For everyone who thinks sports should bolster and not betray communities, consider this a call to arms. NBA commissioner David Stern has let it be known that when it comes to the battle for the Sonics, he will stand with owner Clay Bennett and his Oklahoma rustlers over the basketball fans of Seattle. Bennett, a man who has spent less time in Seattle than the sun, has made it clear that unless a deluxe, publicly funded arena is built, he will take "his team" and move it to his home base in Oklahoma City (the city of Seattle has resisted his efforts). Without shame, Bennett is holding economic hostage a city with serious education and health care shortfalls.
Stern's recent comments show that he will back the billionaire Bennett over the people who have supported the Sonics for four decades. "I'd love to find a way to keep the team there," he said, "because if the team moves, there's not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision, and that would be too bad."
This hasn't exactly been a great recent run for Stern -- what with a betting scandal involving a referee, the flap over his dress code and a failed experiment with a synthetic basketball -- but this moment is his absolute nadir. Stern is siding with a man who has made it his intention from Day 1 to break Seattle's heart by any means necessary. Bennett hasn't acted in bad faith, he has acted in no faith.
"When the team was bought from the previous ownership, they told us and everybody in the city that they sold it to a group that they thought would most likely keep the team in the city," former Sonics star Ray Allen, who was traded to the Celtics last offseason, told the Boston Globe. "Everybody thought that was some [garbage]. How is someone from Oklahoma City going to buy a team in Seattle who doesn't have any ties [in Seattle] and has big money in Oklahoma? If things don't go right, everybody's craving for the team to move to Oklahoma City."
Bennett has already filed for relocation. His minority partner Aubrey McClendon said in August that Bennett's group "didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle." There is a slight problem, however, with the plan to put the team in Sooner country: The Sonics' lease at Seattle's KeyArena lasts through the 2009-2010 season.
Bennett has thrown a tantrum in the face of this stubborn fact, taking a scorched-earth approach of insulting Seattle fans until they beg him to leave. His lawyers have called Sonics boosters agitating to keep the team a "disturbing fringe element," and also claimed that "a majority of the public has accepted the team's imminent departure. The sentiment among many is, 'Who cares?' " Amazing how clear a view of Seattle Bennett can have from across the country.
By siding with Bennett and McClendon, Stern is also giving the back of his hand to the WNBA. The Seattle Storm's two high-profile stars, Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, have shown no interest in moving to Oklahoma City. Additionally, the WNBA, with its substantial lesbian fan base, probably wouldn't be thrilled to see McClendon in the owner's box, a man who teamed with fellow minority owner Tom Ward to give more than $1 million to an organization called Americans United to Preserve Marriage, a group that opposes gay marriage.
It's time to stop the madness. From Slick Watts to Shawn Kemp, from the Xavier McDaniel scene in Singles to Tom Chambers' mullet, from Shawn Kemp to Bird, the SuperSonics -- and the Storm -- are Seattle. To the people of the Emerald City, it's time to go on offense. Until now, you have threatened lawsuits to keep the team an extra couple years. But that will just delay Bennett's agenda. It's time to get serious. It's time to talk municipalization.
Municipalization means turning the Sonics into a public utility; call it a kind word for expropriation. Basketball fans should press the state of Washington to sue for the right to buy the team back from Clay and his cronies. They should claim that the SuperSonics and Storm are the intellectual property -- the eminent domain -- of the people of Seattle, and therefore the city has far more of a claim on the team than the Bennetts of Oklahoma.
The Sonics should get their new arena, but instead of the proceeds going to build another wing on Bennett Manor, the funds would go to rebuilding the city's health care and educational infrastructure. Imagine seeing someone wearing a Kevin Durant jersey on the street and knowing that instead of draining the tax base of a city, it was paying for new textbooks in a public school classroom. Does this seem far-fetched? Ask the city of Green Bay, where the beloved Packers are actually publicly owned. They are the only publicly owned team in the United States. It's time to add to that list.
This is bigger than the Sonics. This is about drawing a line against the subsidizing of stadiums by which public monies are delivered to private hands. No more Mr. Flannel-Shirted Nice Guy. The Sonics stay in Seattle. They belonged to the Emerald City long before they belonged to Clay Bennett.
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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