How long should fans stew over lost teams?
June, 21, 2012
By Doug Williams | Special to ESPN.com
ESPN.com IllustrationAdam Brown isn’t willing to forgive or forget.
He’s guarding his grudges with the same intensity Gary Payton used to lock down opposing scorers.
Brown, one of the producers of the “Sonicsgate” documentary, which examines the team’s departure and those responsible for it, couldn’t hang on to his beloved SuperSonics. But he’s not letting go of his hatred for the people who ripped them away from Seattle.
“We’re going to hold on to those tough feelings for a while,” says Brown, who’s been rooting for the Miami Heat to beat the transplanted Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. “I don’t foresee getting over it anytime soon, unless we get a guarantee of a team coming back here. The team was here for 41 years and they’ve only been gone for four, so maybe talk to me in another 37 years and I’ll start getting over it.”
All over Seattle and Washington state, former fans of the Sonics are feeling as if salt has been poured into a wound. First, their Sonics were taken. Now the franchise -- with star Kevin Durant, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year his one season in Seattle -- is in the Finals.
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonPotential NBA investor Chris Hansen and former Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf speak at a recent rally in Seattle to bring a franchise back to the city.
Seattleites have nothing against the players, but have plenty of venom for owner Clay Bennett, who moved the team; former owner Howard Schultz, who sold it to Bennett; and the NBA and local and state governments for not stopping the perceived hijacking.
But there’s no way they want to see Bennett with the championship trophy, whether it’s this year or in the future. That would be too much to endure.
Paul Merrill, one of three founders of the SuperSonicSoul website, got hooked on the Sonics as a kid when they won the 1979 title and jokes that he once thought about naming his children after Xavier McDaniel and Shawn Kemp. He says he can’t help hating Bennett and Schultz and wanting the Thunder to lose.
“You can’t root for your ex-girlfriend to do better than you,” he says, laughing. “That’s what it feels like. And it’s purely petty, just bitter feelings, and I can’t justify it. But that’s how everything is in sports. It’s all emotional and non-logical.”
Add Bennett and Schultz to a long list of villains in the pantheon of the Hated Owners Hall of Fame. Long before Seattle lost its Sonics, Brooklyn lost its Dodgers, Baltimore lost its Colts, Cleveland lost its Browns and Rochester, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Omaha all waved goodbye to just one franchise, the Royals/Kings.
Walter O’Malley of the Dodgers, Horace Stoneham of MLB’s Giants, Robert Irsay of the Colts, Art Modell of the Browns, Georgia Frontiere of the Rams, George Shinn of the Hornets, Bud Adams of the NFL’s Oilers, Norm Green of the North Stars, Bill Bidwill of the NFL’s Cardinals and Al Davis of the Raiders had their names transformed into epithets before Bennett was cursed in Seattle.
While Seattle’s wound is fresh, the city is just the latest victim of what Brown calls the “sports industrial complex” in which owners rip teams away from fans because 1) there are greener pastures elsewhere or 2) a city or taxpayers won’t give them a blank check.
The question is, how long do the feelings fester? Is there a statute of limitations on the hatred that sprouts from the seeds of anger?
Dr. John Shuford hesitates to use the word “hate” in relation to jilted fans, though he acknowledges their feelings are deep, genuine and justified.
He’s the director of Gonzaga University’s Institute for Hate Studies, with a doctorate in philosophy, and he’s pondered serious issues of hatred across the globe. He’s also a hoops fan who grew up in Portland rooting for the Blazers and then followed the Sonics when he moved to Seattle. He’s even been lit up in pickup games by former Sonics such as “Downtown” Freddie Brown.
“Hate is a strong word,” he cautions. But, he adds, “There is real resentment, bitterness, anger, enmity, sadness, grief and senses of betrayal and loss.”
Shuford says the Thunder’s recent success has become a topic of conversation among his friends because of feelings it has reawakened among abandoned Sonics fans. Emails from those anguished friends are filled with anger.
“I’m not a clinical psychologist, and I’m not going to play an armchair one,” says Shuford, “but I’m reading this, and you’re describing emotional trauma. You’re describing recurring emotional trauma.”
AP Photo/Donna BagbyHouston Oilers fan Wade Rothrock laments the impending move of his team to Tennessee by Bud Adams.
