This feature pairs with the sixth 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.
When Seattle residents discuss who’s to blame for their city’s loss of the SuperSonics, a few names tend to come up. There’s Clay Bennett, one of the men who bought the team in 2006, then took it to Oklahoma City two years later. There’s former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the man who sold the team to Bennett’s group and is still so reviled in Seattle that questions about the Sonics dogged him through a recently suspended exploration of a presidential bid. There’s then-NBA commissioner David Stern, who allowed the Sonics to leave. And there are the local politicians, who so many in Seattle believe didn’t fight hard enough to make the team stay.
There’s someone else who played a pivotal role, though he rarely gets mentioned. I first hear about him one night in Seattle while interviewing Wally Walker, a former Sonics player and GM who in 2006 served as a minority owner and the team’s CEO. I’m talking to Walker for The Ringer’s documentary podcast Sonic Boom, and I’ve just asked him to talk me through the team’s infamous sale, from Schultz’s group to Bennett’s, the decision that so many in Seattle believe sealed their franchise’s fate. But he begins to talk about another man from Oklahoma, and his introduction to Sonics owners, and the conversations between them that changed everything for Seattle and its team.
“What happened,” Walker says, leaning back to gear up for a long story, “was there was an interested party from Oklahoma City by the name of Ed Evans.”
His name has largely been lost to history. Evans is not considered one of this story’s villains in Seattle, nor one of its heroes in Oklahoma. In the year I spent working on Sonic Boom, I interviewed many people who had little idea who he was, and some who’d never heard his name at all.
Janna Ford, who worked as an executive assistant for the Sonics, remembers meeting Evans before a press conference, talking with him about how much they both loved Seattle, and then never seeing him again. Jeremy Repanich, who worked in guest relations, remembers Evans addressing the staff once, and only once, before he disappeared. “He’s the one I kind of remember comforting us,” Repanich tells me. “It made us staffers afterward go, like, you know what? Maybe they do want to keep us here.” For most in Seattle, though, Evans was never more than a name. “I don’t have any specific memories of Ed Evans,” says Brian Robinson, who cofounded the group Save Our Sonics and worked as one of the most prominent activists in the effort to keep the team in town, “because he was never real and never here.”
But that night in his office, Walker explains why Evans mattered. “Ed Evans,” he says, “was a guy that was known by people in our ownership group.” Evans had amassed some wealth in the wireless communications industry, where he’d gotten to know John Stanton, the former CEO of T-Mobile and a member of the Sonics’ nine-person ownership board. In 2006, Evans told Stanton that he was interested in buying the basketball team. Stanton connected Evans to the rest of the board.
And then, on a conference call, Evans made his case. “He’s like, ‘This is a great market,’” Walker remembers. “‘I love this place. Untapped potential.’” Evans told the board a story of going on his first date with his wife in Seattle, and Walker and the rest of the group listened, encouraged by what they heard. They’d made it clear to potential buyers that they would sell only to someone who meant to keep the team in Seattle. “That was the criterion,” Walker says, “and it was sincere.”
The more Evans talked, the more they liked what he had to say. “We were absolutely convinced because we knew him,” says Walker. “Everything checked out. He said all the right things—that he was sincere that if he and his group bought the team they were keeping it here.”
Walker explains that Sonics ownership group moved forward, and soon they had another call with Evans, who this time was joined by another man who’d become a part of his bid. At the time, he was known in NBA circles as a former part-owner of the San Antonio Spurs. Now, he’s known as the man who whisked away the Sonics, from Seattle to OKC.
Walker didn’t know Bennett. He wasn’t sure he could trust him. Evans had grown up in Florida and seemed untethered to any place. Bennett, though, had deep ties to Oklahoma City, which had just temporarily hosted the New Orleans Hornets and was known around the NBA to be hungry for a team of its own. So when the Sonics ownership group held a vote to decide whether to sell to Evans and Bennett’s group, several weeks after the initial phone calls, Walker got cold feet. From a vacation in France, he voted against the sale. Five members of the nine-member board, though, voted for it. And so, in the summer of 2006, the Seattle SuperSonics were sold.
Much of what came next has long been established in public record. The Oklahoma City ownership group came to Seattle and battled with the local government for a couple of years before eventually moving the franchise away from its home of four decades and down to their own hometown.
