Best-selling and award-winning author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie is a passionate basketball fan, a Seattle resident and a former Sonics season-ticket holder. He spent many seasons working his way from seats atop the lower bowl in Key Arena down to the sixth row behind the bench. When Clay Bennett was trying to break the Sonics’ lease in Seattle to move to Oklahoma, the city called upon him to testify in court on behalf of Sonics fans.
So obviously, Alexie is rooting for the NBA to approve the sale of the Sacramento Kings to Chris Hansen, the hedge fund manager who plans to move the team to Seattle. Right?
“I hope the Kings stay in Sacramento,” Alexie says. “The Seattle Times carried a photo of the last game of the season in Sacramento, and it was a woman holding up a sign, ‘We’re Not Saying Goodbye!’ Those are the exact same signs we were holding up in Seattle before the Sonics moved.”
Seattle was justifiably hurt and outraged when Bennett moved the Sonics to Oklahoma City. So for Seattle to turn around and do the same thing to another city, Alexie says, is just plain wrong. “And I get increasingly frustrated with Seattle fans morally justifying it.”
As David Stern and the NBA continue to drag out the decision on the sale – today is Day 97 of the Kings Held Hostage -- I’m still torn on the issue. I’m definitely rooting for Seattle to get an NBA team, for both civic and personal reasons. The city loyally supported the Sonics for decades only to have them abruptly stolen from us with Stern helping with the getaway van.
On the other hand, I agree with Alexie. I very much want a team here but would feel guilty taking another city’s team. I know the pain of a team leaving a city. I’ve dealt with this virtually my entire life.
I was 8 years old and living in southwest Washington when the Pilots moved from Seattle to Milwaukee at the end of spring training in 1970. I recall listening to the news on the radio and being confused why our team was moving. I still think of that move almost every time I interview Bud Selig.
After the Pilots left, I became a fan of the San Francisco Giants because they were the next closest baseball team, albeit more than 700 miles away. I recall the angst I felt when the Giants nearly moved to Toronto in the 1970s. Considering that the Giants were so far away I could barely listen to their games on the radio, let alone go see them in person, it shouldn’t have mattered to me whether they moved or stayed.
And yet, it did matter. They weren’t just the Giants to me. They were the San Francisco Giants. People often say a team provides identity to a city, but the reverse is also true. A city is as much a part of a team as its players.
Fans understand this, though Stern either doesn’t or simply doesn’t care.
I also was living in the Twin Cities when the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993 as well as when the Minnesota Timberwolves almost moved to New Orleans shortly thereafter. And I was back in Seattle when Howard Schultz sold the Sonics to Bennett, who insisted that he planned to keep the team in our city, all the while plotting to move it to Oklahoma City.
Some people say this is why Seattle’s current situation with the Kings is different from the Oklahoma City deal. They say that unlike Bennett, Hansen is being open and honest about his intention to move the team from Sacramento. As if that justification really matters. I mean, if someone stole my wallet, I wouldn’t feel any better if the thief warned me ahead of time.
As Alexie says, “The moral gymnastics people are performing is sort of nauseating.”
Others point out that teams move all the time in the NBA, which is true. Half the teams in the league started out in another city. Three teams have moved in the past decade. And just look at the Kings. They played nine years in Rochester, 15 years in Cincinnati, 13 years in Kansas City and the past 28 in Sacramento. Seattle would simply be another stop along the way (and hopefully a final stop).
“That’s just another justification,” Alexie says. “‘Hey, it’s been six or seven groups of broken-hearted fans, so why not add on another?’”
In addition to calling Seattle’s push for the Kings a form of bullying -- “Seattle is picking on Sacramento -- it’s like the U.S. invading Grenada” -- Alexie has another more basic opposition to the team moving here. “On a purely basketball level -- they’re terrible. They’re not even terrible in a fun way.”
There is an easy solution to all this, of course. If both cities have potential owners willing to spend around $500 million on a team, and both cities have taxpayers willing to subsidize new, roughly $500 million arenas, the obvious move is to leave Kings in Sacramento and grant an expansion team to Seattle.
That’s the way I want this to work out. It would be a win-win for everyone. Sacramento fans get to keep their team. Seattle fans get a team again free of guilt and with a clean slate. And the owners receive enough money in expansion fees to offset sharing the national revenue pie with another team.
“I’m rooting for the Kings to stay and Seattle to get an expansion team," Alexie says, adding that solution makes perfect sense to him. “But who knows what goes on inside David Stern’s head?"
Indeed. Knowing the way owners usually operate, rather than pursue an option that would bring joy to fans in two cities, they would rather screw over one group and use them as a warning and leverage in future scenarios.
I’m not sure whether Sacramento or Seattle will wind up with the Kings but I do know this: Unless there is expansion, one city is going to feel cheated -- and justifiably so. Which means some other NBA city better keep their hands on their wallets.