Though sports is entertainment, Shuford says it’s “both frivolous and not frivolous.”
“It’s deeply meaningful,” he says. “It’s this great way we connect across generations and make meaning in our lives in so many ways. These are things that for many of us are multiple decades, generations, all these formative experiences in our lives.”
It’s natural that fans -- who invest so much time and energy in a team -- would have lasting emotions about the loss of a franchise. He says it’s also natural that fans seek out someone to blame, even if reasons for a team’s exit are complex. In Seattle, it’s Bennett and Schultz. Elsewhere, it’s Modell, Frontiere or Irsay.
“This goes to the definition of hate that we work with [at the Institute], the idea that human beings have this ability or capacity to pick out someone or something and treat it as other, treat it as different, treat it as less than, treat it as a scapegoat. Blame it for our problem. Dehumanize or demonize someone, right? That comes up in this context.”
Which means that for years -- decades even -- a name or face can trigger an immediate, venomous reaction.
It’s understandable, too, that it can be long-lasting.
“Four years have passed since the SuperSonics left town,” he says. “When you think about how long the Dodgers’ departure has affected Brooklyn, four years is nothing.”
Were Sonics fans able to get over their loss quickly, “That might actually signal something worse -- about the individual and the community, and about us as human beings,” he says.
Shuford says fans’ feelings are complicated. During the Thunder’s run to the Finals, he says fans have described physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches when they watch “their” team and Durant, or see Bennett on camera. For many, he says, they never gain closure.
Already, many Sonics fans are trying to achieve closure by backing a proposal for a privately financed arena to house a new team. A large rally was held in Seattle’s Pioneer Square last week. A team called the Sonics and clad in green and gold and playing downtown would make things right again.
Ultimately, though, that might also mean some other NBA city and its fans would lose a team to fill Seattle’s gap. It’s a continuing cycle.
"Selfishly, I want another basketball team here. So I am stoked if the Sonics could ever come back here. I'm in it,” says Pearl Jam guitarist and Sonics supporter Mike McCready. “I think the deal that had happened with Clay Bennett is different from what is happening in [Sacramento], because they tried to ratify that deal with the city seven or eight times and it never seemed to happen. So something is amiss there. Certainly the people of Sacramento would be bummed but something is not happening between who owns the team and the local government. I would love to have any team up here.
“We need basketball back here so we can have a triple threat, a quadruple threat -- a quintuple threat because we have so many teams. But let's get basketball back."
What’s the formula for getting over the hate?
If there is one, it’s A) time, B) a replacement team, C) the replacement team’s success and D) the death of the former owner -- the disappearance of the scapegoat.
But even that formula isn’t guaranteed.
Earlier this year a Minnesota North Stars reunion was held over three days in the Twin Cities, and fans of the departed team -- now the Dallas Stars -- celebrated with their former heroes.
AP Photo/Andrew InnerarityJohn Thompson, Cleveland's "Big Dawg," couldn't believe it when his beloved Browns left for Baltimore.
Although the North Stars left almost 19 years ago and Minnesota received the expansion Wild in 2000, North Stars owner Norm Green remains a hated man.
“It was the biggest gathering of hard-core North Stars fans, and it was unanimous among the fans and players how much Norm Green was hated,” says Daniel Cote, who has a website called North Stars Preservation Society and a Facebook page devoted to the team. “There were T-shirts that said ‘Norm Green still sucks’ that was a play on shirts and signs that were prevalent around the Met Center in ’92 when it was known that they were moving. There were all kind of ‘Norm Green sucks’ shirts and signs back then, and fans chanting all game long, ‘Norm sucks! Norm sucks!’”
So, despite a replacement team and nearly two decades, bitterness won’t die. Says Cote: “If you were to take a poll of Minnesota sports fans even today and ask 'Who is the No. 1 villain in the history of Minnesota sports' you’d probably get at least 75 percent of the people saying Norm Green. That doesn’t go away.”
The same holds true in Cleveland, where Art Modell is reviled. Though Modell took the original Browns to Baltimore in 1996, Cleveland received a replacement Browns franchise -- complete with name, colors and history -- in 1999.
That eased the pain, but didn’t bury the rage at Modell.