But in the years since the sale, Walker has found himself sometimes thinking back on one question.
“What happened to Ed?”
He was the man who first won the Seattle ownership group’s trust. He’s the one who first introduced them to Bennett. Without him, it seems fair to assume, the Sonics never would have been sold to a group of owners from Oklahoma. When the OKC group bought the team, Evans flew to Seattle for the announcement. But when the sale was approved by the NBA’s Board of Governors three months later, his name was no longer listed on official documents.
By the time the deal was finalized, Ed Evans was gone.
When I ask around about him in Seattle, Evans at first seems like a strange, shadowy figure. Even in Oklahoma City, few seem to know much about him. “I looked into him a little bit,” says Berry Tramel, a columnist for The Oklahoman who has covered sports in OKC for more than two decades. “Didn’t really find much.” In the Oklahoma City press, some of the only mentions of Evans revolve around a 2016 lawsuit he filed to reclaim an engagement ring from his ex-fiancée, and her counterclaim in which she described emotional and physical abuse. (Both the claim and counterclaim were dismissed.) But when it comes to his role in the 2006 sale of the Sonics, many people I interview describe Evans with an air of mystery. “He’s such a ghost,” says Repanich. “Ed Evans—where did he go?”
It turns out, though, that Evans was never that difficult to find. He’s still in Oklahoma City. I track him down on Twitter, where he responds almost immediately to a direct message, soon inviting my producer and me to his opulent, massive home. In reporting this podcast, I encountered so many people who refused to be interviewed. Evans, though, seems positively delighted to tell his story of the sale.
Evans served as president and COO of Dobson Communications (which AT&T bought for $2.8 billion in 2007). As his business career progressed, he found himself drawn to sports ownership. “It’s just like this pure, alpha male, ego kind of thing,” he says. In the early aughts he bought a couple of NASCAR teams, and in 2006 he was a “small player” in a failed bid to buy the Washington Nationals.
This was part of the story that led those around the Sonics to find him trustworthy. Evans never seemed hell-bent on bringing a team to Oklahoma. He seemed only to want to find a path to pro sports ownership, in any way he could. “The Nationals—they’re not leaving D.C.,” Repanich remembers thinking. But around that same time, in 2006, Evans saw that his adopted home of Oklahoma City, where he’d moved in 1996, was falling in love with the NBA. When the Hornets temporarily relocated to their city, Oklahoma City adopted the team as its own. “The city,” says Evans, “very quickly became enthralled with the whole idea of it.”
Evans remembers that soon after the Hornets arrived, the city’s business leaders and politicians seized on the opportunity. “The whole mode sort of shifted,” he says. “At that point we went from wanting to host them to wanting [them] to be here permanently.”
So Evans started trying to make it happen. At that time, in fact, a lot of people in Oklahoma City were trying to make it happen. The way he and others tell it, it sounds like any wealthy person, anywhere in Oklahoma, was at some point in touch with then-Hornets owner George Shinn in attempts to make a deal. Sitting there in his home, Evans tells me that he even signed a contract to purchase 49 percent of the team from Shinn.
“There was only one blank that was left on the contract,” Evans says. One more signature he needed to make the deal. The clause, Evans said, stipulated that his group would be able to purchase an additional 2 percent ownership to get a majority stake in the team at some point—“It could be one year, it could be 10 years, it could be upon [Shinn’s] death.”
Shinn never signed. And the deal never went through. And I hear only Evans’s version of this story because a representative for Shinn says that he doesn’t comment on unconsummated deals. But Evans says he was left looking for other options to get into the league.
Even though that deal was dead, Oklahoma City still wanted to keep the Hornets. And Evans says that around this same time, Oklahoma City banker Jeff Records, now a part-owner of the Thunder, called together a group of prominent local businessmen, all of whom were trying to buy the team. (I requested an interview with Records through the Thunder, but they declined.) The names of which businessmen were trying to buy the Hornets was an open secret in certain OKC circles, and Evans says Records wanted to “bring all these disparate groups together and present one face, so we weren’t bidding against each other.”
