It's a story that needs to be told and re-told. The Seattle SuperSonics aren't in Seattle for various reasons, and most of them center around the fact that the city wasn't keen to pony up to aid the team's owners in creating a new, and profitable, arena. But the reason the Seattle SuperSonics aren't in Seattle anymore is because of one man: Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.
Schultz bought the team in early 2001, and for those of us that were around to read the clips from his initial news conference, he went out of his way to slyly compare himself to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was then in the midst of his successful first full year as Mavs owner. Schultz propped himself in the front row for various SuperSonics games over the years, oddly complaining about calls that didn't seem all that outrageous. He lost money, and lost interest. And, after Seattle refused to help him in building a new arena, he sold the team to the absolute best pair of potential owners that could ensure a swift move of the team from Seattle, without caring for a second that he was handing the keys to a pair of men that worked out of Oklahoma City, with a new and NBA-ready arena idling back home.
Jeremy Repanich, writing for Deadspin, is a former employee of the SuperSonics. And, in a must-read feature, he destroys the man he calls "spineless" for the way he bought the beloved team seemingly on a whim, and then discarded it when it was clear that running things on the cheap wasn't going to bring about a championship. Here's one killer take from the piece:
He was a man accustomed to walking into a boardroom and bending it to his will, and he began his Sonics reign full of unearned bravado. On the flight home from New York after the NBA confirmed his takeover of the team, he sat with Wally Walker, the former player and Goldman Sachs man who, as the team's GM, had just brokered the deal. Schultz turned to Walker and said in all sincerity, "OK, now we need to get Garnett"—as if he could decree such a thing and it would simply be so. At the All-Star Game in 2002, he announced to an assembled group of owners that he'd have a ring when they saw him the following year. This was the uninspiring era of the Gary Payton-Vin Baker-Brent Barry Sonics, remember. Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce responded that in a year Schultz wouldn't have a ring and he'd be $20 million poorer.
Repanich goes on to detail several other lovely periods during Schultz' reign, such as the time he had to custom design $3.50 Starbucks gift cards (Starbucks cards only go down to five bucks) to give to his SuperSonics employees as holiday gifts; only after employees complained about losing out on the holiday bonuses that were annually given out by the team's previous owner, Berry Ackerley. A man who, it should be noted, shouldn't be shamed for selling the SuperSonics to a guy who felt like the King of Seattle back in 2001.
Then there was this aside, following Clay Bennett's purchase of the team from Schultz:
Soon after the sale, Bennett decided he needed a souvenir bounty to take back to his sports-thirsty brethren in OKC. My ears were still ringing with the invective of enraged Sonics fans. Yet I was an impressionable kid in the Guest Relations department and prone to awe, so when an exec asked me to escort Bennett through the Sonics team shop, where the new owner planned to gather souvenirs, I couldn't say no.
Whoever picked me must have smelled the naiveté, because I was dumb enough to be surprised when the press started showing up. "Oh, gosh, how did these TV news cameras get here?" I thought. I shied away from the lenses, thinking they wouldn't want me seen near Bennett, that the press was here to capture Clay. But a PR person, in a clever bit of Nixonian stagecraft, motioned for me to get back into the shot. I was there for the cameras: New Owner Relates to Young Seattleite. He might as well have tousled my hair, too.
Before you get haughty at Bennett for moving the team to Oklahoma City in 2008, understand what led to the departure after his purchase of the club in the summer of 2006.
People forget the climate. The idea that Oklahoma City would be a rabid fan base for pro basketball didn't start when the Thunder moved there in 2008, or when the team improved considerably during the 2009-10 season. It started as soon as Chris Paul and the Hornets played their first game in the city back in 2005, on leave from New Orleans after a hurricane devastated the city. Right away, the team's players, the team's newly established fan base, and the league knew what it had in Oklahoma City. This was going to work, and it was only a matter of time before the NBA pounced on the chance to move a team to OKC.
Remember, this was in the heart of George W. Bush's two terms in offense, and before the late-2006 bloodletting that led to the Republicans losing their hold on Congress. Matthew Dowd was employed by the NBA to give the league red state appeal. The league introduced a dress code the year before. Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon were from Oklahoma City. Howard Schultz, who once spoke of the SuperSonics as a sort of "public trust" knew about all of this, and still went ahead with the plan, just so he could sell out the city that made him billions.
It was absolutely a betrayal. And though you can rip the NBA, it signed off on a move that is making it gobs of money, with a lovable (and championship-worthy) team in a small town, with newish logos and jerseys to sell.
And though you can rip Bennett and McClendon, who clearly did not act in good faith in laughably attempting to keep the SuperSonics in Seattle, they made a sound business decision to bring a team to the city that they work from. Actually, go ahead and rip them anyway.
But Howard Schultz, Seattle, there's your enemy in this story.
He sold the SuperSonics to the absolute best duo that could ensure the quickest move possible. This wasn't like dumping on Larry Ellison, who would have to shop around to Anaheim or San Jose or Kansas City alongside OKC. This wasn't like dealing with a random group of investors. This was a transparent sell to new owners from the NBA's newest, most obvious home for a franchise. These guys were from Oklahoma City!
Schultz, spurned by Seattle, just didn't care.
There's much, much more in Repanich's feature. Please give it a read.