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 seventh 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.
The people of Seattle thought that if they really stuck with it—if they fought—then they’d find a way to keep their team.
Jeremy Repanich, a former SuperSonics guest-relations employee, says that was the feeling after the new ownership group bought the team in 2006 even among people within the team.
“I think the message internally was like, ‘We’re staying—we’re gonna get this done and tell people that we’re gonna stay and we’re working towards a new arena,’” Repanich says. “That was the messaging from the inside, and there were a lot of true believers.”
But not everyone would let themselves believe. Plenty of others felt new owner Clay Bennett was angling to move the team to Oklahoma. The truth is some fans veered back and forth between believing the Sonics would stay and knowing they’d leave, all in the same hour.
One thing to cling to was this clause in the contract: “Good faith, best efforts.” For a year, the new owners had to try—really try—to get an arena deal done. And if they got it done, they had to stay.
Even Berry Tramel, a sports columnist down in Oklahoma, thought that might happen.
“I truly believe that Clay was not convinced that he was bringing the Sonics here,” Tramel says. “In fact, he told me multiple times what his plan was if he got a deal done. He was going to be very happy in Seattle because he said the franchise would flourish, it would be great. He just raved about the city of Seattle. He just thought it was an unbelievable city.”
Maybe Bennett would flip it, selling to someone else for a nice profit, then go back to Oklahoma to get his expansion team. If the local government could get something done in Seattle, that might really happen. The people who wanted the Sonics to stay just had to keep working, keep making Seattle seem more attractive than Oklahoma. They just needed to buy time. If they could make sure Bennett stayed until the end of the lease in 2010, they could figure out a long-term solution.
But within a matter of months, that possibility got much, much more difficult.
That November, Seattle voted on Initiative 91, a measure that would severely limit the amount of money that could go into a sports arena and make it incredibly difficult to build one with public funds.
Save Our Sonics lobbied against it. Chris Van Dyk’s group, the Citizens for More Important Things, lobbied for it.
“All Initiative 91 said was that if the public put up money for a sports stadium, the public deserved a fair rate of return,” Van Dyk said. “And we didn’t spend much money on campaigning because we knew we didn’t have to.”
They knew it would pass. And it did—with 74 percent of the vote. Bennett and the Sonics’ new owners barely put up a fight.
“They had done no campaign,” Van Dyk said. “They just wanted the voters to have their voice.”
It’s hard to know what Bennett felt. Maybe he wanted the measure to fail so he could get something done. Maybe he was happy to see it pass so he could get out of town. But either way, this made one thing clear: The city of Seattle did not want to pay for a new building.
Whether it was for former owner Howard Schultz or Bennett, the city of Seattle didn’t want to do for the Sonics what they’d done for their other teams. Economically, that’s probably a wise decision. But either way, it paved the way for the team to leave town.
Van Dyk remembers talking to David Stern’s old nemesis, Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp. He saw this whole thing as a huge victory.
“Now this issue will finally, finally go away,” Van Dyk says. “The voters have spoken definitively, certainly in the city of Seattle.”
The voters had spoken. But for people who loved the Sonics, their message hurt.
“It’s frustrating because we’ve actually heard a council person tell fans to get over it,” says Janna Ford, who was an executive assistant for the Sonics. “I mean—get over it? Like are you kidding me?”
Still, that wasn’t the death knell. There were other funding options that could be used to keep the team in town. Brian Robinson’s Save Our Sonics movement was still gathering steam. The more dire things looked, the more the group attracted attention, followers, and passion.
“We were up and rolling in pretty quick order,” Brian Robinson says. “We started having regular meetings. We put together a leadership structure and we never stopped to think about it. It got out of hand really quickly.”
So Brian gets swept up in this whole thing, and he goes from being just a regular fan to someone at the head of a movement.
“On a personal note it was just bizarre,” he says. “All of a sudden I’ve got the guys at Sonicsgate following me around to make a movie. So you’ve got a film crew following you to events and the governor calling. And we were, at a peak, doing five to 10 media interviews a week. So it felt really big and really special. But it was just kind of a snowball effect. It all just kept happening.”
You know how people like to talk about the fact that sports brings people together? Go to a city, and find an arena or a sports bar, and you’ll see people of different cultural and economic backgrounds sitting together, finding a common passion, some common ground. Sports does that. But you know what else brings people together? Crisis. So when you combine the two, you start to get something pretty remarkable.
“There’s something really special to the community of fans around the NBA,” Robinson says. “You get hedge fund guys and Baptist preachers, two strangers hugging in the Home Depot line. So I absolutely loved it. I had a blast, and it’s kind of a weird thing that one of the biggest failures of my life was also probably the most educational and the most fun and rewarding in other ways.”
So that all gets started in the summer and early fall 2006. Soon the season begins, and Clay Bennett is still talking as if he wants to make it work in Seattle. The team was bad. They weren’t going to have a miracle run like the Mariners did in ’95—a run that rallies public support around a stadium. But still, Bennett was trying to play nice with Seattle. Inviting people like Robinson into his suite.
A few months pass, and in early 2007, Bennett announced that he’d found a solution. The Sonics were going to get a new arena. Not in Seattle, but down in the suburb of Renton. About 15 miles away.
“They bussed everybody over to Renton, the site that they thought they were gonna have, and had a little party and big fanfare about it,” Ford says.
But it never seemed like a real option.
“I mean honestly, a terrible location,” Ford says. “I just don’t think anybody thought that they were going to get any sort of public money for a place in Renton.”
The city of Renton ran a study to see whether it could work. Unfortunately, the study found that neither the county nor the state would profit from the arena. After that, the state legislature refused to give any public money to the proposed arena.
But remember the conditions of the sale? The Bennett group had to show “good faith, best efforts” to find a new arena in the Seattle area. The belief in Seattle is that the Renton project was just a way of going through those motions, satisfying that clause.
That’s how Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times columnist, sees it.
“Everything about the fake arena, and the fake price tag, and the fake move to Renton was total fiction,” he says. “And people in Seattle knew that. Nobody bought into that ever.”
And so, over time, some of that hope was waning. Not for everyone—not at all. But it was becoming clear, Seattle was running out of options.