of basketball. Anyone who loves the sport is prone to following the NBA.
That’s what the NBA is entrusted with protecting. And that’s what the NBA did not, in my estimation, protect in this case.
It’s a testament to the power of the sport that fans who have been scorned by one owner will later embrace another…The earth keeps spinning.
But that doesn’t make it any less reprehensible to mislead the public in a cheap manner to separate a team from its devoted fans, while pledging the opposite. Even if the fans are legally powerless, it is certainly correct to honor their meaningful role and to treat them with dignity.