Red State Hoops: The Oklahoma City Thunder and the value of Seattle's rage

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a stolen franchise, having been torn from Seattle in 2008. A mere four years later, they are in the NBA Finals three wins away from becoming champions. They are also being relentlessly promoted by the NBA and their network partners as a team to love. We are told to see them as America's Sweethearts with their small town vibe, roaring crowds, and exuberant fans in color coded shirts that all read, ”Team is Family.” They are the brilliant culmination of a strategy meeting NBA Commissioner David Stern had with Republican strategist Matthew Dowd about how to give the league "red state appeal." This was in conjunction with the NBA's establishment of a dress code, road behavior guidelines, and a general sense of rather blunt unease from David Stern that a league built on a foundation of black, inner-city talent would repel wealthier white fans.

You don't get much more "red state" than Oklahoma, where every district voted for John McCain in 2008, the only state that can make that claim. You don't get more red state than an arena named after minority owner Aubrey McClendon's Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a company that makes its profits through “fracking," the practice of splitting open the earth to extract more oil and natural gas. “Fracking” has been linked to earthquakes, toxic contamination of drinking water, and global warming. According to studies, it actually causes greater degrees of global warming than coal. Not surprisingly, McClendon is a climate change denier. He’s for good measure a staunch gay rights opponent, and one of the main funders for the 2004 group, “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" aimed at smearing John Kerry's military record in Vietnam. He also, like majority owner and major Republican donor Clay Bennett, took hundreds of millions in corporate welfare to move to OKC. It's all so very "red state appeal."

It's not surprising that the NBA is promoting the Thunder like they’re the team from Walnut Grove. It's also not surprising that every effort is being made to eliminate any discussion during broadcasts of their Seattle roots. More surprising by far is how much traction this line of thinking has among those who should know better.

ESPN's Bill Simmons who once railed against the move to Oklahoma City, promising to only refer to the new team as "The Zombie Sonics", has learned to stop worrying and embrace the Thunder. In a column titled - I wish I was joking - "Thunder Family Values" Simmons writes about his newfound love for Oklahoma City, it’s exuberant fans, and the general vibe of the entire region. He ends by writing, "I found myself feeling happy for the Oklahoma City fans after they clinched Game 1….Is it possible to feel happy for Oklahoma City while continuing to feel absolutely, unequivocally terrible for Seattle? Actually, yes."

Nowhere in the column can you find the words “Clay Bennett” or “Aubrey McClendon.” It’s as if The Team Fairy, or the NBA Stork took the Sonics and delivered them to Oklahoma City.

Simmons's embrace is probably not too surprising. His job, and he's very good at it, is romanticizing the sports world and convincing us that shit doesn't stink. Far more eye opening is the similar message sent by Seattle Sonics legend Gary Payton. Payton is someone who attended rallies aimed at saving the Sonics and was vocal in his criticism of the move. But the man known as “the Glove” said in a radio interview this week, “It's not our team anymore, let's move on and get our own team, get our own team and then we don't even have to worry about that team anymore and can go on about our business and make it what it's supposed to be which is to have our own team.”

With all due respect to "the Glove", this is wrong and “moving on” is the last thing Seattle should do. To my sisters and brothers in Seattle: don't get over it. Your anger is just and you should keep those embers of rage alive. I’m not just saying this because I have a whole family of elders from Brooklyn who never forgave Walter O'Malley for taking the Dodgers to Los Angeles. [Family joke: if you have Hitler, Stalin, and O'Malley in a room and a gun with just two bullets what do you do? You shoot O'Malley twice to make sure he's dead.]

This isn’t about spite or jealousy or anything of the sort. It’s about protecting the future of hoops in the Emerald City. Basketball will return to Seattle. There are too many teams that have lost too much money and Seattle has the income, the passion, and the real estate to make it happen. There will be a Sonics again because the NBA needs Seattle even more than Seattle need the NBA.

But on what terms will the Sonics come back? The people of Seattle took a principled stand against being ripped off by the NBA, and handing billionaires a $300 million bounty of corporate welfare. All of that courage, drama, and pain will have been for nothing if they just accept the terms that David Stern will attempt to impose. There is much you can do especially when the NBA demands a new arena as a precondition for pro ball to return. You can demand private funding for the new facility like they did in Philadelphia. Or you can demand a dollar of public ownership for every tax dollar that goes into the team. You can point to Green Bay and say, “If the Packers have fan ownership, then why can’t we?” It’s not just about having the Sonics return but how they return. Until that day, we should all hope to see the Thunder fall flat. Let every owner itching to move their team to greener pastures, see that it’s not all parades and glory. If Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon don't believe in climate change, let them believe in karma.

12 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Doubling down on PC Sports

Good gawd, doubling down on PC sports . . .

You're seriously going to start dissing an entire fan based on stereotypes about their electoral college voting?

This is poisonous identity politics. You're a disgusting demagogue.

Ted Arison (pop to Mickey) of the Miami Heat renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid the estate tax.

Plus they have all those meanie Cuban-Americans who tell the truth about Zirin's hero Fidel Castro.

Doubling down on PC Sports

Good gawd, doubling down on PC sports . . .

You're seriously going to start dissing an entire fan based on stereotypes about their electoral college voting?

This is poisonous identity politics. You're a disgusting demagogue.

