I’ve spent much of the last year obsessing over a question: How did Seattle—once home to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, to the Seattle SuperSonics, one of the iconic franchises that defined the NBA of my youth—end up as a basketball orphan? How did one of America’s most vibrant basketball markets become a market without an actual team?
I knew some version of an answer. The same one known by so many who follow the NBA. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sold the team away to a man from Oklahoma, Clay Bennett. Bennett skipped town. The end.
But I wanted to know more. More about what happened in Seattle, and in Oklahoma, and in other cities from New York to New Orleans that all led to one of the great heists in the history of pro sports.
So I went searching for answers. And the deeper into the search I went, the messier and more complicated, and sometimes more confusing, the whole thing got. And as I allowed myself to fall deeper into this obsession, I found myself fixated on so many people beyond just Schultz and Bennett. So many things had to go wrong—or right, if you’re from Oklahoma—for this to happen. So many people had a stake in this struggle.
So I talked to them. There are the players, from Lenny Wilkens to Gary Payton, who now find themselves retired, legends of a franchise that no longer exists. There were the local activists who fought to keep the team in town, and the ones who almost seemed to be pushing them out the door. And I obsessed over the people behind the scenes in Seattle and Oklahoma. People who made deals on late-night conference calls and on private jets, people whose own ambitions were bound up with the fate of the franchise.
All of it brought me here. To a story about a heist. And about a loss.
Below is an excerpt from the third episode of Sonic Boom, the new documentary podcast series from The Ringer available exclusively on Luminary. Listen here and check back each Thursday through November 21 for new episodes.
By 2006, Seattle had been through a familiar cycle with its sports franchises—their stadiums growing outdated, followed by their owners threatening to leave. The first one—MLB’s Seattle Pilots—actually did leave, after just one season. They became the Brewers, and Seattle waited another seven years before the Mariners showed up, in 1977. And then in the 1990s, they wanted a new stadium to replace their home, the Kingdome. They threatened to leave.
That’s where Seattle activist Chris Van Dyk came in. At a political fundraiser, Chris ran into Gary Locke, then a county executive.
“I poked my finger in his chest, and I said, ‘Hey you do this. You do this and I’m going to I’m going to force it to a vote of the people. … So you might as well put it on the ballot.’ And he kind of stood back and said, ‘OK, we’ll do that.’ And I said, ‘Good, because I’m going to defeat it. This is wrong.’”
So that’s what they did. A ballot measure for a tax that would fund a new stadium for the Mariners was rejected in September 1995. Because at the time, the Mariners were good. They went on a crazy run over the last month of the season. They won the AL West, making the playoffs for the first time.
That energy didn’t carry them to a World Series, but it did carry enough public sway to force the King County Council to call an emergency session. In that session, they approved money for a new stadium.
That’s right, the thing that Chris Van Dyk and the Seattle public rejected at the polls in September was approved just a few weeks later. The Mariners were staying, and the citizens were gonna pay for it.
“They steamrollered public opinion to a point where, hey, I was even rooting for ‘em,” Van Dyk says.
Even him, the guy who was beginning to build his activism around fighting against these teams. So yeah, it was clear where this was headed: They were building a new ballpark. And the local government committed to chipping in $275 million to help them do it.
The Mariners’ new stadium, which was originally called Safeco Field and is now T-Mobile Park, opened in 1999. It’s gorgeous.
But there was another team that had been playing in the Kingdome: Seattle’s NFL team, the Seahawks. And that building wasn’t working out so great for them either. So at the same time the Mariners were financing their new stadium, the Seahawks were trying to get a new stadium of their own.
The Seahawks were owned at the time by a real estate developer. A guy named Ken Behring. And you’ll never guess what he did. He threatened to move the team.
Ultimately, though, he decided to sell it to Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft and one of the few billionaires in the area. And Chris Van Dyk, who at this point has built his reputation in Seattle around opposing sports owners? He actually really likes Paul Allen.
“I mean you couldn’t ask for a better billionaire,” Van Dyk says. “You just couldn’t ask for a nicer guy to want public money for a new football stadium when you had one that was perfectly good.”
That was the thing, though. As great of a guy as Allen was, he still wanted what pro sports owners want: money from the government to help them build their stadiums.
Van Dyk and his group fought it because, once again, on the ballot in 1997, there was a new measure, one that would funnel money to help pay for that new stadium. Taxes on hotels, new lottery games, and a few other measures that would add up to $300 million.
