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Feats of Clay & Stern

By: Jeff Shelley


The year was 1979 and that day in June was sunny and beautiful. My then wife picked me up in our 1959 Chrysler Imperial after I finished a shift at a pathology lab on Seattle's Capital Hill. I had just gotten out of college with an English degree in Creative Writing and the job was an interim way to support my family while trying to get hired someplace as a writer. Also in the car was our 9-month-old daughter, Erica. After giving a kiss to Anita and Erica, I got behind the wheel of the 5,700-pound car I dubbed "The Whale" in homage to Hunter Thompson and immediately switched the radio dial to the Sonics-Bullets game for what turned out to be the finale of that year's NBA Championship Series.

After picking up some groceries we headed home, hopefully in time to watch the second half on TV. But while en route our big, black, ridiculously chromed "land ferry" slowed to a halt in a neighborhood that was one of Seattle's ritziest. There was no chance the finned beast was going to restart. So I sent my wife to a nearby mansion - feeling she'd be less likely to be turned away than me, by now not happy at all - to call a tow truck. I stayed with the car, the groceries and held Erica. Thank God the battery hadn't died and I could continue to monitor the game's progress.

I pulled out a cold beer and listened to the action while sitting on a curb with the Chrysler's door opened. It was just me and Erica, and Sonic announcer Bob Blackburn's disembodied voice revealing the details of that far-off game in Washington, D.C. Eventually the tow truck arrived, hauling our cantankerous vehicle and new family back to the modest home we rented in north Seattle. After paying the driver, cursing our automotive anti-Christ and hauling in the groceries, I turned on the television.

There were just a few minutes left of what turned out to be the finale of the only championship victory in Sonics' history. Indeed, it's still the only championship won by a Seattle pro-sports team other than the Metropolitans' victory in hockey's first-ever Stanley Cup in 1917 and the Seattle Storm's WNBA title in 2004.

When Sonics' guard Gus Williams threw the basketball into the rafters at the final buzzer and Bullets' coach Dick Motta - the man who coined the phrase, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" - and Sonics' coach Lenny Wilkens shook hands, our house erupted. Anita could care less about sports, but on that day we danced around the living room to Erica's rapt amazement. Our hometown team had won the best-of-seven series four games to one.

A few minutes passed before catching what I consider one of the most hilarious sounds I've ever heard coming from the street in front of our house. My neighbor, a long-haired hippie named Dave, was marching down the road with his roommate in lock-step. The two were playing "When the Saints Come Marching Home" on kazoos in celebration of the Sonics. We soon joined them out in the street with other neighbors who came out of their houses.

A couple of days later, after the team arrived home and many private parties saluted "our team's victory," a massive parade took place in downtown Seattle. The police estimated the crowd that sun-washed day at half a million. People - including several of the workers I was supposed to be supervising - were hanging off rooftops as the Sonics - gunner "Downtown" Freddy Brown, Jack Sikma, Series MVP Dennis Johnson, Williams, John Johnson, Lonnie Shelton, Paul Silas, et al - stood on truck beds, reveling in the confetti-flying afternoon, one of the finest days in Seattle sports history.

Now, the Sonics, an NBA fixture for 41 years, are on the brink of moving to Oklahoma City. No knock on OKC and its wonderful citizens, but to this basketball fan, the Sonics belong in Seattle. (Side note: Dozens of Oklahomans have sent letters to the city's two major dailies, expressing regret and empathy with our plight.)

I've attended a couple of amazing sporting events in my lifetime, including the final game of the 1977 NBA Finals in which Bill Walton led the Portland Trailblazers past the Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Irving, George McGinnis and World B Free. Particularly memorable in that game was observing an enraptured fan sitting and being lifted a good three feet into the air by a huge water fountain outside the old Portland Coliseum. Talk about an enema.

The other came in 1995 when the "Refuse to Lose" Mariners won 25 of their last 36 games, beat the Angels in a thrilling one-game playoff after finishing in a tie with Anaheim during the regular season, then came from an 0-2 deficit to knock off the vaunted Yankees in a rocking Kingdome to win the fifth and final game in their first-ever post-season appearance. I was in the stands along the left-field line when Edgar Martinez hit the double over the shortstop's head and into the gap that brought in a streaking Ken Griffey Jr. for the winning run. The pile of humanity, with future superstar Alex Rodriguez gleefully on the bottom, was one of the most deliriously joyful moments I've ever experienced. I don't think my feet touched the ground while leaving the Kingdome that evening.

So much for memories; at least those aren't going anywhere. Sadly, the same can't be said for the Sonics - and perhaps other teams - as today's NBA is apparently unconcerned about fan interest and team traditions.

Clay Bennett and his wealthy friends from Oklahoma City bought the Sonics' franchise from Starbucks' CEO and Seattleite Howard Schultz in 2006 and, despite assertions to the contrary, have been engineering the team's move to their hometown ever since. NBA Commissioner David Stern has supported the move, justifying the decision because the city of Seattle, King County and the state of Washington rejected a demand by Bennett and Co. that the citizens finance roughly 80 percent of a new $500 million multipurpose arena.

Interestingly, in 1995 Stern extolled the then newly remodeled Key Arena You Tube, calling it "very special to me . . . a beautiful building, intimate, site lines are great . . . and that the city of Seattle should be very proud of it."

