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 fifth 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.
In the summer of 2006, Howard Schultz was tired.
His team, the Seattle Supersonics, was coming off a losing season, their third in four years. His state, Washington, had made it clear that they had no interest in letting him use public funds to build the arena he desperately wanted.
He was a man accustomed to nothing but success, but so far, this whole basketball ownership thing had been an underwhelming experience. Nothing like the meteoric rise he oversaw at Starbucks.
It had its moments. But it had been a slog. And it wasn’t just Schultz who was tired.
Most of the Sonics ownership group felt pretty much the same way. Remember, there were 58 owners. And within that group of 58 owners, there was a nine-member board.
And they were sick of the status quo—of losing games, losing money, losing their chance at a new arena.
And so, after a couple of years of getting nowhere in their negotiations with local government, they started thinking about doing something drastic. They kind of quietly started shopping the team.
Former Sonics forward and front-office executive Wally Walker remembers these early conversations about whether to sell.
“It has to be to a group [that’s] committed to keeping the team here,” Walker says. “That was the criterion, and it was sincere. I have no doubt that everyone including Howard thought that, said that, and was consistent with that.”
Wally wasn’t all that thrilled about this whole process. Remember: Perhaps no man has as deep of a history with the Sonics as he does. He won a title there in ’79, became the GM during the Kemp-Payton years of the ’90s, joined Schultz’s ownership group, and became CEO in 2001. For Wally, everything that was about to happen in this story feels personal. This wasn’t just business for him.
Over many decades—as a player, GM, and owner—the Seattle SuperSonics had become his life.
But still, it looked like they might sell. At this point, in 2006, it was hard to tell how much NBA franchises were worth. The TV boom hadn’t quite yet hit the league.
Teams were still heavily dependent on revenue generated from ticket sales. But the ownership group was trying to figure out a price tag that made sense.
“I just threw it out there cause I thought the $350 million—sounds crazy now with the franchise values—no one would pay,” Walker says.
They spoke to Larry Ellison, head of Oracle, but he made it clear that he would want to move the team to San Jose. So they cut that off. But no one in Seattle was floating a serious offer.
At this point, Seattle had entered its period of exponential growth, but still, there was not nearly as much wealth in town as there is today. So they had only a few real local options, and none were coming together. They had a brief conversation with Steve Ballmer, who was then the CEO at Microsoft and is now the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. But he was just not in a place in life where he could give a team the attention it requires.
But then they had a call with someone who sounded kind of promising.
“But what happened was there was an interested party from Oklahoma City by the name of Ed Evans,” Walker says. “Ed Evans was a guy that was known by people of our ownership group.”
Apparently he was in the mobile phone industry. So was one of the Sonics owners, John Stanton. They knew him. They liked him.
“And not only that but Ed Evans and his wife had their first date in Seattle at Canlis,” Walker says.
So this guy, Ed Evans, he’s talking to the ownership group, and he’s telling them about his first date with his wife in Seattle, going on and on about how much he loves the city.
“He’s like, ‘This is a great market. I love this place. Untapped potential,’” Walker says. “We were absolutely convinced because we knew him. Everything checked out. He said all the right things—that if he and his group bought the team they were keeping it here. In fact, he said he was going to move here. Because he was living in Oklahoma City, not from Oklahoma City. My recollection.”
He was just a man who’d made a lot of money and was eager to get into sports ownership. He didn’t really care where. And again, he loved Seattle. So, they kept talking.
At this point, it’s summer. The offseason. And even though the board was entertaining these conversations, life had to go on.
So Wally left for a vacation in France.
With family and some friends, he got a house in Burgundy. Wine country. And while he’s there, he was notified that he needed to be on another conference call.
On the call, there was Ed Evans. But then there’s another guy. Someone quieter, with more of an Oklahoma drawl. He didn’t quite have Ed Evans’s charm. At the time this man was known for giving the New Orleans Hornets a temporary home in Oklahoma City. But all these years later, he will forever be known as the man who took the Sonics away from Seattle.
When Wally found out about Clay, he was a little rattled.
“So literally I’m in France and all of a sudden there’s a conference call I’m on it at two in the morning with the time change and Ed Evans was on the call with a guy named Clay Bennett who none of us had ever met personally before or even, I don’t know if I’d heard his name before or not,” Walker says.