“Paul Allen and his troops spent $11 million,” Van Dyk said. “Our side spent about a half-million and they beat us by about 30,000 votes.”
Van Dyk had put up a fight. But it wasn’t enough.
“And so we had said at the time if they could beat us at the polls we’d fold our tent and go away,” he said. “And that is exactly what we did.”
They went away. There was nothing left to fight for, really. The Seahawks and Mariners both got what they wanted: completely new stadiums.
And around that same time, the Sonics got the deal we talked about in Episode 1. The one that turned the Coliseum into KeyArena. That fixed the leaky roof and added a few thousand seats. And they got this upgrade without using any taxpayer dollars. They did that in ’95, when the Sonics were one of the best teams in the league—a sort of countercultural basketball phenomenon.
A few years later, Barry Ackerley sold the team to Schultz, Schultz ran off Gary Payton, and the Sonics fell back to earth. And all of a sudden, by 2004, KeyArena paled in comparison to the brand-new buildings around the league. But not because it was a bad place to watch a game.
“I mean to me KeyArena was as strong a venue as any, when I first arrived on the beat myself in 1997,” says Howard Beck, an NBA writer now with Bleacher Report. “I mean it was in the years that followed that the league really started to get into this building boom where Staples Center arrived in L.A. and there were new arenas in Miami and Dallas ... I mean the league had a building boom through the 2000s.”
These new buildings were built for one reason: money. We’re talking about luxury suites, corporate sponsors. We’re talking about hosting major concerts and other big events.
“So there was just a cascade of these brand-spanking-new arenas with luxury suites and modern amenities and nicer concessions and bigger concourses and just more ways for the operators to bring in revenue,” Beck said. “And that meant that there were certain other places that were just, by definition, falling behind.”
Places like KeyArena felt like dilapidated homes on a block full of McMansions.
Wally Walker—a former Sonics player and general manager—says that the 1995-96 team that lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals had a payroll just a little under $26 million. But they made $30 million from selling tickets. And this was before the era of giant TV deals; teams relied on ticket sales to cover most or even all of their payroll. The Sonics were in the black. For now.
“Fast-forward five years,” Walker says. “Because we were selling out every game our ticket revenue, although prices have gone up some, was about the same, maybe a little higher. And our payroll was twice as high and we were only an average NBA payroll. We had a $50 million but we were competing against Portland that had a $100 million payroll.”
All of a sudden, they couldn’t keep up.
“No one saw it coming,” Walker said. “People that were in the league didn’t see it changing that quickly.”
So Walker, former Sonics executive vice president Terry McLaughlin, former mayor Greg Nickels, and a few others put together a plan: They want to renovate KeyArena again. They want to double the footprint and add luxury suites. They make the pitch that out-of-towners can pay for a lot of it, through a tax on hotels.
It seemed like a decent enough plan, but there was a problem.
“Howard Schultz, in like ’03, ’04 started making noise about wanting a new building,” says Chris Daniels, a reporter from King 5 TV in Seattle. “Well, that building was less than a decade old.
“You already have a baseball stadium and a football stadium and that’s where people were like, ‘enough is enough.’ I mean, the political climate in this town was like, ‘No more.’ There’d been three asks within a decade.”
Walker felt that.
“Well we even had a term for it,” he says. “Sports facility fatigue. Of course the public remembered, ‘Hey, KeyArena, wasn’t that just remodeled? You know, I like going to games there.’ And they were right! That was one of the hardest battles in terms of perception, because it’s a fun place to watch a game. We’re like, ‘Yeah, we agree!’ But the reality was it just wasn’t economically competitive.”
So in February 2006, Howard Schultz makes a trip to Olympia, the capital, which sits about an hour southwest of Seattle. And he brings help: NBA commissioner David Stern.
There’s the billionaire coffee magnate, the man who’s become something of an icon in the business world, and then there’s Stern, the man who built the modern NBA. So when they go to Olympia together, they’re kind of a power couple. And they head into the Capitol building, because they want money. They want $200 million, to go to their new arena. And wherever Stern goes, he typically gets what he wants.
“I’ve never been in a room with David Stern when someone else in the room was smarter or better prepared,” says NBA writer Jackie MacMullan. “He’s so intimidating. You don’t dare question him because he has all the answers.”
And now Stern and Schultz are stepping, for a day, into Washington state politics, to testify on the House floor.