“Everyone still has that hatred toward Art Modell,” says Steve DiMatteo, the editor of a Browns website called Dawgpounddaily.com. “He hasn’t come even come back to the city since because of fears of what would happen to him.”
In Los Angeles and Orange County, where the Rams played for almost 50 years, some fans are hoping the team will return -- especially now that it’s having stadium issues in St. Louis, where the late Georgia Frontiere moved the team after the 1994 season.
Andrew Hogan, who founded the group Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams, says when Frontiere died, so did a lot of the anger of abandoned fans.
“She was the focal point,” Hogan says. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t bitterness. And if the team were actually good right now there would probably be a little bit more. But they’ve been so putrid recently, it’s kind of hard to dislike a team that’s been so bad.”
In Brooklyn, meanwhile, it’s been 55 years since the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. For the most part, the team’s exit is ancient history. Fans have died or moved away and a whole generation of New Yorkers has grown up rooting for the Mets or Yankees.
Yet some ties remain.
Steve Cohen, who grew up in Brooklyn and is general manager of the Mets-affiliated Brooklyn Cyclones minor league team, saw it when his team began play in 2001.
“I still heard people who said, they never went to another ballpark after the Dodgers left,” he says. “There was that bitterness. And you had people sort of coming in, and dads bringing their kids or their grandchild into the ballpark sort of like, ‘Wow, this is what baseball in Brooklyn’s all about.’”
Cohen says, though, that any ill feelings are about “at the end of the road.” Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the construction of Ebbets Field, which will prompt perhaps a final recognition of the team.
“There aren’t many players left anymore, unfortunately, so I think it will be somewhere in people’s hearts and minds in some way, shape or form. But I think in the next year or so we’re going to see that bitterness sort of fade away.”
Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams The Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams group rallied for their cause at USC's spring game back in April.
From Baltimore to Quebec City and Charlotte, N.C., to Houston, however, there is no statute of limitations on the fans’ ire over the loss of their teams.
When Robert Irsay died in 1997, 13 years after he moved his Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis, the only comment from former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer was, “Now that he’s dead, I don’t want to say bad things about the man. It’s over.”
In Quebec City, where the Nordiques left for Denver to become the Avalanche in 1996 -- and promptly won a Stanley Cup -- fans are still irate that the NHL doesn’t have a team in the hockey hotbed.
Five seasons after he moved his Hornets to New Orleans, North Carolina native George Shinn hasn’t returned to Charlotte, where he’s on the sports enemy list. And in Houston this year, a newspaper poll to select the most hated person in the city’s sports history was won overwhelmingly by Bud Adams, who moved his Oilers to Tennessee in 1997.
At some point, though, it’s time to “let go of the hate,” says DiMatteo, the Browns fan.
A couple of seasons ago he wrote about the topic on his website. But he knows Cleveland’s situation -- more than a decade after getting a replacement team -- is far different than Seattle’s.
“At a certain point, you let it go,” he says. “But there’s no denying it hurts big time when, four years after your team leaves, you’re watching them potentially win a championship. The same thing happened to Browns fans when the Ravens won.”
That point of letting go is far in the future for Sonics fans such as Brown, who is especially upset that Bennett not only took the team to Oklahoma City, but also took its history. On telecasts, announcers refer to the Thunder’s previous trips to the Finals, their championship in 1979 and their greats, such as Spencer Haywood.
“Seeing the history constantly referenced as Oklahoma City’s is more salt in the wound,” Brown says.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAtlanta Thrashers fans gathered last year in a failed attempt to keep their NHL franchise from relocating.
Merrill says he may be able to embrace the NBA and a new Seattle team someday, but for now the loss is painful enough that he’s trying to avoid watching games or reading about them.
“It’s gut wrenching,” he says. “We were the ones invested in that team. We were the ones who went through all of the bad years that you go through in order to get the draft picks and get the karma that you get after going through all the bad stuff, to build up a great team. Then it went away right at the moment our investment paid off.”
To Brown, the hate for Bennett and Schultz may never fade, but the wound can be healed.
“When we have a team here playing in green and gold called the Seattle SuperSonics and we have all of our 41 years of history and all the jerseys and banners hanging back up in the new arena,” he says. “Then we might be able to forget the past.”
ESPN.com senior writer Jim Caple contributed to this article.