Ted Arison (pop to Mickey) of the Miami Heat renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid the estate tax.

Plus they have all those meanie Cuban-Americans who tell the truth about Zirin's hero Fidel Castro.

My question to you Tornado is.. .

How much do you get paid to point fingers, name call and try to intimidate Dave Zirin? Must be better than holding down a real job, right?

The only thing I know for certain is that Zirin reads your stuff, and gets a great laugh out of it. And so do I.

co-sign, Colin

Me too, ColinSTL!

Seattle took a stand, but what lesson did they teach?

I agree with the second-to-last paragraph, except to expand on the point that Seattle will not suffer one iota for lack of an NBA team. Meanwhile the NBA lost a market that everybody other than Bennett/McClendon would have preferred to keep. Unlike most, I include Stern in that, despite appearances to the contrary. Keep in mind that a commissioner works for the owners, and you don't badmouth one of your bosses unless you know for fact that your other bosses have your back.

However, some details I have not heard addressed--here or elsewhere--in the whole Supersonic exodus involve the protocols of stadium funding. First off, the city owns Key Arena, so it is not out of line to ask a landlord for upgrades to a building as part of lease negotiation. If you expect to renew a lease on a house or office, it is standard practice to ask for modifications. The owner--be it municiple or private--can agree to all, some, or none of the changes, depending on what makes the most business sense. A stadium deal can certainly be bad for the city, but it is not automatically so.

From the standpoint of the Sonics, yes, the citizens of Seattle took a stand, but what message did they actually send? In 1996, they agreed to fund Safeco to the tune of $520 million. In 1997 they signed off on $430 million for CenturyLink (nee Qwest) field. That's 2 large, highly specialized arenas with limited versatility. The latter is basically unusable throughout winter, and the Sounders and Seahawks combined provide less than 40 home engagements per calendar year. Further, the Mariners and Seahawks had been between disappointing and terrible throughout their histories. Meanwhile, the city's oldest, most successful pro franchise asked for $220 million to upgrade a building that can be used year-round for almost any type of live event, and THAT was appalling? That's like buying a new car for your chronically truent son, a new motorcycle for the slacker son, and then lecturing the B- student son about the value of hard work when he asks for a rail pass.

Thanks for the nice words Rob.

Really appreciate them. And we all know Tornado always ignores my comments--which I'm OK with actually. Think we'd ever get any honest answers from him anyway?

Kinda doubt it, don'tcha think?


Schultz`s demands on the city went way beyond your description of the situation. He was demanding 100% city financing for a new arena and for revenue collection non-Sonics evevts. A complete non starter for Seattle Center arena. Not the kind of demands your typical citizen or business tentant makes on his landlord, unless he happens to be a spoiled billionaire NBA owner.

Also public funding of new stadiums for the Hawks and Mariners was forced onto Seattle against the will of the voters. We didn`t want to subsidize any of these forms of expensive private entertainment.

Dave: Howard Schultz is also villified for selling the team to a ownership he knew would move the team.

SafeCo Field Financing...

In response to Aaron,

You have some good points, but I have to add one comment, as a long time Seattle resident. The Safeco Field financing was voted down twice by Seattle votes before being pushed through by politicians in the end against popular opinion. Similar dissatisfaction was bubbling when Qwest Field came up, which was also funded despite mediocre popular support.
Otherwise you make some fair points.

To rick & DJ DISCourse

Very well. If that is the case, then so be it. There are sports teams that manage to operate in municipally owned buildings either for free, or for way below what would otherwise be market value. I expect team owners to try this, and if a guy like Paul Allen succeeds, then a Howard Schultz will think he should be entitled to the same. Most major sport team owners are billionnaires. Almost by definition, such men have frequently gotten their way, legally or otherwise.

The more I look at the Sonics' exit, the more I wonder whether Schultz actually expected to get his funding, or if he asked for a package knowing he probably wouldn't get it, thus giving him an out for selling the team. Every factor indicates he was out of his depth with NBA ownership. As aggressively as he pimped out the team to out-of-state suitors, he was actually lucky that Clay Bennett was so unappealing to the Emerald City. It distracted people from Schultz's own incompetence and insincerity.

A metro area with as many educated, well-healed denizens with as much discretionary income as Seattle, sports leagues need that city more than vice-versa, which I always thought was the case here, much as I think would have been the case had the Vikings left Minnesota recently.

dz cuts deep!

I was born in Tulsa and extremely excited that the Thunder made it to the finals.

I'm also really politically active in the progressive community. And after reading DZ's column just now, I sorta wish I hadn't - only because the smalltown kid in me wanted to swallow the tripe the NBA was selling about OKC. I've been there a lot and know that I'd never want to live there and seen some pretty horrible racism there. But a little part of me wanted to ignore that and "thunder up" and go to some place that never existed. Thanks for smashing my rose colored glasses, DZ. While reading the article was tough, it was medicine I sorely needed.

My coworker went to school with DZ and talked about how everywhere he went-at a party, in class, waiting in line-DZ was agitating fellow progressives and making them stay true to themselves. Must have been awesome.

Speaking of Red State fans...

Of course we all know who the biggest conservative basketball fan is: Burt Gummer of Perfection, Nevada! You almost never see him without that dusty old Atlanta Hawks cap: even while firing at Graboids!

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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
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