Bennett and Stern now claim that Key Arena, the Sonics' longtime home, is grossly deficient and no longer "state of the art." They said it doesn't have room for more luxury suites and other publicly-funded, revenue-generating "amenities" that will line the billionaire's pockets. In response, pissed-off Seattleites voted overwhelmingly for I-91, an initiative that restricts sports leases within the city. So, with wholehearted backing by the NBA, the Sonics' owners are gassing up the moving vans, leaving over a hundred local staff out of work and casting a cloud on businesses around the Seattle Center and Key Arena.

After much back-and-forth whining by both Bennett and public officials, each accusing another of, essentially, a lack of support for their respective points of view, the issue of the Sonics moving to OKC is now closer to reality. On April 18, the NBA owners, by a vote of 28-2 (with nays cast by Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban and Portland Trailblazers' boss Paul Allen - a Seattle citizen by the way), approved the move.

Despite the owners backing the relocation, the situation is still in flux as a lawsuit filed by the city against Bennett's group claims that the team should honor the final two years of its lease. That suit is nearing a court date. Adding to the increasingly loud snarl is legal action by Schultz against the team's buyers. Schultz claims that, and with good reason, if email records between Bennett and his cronies are any indication, the OKC group never intended to keep the team in Seattle and that they acted in "bad faith." (This was evidenced when one of the partners, Aubrey McClendon, wrote in mid-2007: "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle." That slip of the tongue earned McClendon a $250,000 fine from Stern. At least McClendon admitted what everyone assumed.)

Under the new ownership group the Sonics have endured the worst two years in their history. The once-proud franchise - which besides winning the championship in 1979 and finishing second the year before and making several playoff appearances since - had only 20 wins this year, its poorest mark ever. During their brief tenure at the team's helm the owners cashiered all-pros Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, dumped several other skilled veterans, and basically threw head coach P.J. Carlesimo under the bus with an ill-equipped squad of rookies and past-their-prime old-timers. The intent, implicit or not, was to erode local fan support, thus turning them off to the team and making the move to OKC more palatable to season ticket holders and others who attend the games.

As far as our Royal & Ancient Game goes, I'm just glad that golf courses don't lose their "state-of-the-art" nature. Older layouts might lack the length necessary to thwart today's high-tech clubs and balls, but they're still functional, enjoyable and popular places to be. If the NBA's leaders ruled the game of golf, any course - whether "state-of-the-art" or not - would likely experience the same fate as NBA arenas, such as what's happening with the Seattle Supersonics' long-time home at Key Arena. And that would be sad for the local golfers who walk those aged fairways and treat such facilities as their "home away from home."

I've thought relatively hard and long about this, but I can't find an equivalent situation to such callousness in golf. Though Seattle Supersonics' basketball games are not on the same level as the Masters Tournament, except perhaps to diehard non-golfing Sonics' fans, Stern's actions and bilious comments would be like Tim Finchem calling out Augusta National as no longer acceptable for the season's first major. Perhaps a more parallel analogy would be the PGA commissioner stating that Muirfield Village in Columbus, Ohio, isn't good enough to hold The Memorial Tournament, or that TPC Sawgrass is outdated and incapable of hosting the Players Championship.

To Stern and the NBA, which will receive $30 million in relocation fees from Bennett & Co. once the litigation is settled and the team moves to OKC, the value of tradition - and, indeed, the very meaning of franchise - is worthless when its leaders allow big bucks to enter so deeply into the equation. Exactly who is benefiting from the NBA: the fans, the city or the league's ultra-rich owners? Based on the recent relocation vote backed by Stern and endorsed by the team owners, the answer is pretty clear.

Golf would never settle for such shortsighted money-grubbing. It's simply too undignified. Unless an earthquake tumbles it into the Pacific Ocean, Pebble Beach will remain a West Coast icon, Pine Valley will retain that same role on the Eastern Seaboard, and golf will continue its rich and untrammeled tradition because the game's leaders inherently care about its history, players and fans.

Golf is quite unlike professional basketball, which under the leadership of Stern has eroded the value of the league and its individual franchises by ignoring fan loyalty and requiring cash-strapped cities to defer more pressing needs to fund mega-palaces for wealthy team owners. It's possible that Seattle may once again have another NBA team. But Stern's acrimony, venal actions and petty recriminations directed at local elected officials make that a long shot.

Golf is all about fairness, with players calling penalties on themselves whenever and wherever a rule is broken. If the NBA instituted such self-policing, Stern, Bennett and the league's owners were about 6-over par before they even teed off on this relocation business.

As a game of rules and self-awareness, golf has two primary anathemas: sleaziness and deceit, exactly what the Sonics' situation reeks of. The NBA may have the world's greatest athletes, but in carpet-bagging instances such as this league integrity is thrown out the window in pursuit of the almighty buck.

On April 21 - after the owners' vote - Stephen Silver of the North Star Writers Group put the situation in perspective: "The NBA has stepped in before to stop a shady-seeming sale/relocation - the Minnesota Timberwolves' aborted 1994 move to New Orleans by boxing promoters - so it would behoove Stern and the owners to take the side of Seattle in crafting a solution that puts more honest bosses in charge, and keep the Sonics where they belong."

Kind of like where and how the world's great and not-so-great golf courses remain situated, and will stay that way thanks to leaders who care about the game. So to fans of the NBA's other teams, I say: Beware that "state-of-the-art" means nothing with the David Stern at the helm.