So Evans says he started going to regular meetings with Records, Bennett, natural gas baron Aubrey McClendon, and others from the Oklahoma City business community. He remembers feeling a little out of place when this group got together. “Most of these people in this group had all grown up together,” Evans says. “They all went to high school together; they knew each other. I was clearly the outsider in this group. I mean, A: I’m not in the financial bracket that they’re in.” (Evans puts his own net worth in the tens of millions and says that others in this group were worth much more.) “B: I’m not from Oklahoma City.”
Still, he was, at least nominally, now part of their club. Week after week, they would meet and pass along status updates from their own dealings, all of them strategizing how to buy the Hornets and keep them in town.
At some point during this process, Evans says, he got a call from Jason Cahilly, then a partner at Goldman Sachs, which Schultz’s group had hired to help them facilitate a sale. This call would lead to Evans’s conversation with John Stanton, and eventually the entire Schultz group. (When contacted by The Ringer, Cahilly declined to comment.)
“We understand you’re interested in a basketball team,” Evans remembers Cahilly saying.
It was true. Evans was.
“Are you aware that the Sonics are for sale?” Evans remembers Cahilly asking.
“No,” Evans said. “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Yeah,” Evans says Cahilly told him. “And they’re portable.”
The Sonics’ lease at KeyArena was set to expire four years later, in 2010. Once out of their lease, the team would be free to move.
It’s hard to know what to think about so much of what Evans says, in large part because so many of the people he mentions refuse to be interviewed when I ask. But in the places where the timelines of Evans’s and Walker’s stories overlap, they’re consistent. Like Walker, Evans says that he knew Stanton, the former T-Mobile CEO and Sonics minority owner (who also declined to be interviewed), and that Stanton vouched for him to Schultz and the rest of the board.
After Stanton introduced Evans to the Sonics owners, Evans says he opened up his options. He remained connected to the Oklahoma City group that had been focused on the Hornets, but he also began putting together a group of investors from his contacts in private equity, scattered across the country, with an eye on buying the Sonics. The private equity group made a bid.
“Their baby was up for adoption,” Evans says. “Who’s going to take it over, right? They wondered who the parents were going to be.” Walker remembers Evans making it clear that he wanted to keep the team in Seattle. But when I talk to Evans, his feelings on the matter seem more complicated, his thinking seeming to shift during the interview. “Plan A is to get a new arena in Seattle,” Evans says at first. “And oh, by the way, if you couldn’t pull it off you had a pretty good backup plan,” down in Oklahoma City. Later, though, Evans seems to waffle, talking as if he saw Oklahoma City as his first choice. When asked about his dreams for the franchise, Evans says, “I mean, my daydream was that I was gonna get to be the CEO of an NBA franchise in Oklahoma City and everything that went with that. I’d get to go to the games at night knowing that I had a piece of this thing and had all of it that goes with it. I mean, it’s just an incredible feeling when you’ve got that going on.”
Each possibility had its own merits. Keeping the team in Seattle would make for a better investment. That city had a longer basketball history, a larger population, and deeper pockets than OKC. Moving the team south, though, would make Evans a hero in his new hometown. So even as he convinced Sonics ownership that he wanted to keep the team in the Pacific Northwest, internally, Evans went back and forth, not quite sure exactly what he wanted.
After putting together his bid with contacts across the country, he made his pitch to Sonics owners in Seattle. But now, back in Oklahoma City, Evans was still part of the other group of businessmen who’d been working to buy the Hornets.
He thought he should update them. So, he says, he called Bennett.
“Clay,” Evans remembers saying, “I think I bought a basketball team.”
“What?” he remembers Bennett responding. (Through the Thunder, Bennett also declined an interview request.)
“Yeah. I think we’re there.”
In truth, they still had a ways to go before a deal would become final. But Evans had plenty of reason for optimism. His group had offered $350 million, full asking price, a number that Walker says he never expected anyone would be willing to pay.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. But the way Evans recounts it, at some point between making that initial offer and moving toward the final stages of the deal, he changed the composition of the group. He says he invited some members of the Oklahoma City community onboard, replacing some of the original investors from the private equity world. No one else involved in the bid from Oklahoma City confirmed this. But it matches Walker’s memory of the nature of the bid changing between the initial offer and the Seattle group’s vote to finalize the sale.