Clay Bennett didn’t have a story of a deep love for the city of Seattle. He couldn’t talk about his longstanding affection for the city. He had tried to buy the Hornets, with the intention of keeping them in Oklahoma. And now, all of a sudden, he was on the phone with Ed Evans, and they were both talking to the Sonics ownership about buying the team.
“He had a profile because he was Edward Gaylord’s son-in-law,” says sportswriter Berry Tramel.
Edward Gaylord was the publisher of The Oklahoman—Tramel’s employer—back in a time when newspapers were big business.
“The Gaylord family was just omnipotent in Oklahoma City,” Tramel says.
That put him in the public eye. But what really built Bennett’s reputation in Oklahoma City was not who he married, but something he actually did. In 1989, he helped to bring something called the U.S. Olympic Festival to Oklahoma City.
It was an event, held in a different city every non-Olympic year, where American athletes competed against each other in Olympic sports. Almost like Olympic intramurals.
“We turned it into a massive celebration. We thought it was the greatest thing of all time,” Tramel says. “We were no less proud of that than Barcelona or Athens or Atlanta or anybody else had of hosting the Olympiad. And it was a major undertaking. The opening ceremonies were at Owen field in Norman and drew 70,000 people. And Clay Bennett had put this together and pulled it off.”
But what first put him into contact with the NBA was something that happened a few years later. Bennett joined the ownership group of the San Antonio Spurs, and he served as the team’s representative on the NBA’s board of governors. And this was back in the early ’90s, before Gregg Popovich took over and the Spurs became the model of small-market success in the NBA.
“And Clay Bennett became there for a while the face of the San Antonio Spurs ownership and that’s where he got to know the NBA people, got to know David Stern, that San Antonio ownership group helped save basketball in San Antonio and of course it’s been a runaway success ever since,” says Tramel says. “But all those years David Stern and Clay really became solid—relationship—I think both business-wise perhaps even friend-wise, although my impression is David Stern’s pretty much about business. But he certainly thought very highly of Clay Bennett all those years when the NBA was not even on our radar screen.”
So this was the guy who’s now on the phone alongside Ed Evans, talking to Wally Walker and the rest of the board. And that $350 million price Wally had set for the Sonics? These guys were offering to pay it. Full asking price.
A number Schultz’s group never really thought they’d get.
But something doesn’t feel right to Wally. He just isn’t sure he can trust these new guys. Not only Clay Bennett, but also Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy. Another Oklahoman now in the group.
“I was sitting in France, and I just googled them, and my reaction was, you know, some names I’d heard of, some I had not, but they were Oklahoma City–centric and very rooted there so that was where I started calling into question what was really going on,” Walker says.
In their initial conversation, this guy Evans was the only member of his ownership group who lived in OKC. The rest were spread all over the country.
But back in this moment, Wally was worried that these new men from OKC might want to move the SuperSonics. Still, the Schultz group was intrigued. There was this kind of perverse logic to their thinking. Like, “our group can’t get anything done with the local government. We’ve got the state legislature against us, the activists against us, and ultimately, the will of the people against us.” No one seemed to want public money going to a new arena.
But maybe, the thinking went, that was because the Schultz group was too rooted in Seattle. They weren’t going to move the team. Of course not! But what if someone else came in and tried to fight the same fight. Someone who felt like a real threat to move the team.
Wally didn’t necessarily believe this, but he explains what others were thinking: “Maybe it’s gonna take an out-of-towner to come in and have leverage to get something done.”
So, with Wally still in France, they had conference calls, and they laid out the terms of a potential sale.
“And of course everyone said, ‘Well the condition is you got to keep a team in Seattle,’ and they said, ‘Of course. Yeah sure,’” Walker says. “So there’s two conference calls—”
Two conference calls, with conversation surrounding this idea of leverage, this idea that the threat of OKC could lead to a deal in Seattle. And then, it’s time for a vote.
Wally was up, in the middle of the night thousands of miles away, talking with the other eight members of the group.
“Again, I’m both skeptical and sleep deprived,” Walker says.
But now, forced to make a decision. Sell? Or no? They had a vote.