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 planning 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 and 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 also, for good measure, a staunch gay rights opponent, and one of the main funders for the 2004 group, “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” aimed to smear John Kerry’s military record in Vietnam. And he, 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 squelch 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 his piece 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 needs 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.
Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner).
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