SEATTLE – They came carrying their “Noklahoma” signs, their “Trade Bennett” posters. And if that didn’t express the prevailing sentiment of the fans at KeyArena accurately enough, then the chant that rose to the rafters certainly did: “Save Our Sonics! Save Our Sonics!”
The Sonics opened their 41st season here Thursday night and Kevin Durant gave the locals another 27 reasons to hope it also won’t be the franchise’s last. To commemorate their home opener, the Sonics even distributed yellow “The Supes Are Back” T-shirts.
The obvious question, of course, is, “For how long?” The Sonics’ Oklahoma City-based owner, Clay Bennett, was nice enough to allow his self-imposed Wednesday deadline for an arena deal to expire without action because he wanted “the focus to be on Sonics basketball.” That kindness, however, will apparently extend only 48 hours: Bennett is expected to announce today he’s filing for relocation.
The announcement doesn’t mean the Sonics are leaving for OKC just yet. The team has a lease at KeyArena through the end of the 2009-10 season and Bennett’s hopes of terminating it through arbitration hit a snag Monday when a U.S. district judge ruled the case will remain in federal court.
While there’s been little indication publicly to suggest local and state officials are close to presenting Bennett with a concrete proposal for a new arena, a local ownership group came forward Thursday saying it would be willing to buy the team to keep it in Seattle. Bennett, however, has continued to insist the team isn't for sale. Regardless, there have been whispers in recent days that the team's future in Seattle isn't as bleak as it appeared a month ago. There are also those who believe that by formally applying for relocation Bennett will jar the area’s notoriously slow-moving politicians into action.
Sonics fans can only hope. Because if Thursday was any indication, they’re going to fall in love with the franchise’s whisker-thin 19-year-old rookie pretty fast. Durant didn’t beat the Phoenix Suns, but he did put on an electric performance while trying to do so, scoring 18 of his 27 points in the first half. And when Raja Bell threw in a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter to seemingly give the Suns the final push they needed?
Durant coolly pulled up from 25 feet deep and drilled his own three.
“He’s got an NBA skill,” said one scout in attendance. “A lot of guys come into the league and are athletic, but don’t have an NBA skill. He’s got a skill – his jumper.”
It also helps that Durant has a 6-foot-9 frame to help him launch it. Often matched against Bell, one of the NBA’s most rugged defenders, Durant used his canyon-wide wingspan to his advantage.
“At that length, as a defender, he’s shooting over you,” Bell said. “And he’s got a lot of skill. He steps back, he goes to the basket – he’s got a bright future.”
The same could be said for the franchise, provided you choose to ignore that little relocation issue, which is what Sonics officials prefer you do. Sam Presti, the sharp 30-year-old general manager Bennett plucked out of the San Antonio Spurs organization, quickly set course after taking over the team. Ray Allen likely wasn’t ever going to lead Seattle to a championship with the supporting cast he had around him, so Presti made the bold decision to trade him to Boston on draft night.
In return, the Sonics received the draft rights to rookie forward Jeff Green along with guards Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak. Presti knew he couldn’t approach the staggering $118 million offer Orlando made Rashard Lewis, so he arranged for a sign-and-trade that netted the Sonics a $9 million trade exception, which he then sent to the Suns for Kurt Thomas, a solid veteran whose salary comes off the cap at the end of the season, and two first-round picks.
The Sonics now own five first-round picks over the next three drafts, as well as four second-rounders in the upcoming draft alone. The moves also have the potential to create a mountain of salary-cap room in the summer of 2010 for a star-lined free-agent crop that should include LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The Sonics know they’re in for a rough season. Thirty victories might even be overly optimistic. But new coach P.J. Carlesimo, whom Presti brought with him from San Antonio, thinks he can get them to play hard. With push-the-pace pioneer Paul Westhead helping construct the offense, Seattle also should play an entertaining uptempo style.
And though the StudentSonics, as longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel cleverly dubbed them, showed plenty of inexperience down the stretch in each of their opening losses to Denver and Phoenix, they also improved between the two games.
“If we play that hard, it’s going to be rewarded,” Carlesimo said. “It just may not be rewarded the first night against Denver or rewarded the second night against Phoenix.”
Of course, there are those who believe the Sonics’ rebuilding project is a grand conspiracy by Bennett to gut the team of its most marketable talent. Losing teams typically lose money and the more money Bennett loses, the easier it is for him to build a case that he needs to be freed from what NBA commissioner David Stern has frequently called the worst lease in the league.
“If the team were locked in and not going anywhere, the moves they made are ones that fans would say, ‘OK, you had to blow things up, get some young guys and develop around them,’ ” said Steven Pyeatt, a local businessman who has helped form Save Our Sonics, a grassroots group that has become increasingly influential in the push to keep the team in town. “From a Sonics fan perspective, this is the basis for a very exciting team.”
That’s why it would be a shame if Seattle doesn’t get to see these Sonics at least grow up. Almost nobody – whether it be players, coaches or league officials – want Seattle to lose its NBA franchise. The Sonics have a storied history here and their fans are among the savviest in the league.
When Suns point guard Steve Nash was growing up across the border in British Columbia, he occasionally trekked to Seattle to watch games.
“Those are great memories,” Nash said. “I always felt like this was a great basketball town, whether it was high school, college or the NBA. For the Sonics to not be here would be very strange.
“It doesn’t seem right if they left town.”
There are signs Bennett doesn’t have his bags completely packed. Sonics officials claim he’s spent close to $500,000 to upgrade the team’s practice facility and redo the players’ family room at KeyArena. And even Bennett’s harshest critics admit the franchise’s lame-duck status is as much or more the fault of the Sonics’ previous owner, Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz.
Schultz can put a barista in Beijing, but he evidently had trouble ensuring the Sonics players had room to park at their own practice facility. Seattle’s new regime had “Player Parking” painted on several spaces outside the facility to keep other staffers from taking them.
“There are a lot of people who have said they’ll never step foot in a Starbucks again,” Pyeatt said, “and I’m one of them.”
Presti talks repeatedly about “building a culture.” That’s meant improving the food on the team flights and eventually making sure the players have just as comfortable sideline chairs as the season-ticket holders. For now, that’s also meant not over-marketing Durant, even though he’s the team’s only marketable player.
Taking a cue from his former bosses in San Antonio, Presti wants to promote team over individual.
“We want to help Kevin Durant be Kevin Durant,” Presti said. “We want to coach him, we want to support him and we want to allow him to be part of our team.”
Even that position has fueled local conspiracy theorists, though they can hardly be blamed for not trusting Bennett. While Bennett has made some wise personnel hires – and some of the league’s other owners think he’ll eventually become a savvy steward – his tenure with the Sonics has been marked by one public-relations blunder after another, none more comical than the $250,000 fine one of his co-owners incurred from the league after telling a reporter in Oklahoma that “We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here.”
In truth, the level of distrust between Seattle and Bennett is so great that if Stern really wants to keep the Sonics here as he says than he should appoint his own negotiator to handle talks with the city – a move he’s already made in Sacramento for the Kings’ arena discussions.
Regardless, Pyeatt and his fellow fans haven’t given up hope. They are currently trying to arrange a trip to New York to speak with officials from both the league and the players’ union. Local and state politicians, he said, also have become noticeably more accommodating to listening to their concerns and ideas.
“A lot of people think we’re down to the final buzzer,” Pyeatt said. “I don’t believe that’s true. I think this is probably halftime.”
Until the horn sounds, Pyeatt and others like him will continue to shout. For one night, at least, they were loud enough that even the Sonics’ owner had to listen.