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 final episode of Sonic Boom, the new documentary podcast series from The Ringer available exclusively on Luminary. Listen here and check out the entire series on Luminary.
When Sonics fans left KeyArena on that night in April 2008—the night of the last home game ever in Seattle—no one knew what was going to happen next.
Even though Clay Bennett had made his intentions to move the team clear, there was still the lawsuit filed by the city against the Sonics. There was still the chance that someone local might swoop in and buy the team from Bennett.
For one, the NBA still needed to approve the relocation, which it did, during a vote of the league’s board of governors that April in New York. It was almost unanimous: 28 owners voted yes, the team can move. Only two voted no. As far as the league was concerned, the Sonics were free to go.
Chris Daniels, from Seattle’s King 5 TV, was one of the only reporters to make the trip for the press conference about the Sonics’ future plans.
“You walk into this room in the bottom of the St. Regis Hotel and it’s all wired with microphones and lights and it’s a totally made-for-TV moment, but it’s in the basement with no cell service, no computer service,” Daniels says. “I have no idea what I’m walking into, but it’s the first time that Clay Bennett or David Stern would answer these questions about the sale and their negotiations and those controversial emails and all that.”
For Daniels, this was a huge moment. He had been covering every aspect of this story—the team’s side, the league’s side, the fans’ side, the government’s side. He’d heard Bennett equivocate. He’d heard Stern talk about what he wanted from the local government.
But now it was official. The team was leaving, and Daniels had questions.
Daniels: Chris Daniels again from King TV in Seattle. Commissioner, for all the fans back in Seattle who are watching this live right now, what do you want to say to them—to the fans who have supported the Supersonics franchise in Seattle for the last 41 years? And let’s settle in once and for all with KeyArena—there’s a $300 million proposal out there. Is that a significant proposal and something that could solve the problem—
Stern: Actually, there’s no proposal out there right now, I don’t think you would mean to misrepresent that to me, would you?
“And that’s the, I think, the one and only time I’ve had somebody basically tell me to shut the hell up on live television,” Daniels says today. “I didn’t have any communication; I didn’t know that it was being broadcast to every TV station or radio station in Seattle, that it was being broadcast on NBATV. I had no clue. And when I finally got out of the basement—oh my God, I had all these messages and emails and thank you for fighting for Seattle and I’m just thinking, ‘Hey, I was just asking basic questions here, that the commissioner didn’t want to hear.’”
After the press conference, Daniels went to dinner at an Italian restaurant near Times Square. Remember, this is just a few days after the Sonics’ season ended. Sonics players and coaches have dispersed—some for vacation, others back to their hometowns. Nobody knows where they’ll be playing the next year.
After dinner, Daniels walked back into Times Square. And then he saw someone.
“I look across the street and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it’s, it’s Kevin Durant!’” Daniel says.
Standing on the corner. Waiting for a cab. Daniels turned to his photographer.
Daniels assumed Durant was there for the announcement that the league approved the Sonics’ move. But he wasn’t. He was there for the Jordan Brand Classic, the high school All-Star game. And so Durant was confused after Daniels told him.
“He had no clue.”
You might think that—at this point—this is it, the team’s gone.
But this process was destined to be as slow, drawn-out, and painful as possible. There’s still the lawsuit pending between the city of Seattle and the Sonics. If the court ruled that the Sonics had to stay to the end of their lease in 2010, they would have had to stay. And that might have given a white knight a chance to swoop in and buy the team from Bennett.
When Daniels returned to Seattle, he found a city on the edge between hope and denial.
“I think people still held out hope during the federal trial that the city of Seattle was going to win that,” Daniels says. “I think even after David Stern made his announcement, people still held out hope. There was never really this thought that the team would ever move. The fact they had been here over 40 years, there was the thought that maybe some sort of negotiation could be worked out. I don’t think anybody thought that they really truly would move—or that the city would agree to allowing them to move.”
We’ve talked a little bit about this white knight idea. This hope that someone would come in to save the day. The person who came the closest was a local billionaire with a love of basketball.
“Steve Ballmer was then the CEO of Microsoft and a great sports fan,” says state Senator Slade Gorton.
Gorton remembers having several conversations with Ballmer and Sonics executive Wally Walker around this time.
Here’s how Wally remembers it: “We couldn’t force the guys from Oklahoma City to sell the team, but we were trying to present an alternative so that there was a pathway if they wanted to. It was a group here that could buy it.”
But Ballmer just wasn’t there yet. At that point, as Gorton remembers it, he wanted to own a team someday, just not yet.
“He was running Microsoft then and he couldn’t do two things at the same time,” Gorton says. “If we’d been two years later or two years earlier and he was about to leave Microsoft, my view is yeah, he would have. He would have bought the Sonics.”
But Ballmer stayed at Microsoft for a few more years. And then, in 2014, he finally decided to buy a team. But by this point, the Sonics were no longer for sale. The Sonics no longer existed. Instead, he bought the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion.
It’s one of the great what-ifs in this story. If Ballmer had just been in a slightly different phase of his career when Gorton and Walker approached him ...
“He’d be running the Sonics rather than the Los Angeles Clippers,” Gorton says. “In that sense, bad timing was very, very costly to us.”
Ballmer may not have been able to buy the team back then, but he still wanted to help out.
“He came up with what I thought was an absolutely extraordinary offer,” Gorton says. ”Steve Ballmer then committed to put $150 million of his own money in a public building. As a gift, basically a charitable donation.
By itself, that $150 million wasn’t going to be enough to fund the arena. They needed at least another $150 million. In the proposal, that money would come from a continuation of the nuisance taxes that helped build Safeco Field—taxes on rental cars, hotels, restaurants.
Seattle would need to vote on a ballot measure to continue those taxes.
If residents approved it, then that money, plus Ballmer’s money, plus another $75 million from the city, would add up to enough to build a new arena. But there was a hitch: There’s a law in Washington that requires any spending measure on any ballot to be approved by the state legislature.
If you want voters to have their say on a spending matter in Seattle or Yakima, Spokane or Bellevue, first you have to take the matter down to the capitol building in Olympia, where David Stern and Howard Schultz showed up a few years earlier.
To the desk of the man who showed no interest in providing taxpayer dollars for a new arena, Washington State House Speaker Frank Chopp. He wouldn’t even bring it to a vote. And Senator Gorton still gets angry when he thinks back on it.
“And he’s gotten away with that all the years since then,” Gorton says.
Now there’s no guarantee the city would have passed the measure if it went on the ballot. Remember that phrase, arena fatigue? There was still a lot of that. But with Ballmer’s gift now a part of the equation, Gorton liked their chances.
“The Seattle Supersonics would be playing at a now different KeyArena this day had Frank Chopp allowed the legislature to pass those bills,” Gorton says.
After the Ballmer gift got shot down, Seattle’s only hope was wrapped up in this pending lawsuit. It would keep the team around until the end of its lease in 2010. It would buy two more years for another solution.
But the way city attorney Tom Carr saw it, that wasn’t exactly the greatest outcome.
“A win meant we got them through 2010,” Carr says. “A loss meant they went right away. So we didn’t have a great deal of leverage. Even a win was not a permanent way to keep the Sonics.”
Whether it was now or later, the Sonics were probably leaving town.