Though he starts by calling Seattle his first option and relocation a backup plan, later in the interview, Evans says that he saw the two possibilities as equally likely, “50-50.” But as he made this decision, Evans was preparing for the likelihood that the team might move. He says he invited Bennett and others onboard to avoid alienating the corporate community in OKC. “You know, you just have a lot of guys there that really wield most of the sponsorship dollars in this city,” he says. “And by not including them, what are you doing there?”
Even after Bennett joined the bid and gave Walker cold feet, the Seattle owners decided, in a 5-4 vote of their nine-member board, to go through with the sale. The deal was done. Evans and Bennett and the rest of the OKC group had just bought themselves a basketball team. Seattle’s basketball team. The contract included a clause requiring the new group to show “good faith best efforts” to get a new arena built in the Seattle area. Evans and Bennett boarded a plane to Seattle for the announcement of the sale. And on that plane, they had a conversation.
Evans remembers Bennett telling him that he’d been talking with the other members of the ownership group. Together, they’d reached a decision. Says Evans: “They weren’t comfortable with me being the CEO.”
In our interview, Evans doesn’t fully explain why. He only says, “I was this, you know, unknown entity to them.” Just like that, the roles had shifted. Evans was out as the face of the ownership group.
That quickly, Evans’s dream of working as CEO of a professional sports franchise, whether in Seattle or Oklahoma City or anywhere else, was dead. He could still be a part of the ownership group—he’d brokered the deal, after all—but he couldn’t be CEO. Evans insists he wasn’t hurt by the decision. He calls it “disappointing” but “understandable” and says, “Again, I was this unknown entity to them.”
We’re near the end of a two-hour interview in which Evans has talked about his dream of running a pro sports team as CEO, but now he seems to shrug off the memory of his coinvestors pushing him out of that role. I try to probe, to get a better sense of exactly what happened or exactly how Evans felt, but he only says: “I never felt angry about it. The way I would explain it is that 80 percent of my excitement was being part of an NBA pro team. Twenty percent of my excitement was about the opportunity to run it. So taking away 20 percent of the excitement didn’t mute the 80 percent.”
According to Evans, even once he was out as CEO, he still remained part of the new ownership group once they arrived in Seattle. They had dinner at Schultz’s home—a pleasant, cordial evening, he remembers. And then they prepared for the press conference. Schultz, Walker, and Bennett all took the stage. Evans remained off-stage, talking with Sonics staffers about the new ownership group’s plans. Weeks passed. Oklahoma City’s new ownership group began their fight with local government, at least going through the motions of trying to get a new arena deal done in the Seattle area.
And this, Evans says, is when he started to think about scaling down. He wasn’t going to be CEO, and now he saw that the fight between city and team would soon turn contentious. And so he says he started to wonder whether he wanted to remain a part of the ownership group at all. “We got closer to the closing,” he says, “and things are becoming more dramatic, and it just felt right for me to kind of back out of it at that point and say, ‘You guys do it. This is the right thing for you. Have fun.’”
As Evans talks, he doesn’t sound like a man of great mystery. But so much of what he says still leads to yet more questions. I don’t know why the rest of the ownership group pushed him out as would-be CEO. I don’t know whether anything else happened to make him decide to pull out of the group. Without hearing from the others mentioned, I don’t even know the full details of the stories he tells.
But I know this: Evans was uniquely positioned to win the Schultz group’s trust, while at the same time remaining on the periphery of the business community in OKC. Distant enough to avoid relocation suspicion, but close enough that when the deal was coming together, he could turn to Bennett and others and invite them in.
When Evans invited the other Oklahomans into the deal, he may have changed the course of the franchise. And on that plane ride to Seattle, the Oklahomans sealed Evans’s own. Evans lost his dream of becoming a team’s CEO. Soon enough, Seattle would lose its dream of holding on to its team. And so I asked him, as he watched the Sonics move to Oklahoma City and become the Thunder, and as he watched Seattle mourn the loss of its team, did he look back on the team’s sale with a sense of fondness, or a sense of regret?
“Complete fondness,” Evans says.
No matter what Walker and the other Seattle owners believed about his motives, no matter what Evans said his goals were at the time, no matter the fact that he never became CEO, at the end of the interview, Evans says he got what he wanted.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “it met objective one, right? Let’s get a team in Oklahoma City.” And so no, there’s no regret. None at all.
“It’s all good.”