A Reader's Guide to What the F Happened with the Sonics

In the wake of last week’s crushing boardroom loss for Chris Hansen, Steve Ballmer, and the collected Seattle gazillionaires trying to bring the Sonics back to the Emerald City, the question becomes: How did a situation that once looked so promising—promising enough that we stuck Shawn Kemp kissing a basketball on the cover of this very paper under the headline “It’s Reigning Again!”—so quickly devolve into yet another heartbreak for Northwest sports fans?

Theories abound. To makes sense of them, we chatted with longtime Seattle sports journalist Art Thiel of Sportspress Northwest to vet the five most popular.

1. Seattle was used as a pawn.

The argument: The NBA used Hansen’s money and Seattle’s eagerness to see pro basketball return as leverage to pressure Sacramento into upping its public investment in the team—in the form of a new sweetheart arena deal. As The Seattle Times’ Jerry Brewer opined, “Hansen really wasn’t competing for the Kings. Seattle existed solely to be used to make Sacramento better in the NBA’s eyes. . . . For the past four months, we have been Stern’s pawn. Now we’re back to being his punch line.”

Thiel’s Take: “I think it was a factor,” says Thiel of this theory. “Just as the NFL has used the vacancy in L.A., it’s always important for [professional sports] leagues to be able to leverage other municipalities with teams with the threat of movement. . . . Whether [the NBA] intended to do that [from the start], it certainly fell into place to use Seattle as an empty vessel for threatening.”

2. NBA owners didn’t like how much private funding the Seattle group was putting up.

The argument: NBA owners are in the business of owning NBA teams for one simple reason: money. And that money becomes a whole lot easier to make if it’s a city, and not themselves, that foots the bulk of the bill for erecting the massive arenas today’s NBA requires. Hansen’s willingness to drop so much of his own coin to help Seattle build its arena and cover operation losses for the first five years represented a terrifying precedent.

Thiel’s Take: While the construction of arenas like L.A.’s Staples Center included private investments, Thiel notes, those investments came from major corporations, not one or two über-wealthy would-be owners. Of Hansen’s guarantee to cover any operation loss within the first five years of ownership, Thiel says: “I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s certainly unusual that a private investor would make such a guarantee. I can’t say if it’s a precedent, but it’s unusual. Hansen’s own generosity in this may have been part of what thwarted him.”

3. The NBA prefers one-team markets.

The argument: In Utah, where the Jazz play, the NBA is the only major sports franchise in town. The same goes for San Antonio, Charlotte, Portland, Memphis, and—yes—Oklahoma City. While there are certainly exceptions, the NBA has shown a historical preference for positioning itself in markets—even smaller markets—where there’s no competition from the mighty NFL or Major League Baseball. It’s part of the NBA’s business plan, and played a part in its decision to stay in Sacramento, a city with no such compettion.

Thiel’s Take: “In most markets where there are NFL and MLB teams, the NBA is the third ticket,” Theil says. “It’s not universal, but in many markets the NBA ticket might be the third [-hottest ticket in town]. A lot of people wonder how the NBA moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City. For sports, [the Thunder] is everything [in OKC]. [The NBA] can brand it their own. . . . Seattle not only has pro football and pro baseball, they are unique in North American sports because they embrace pro soccer.”

4. The NBA always wanted to keep the Kings in Sacramento.

The argument: This decision wasn’t about Seattle, but about Sacramento, and whether the city could do enough to keep its team. “It’s been hard to leave a place that’s been good to the NBA. Leaving a team, leaving a city, leaving a bunch of fans when they stepped up. That’s what it is,” a source told NBA.com’s David Aldridge in late April.

Thiel’s Take: While there’s some truth to statements like this, Theil thinks in the end it was more about the NBA’s ability to make this argument than the argument itself. “The Kings deal had to get relatively close to the Seattle offering, because that way it would be easy for Stern to declare incumbency was the difference.”

5. David Stern hates Seattle.

The argument: How could you not think this, especially after he opened last week’s press conference announcing that Seattle’s bid had been rejected with the statement “This is going to be short for me. I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City”?

Thiel’s Take: “I do think that David Stern has never forgotten the snub he thought he received when he visited the legislature in Olympia in 2006,” says Thiel of the NBA commissioner’s trip to lobby for public money to help keep the Sonics in town and the cold reception he received from the likes of Frank Chopp. “Stern never forgot that, and he’s not fond of the Seattle process—which includes I-91,” the initiative passed overwhelmingly by Seattle voters in 2006 barring the city from supporting pro sports teams with city tax dollars unless those investments make a profit. “The NBA viewed [I-91] as a genuine threat because all of them are used to sweetheart leases. The generous lease terms allow for a better chance at an operating profit on an annual basis. . . . In the monopoly world of pro sports leagues, they consider sweetheart leases part of the deal. For Seattle to take it away by such a significant margin really resonated with Stern. That was basically a ‘Screw you, NBA!’ in Stern’s eyes.”

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