OKLAHOMA CITY -- That dateline should have been SEATTLE. The backdrop to the start of the NBA Finals should have been the Space Needle and ferries gliding across the Puget Sound, not trains rumbling past brick warehouses and off into the plains. For those reasons, if anyone’s due for a karmic comeuppance in this series it’s the owners of the Thunder, not the star player of the Heat.
The majority of fans still want LeBron James to pay penance for The Decision, for the Heat to be condemned to endless failure for The Celebration. But you can’t rehash those faux pas without dredging up the lies told by the ownership group that bought the Seattle SuperSonics, or the damning emails that revealed its hidden agenda to move the team. If you sympathize with Cavaliers fans, just remember Sonics fans had it worse.
“In The Decision, they lost one superstar player,” said Adam Brown, a producer of the “Sonicsgate” film that documented the departure of the SuperSonics. “In Seattle, we lost an equal superstar player in Kevin Durant and our entire franchise with a 41-year history.
“It’s a horrible travesty.”
The problem is the visual cortex often trumps the rest of the cerebral cortex. We’re guided by what we see, and the indelible images of LeBron in that pizzeria-tablecloth shirt revealing his South Beach destination followed by the glitzy introduction to the new basketball cartel in Miami are difficult to erase. Even this week, nearly two years later, that footage served as the introduction to coverage of the NBA Finals on "SportsCenter."
The shots of a shifty-eyed Clay Bennett with questionable veracity saying he intended to keep the Sonics in Seattle after he led the group that bought them aren’t as easy to come by. And the more revealing words from co-owner Aubrey McClendon, who said, “We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here,” appeared on the pages of an Oklahoma newspaper and not on TV. When the Sonics left in 2008, we didn’t even get the dramatic footage of the Mayflower moving vans hauling away the team’s equipment that accompanied the NFL’s Colts departure from Baltimore.
It’s the seemingly innocuous images of the past week that really get to a die-hard Sonics fan such as Brown. He finds them so reviling that it even makes it possible for him to root against Durant, who wore the Sonics jersey his first year in the league and remains as likeable a star as there is in all of sports.
“It’s hard to root against him, but when you see Clay Bennett raising the Western Conference trophy and celebrating the deception and celebrating the way he spit on Sonics fans and desecrated 41 years of history, that validates all we need to know about rooting against the Oklahoma City Thunder,” Brown said.
I can’t tell you how often Twitter tough guys have advised Sonics fans to “get over it.” Try telling that to folks in Cleveland and see what type of fury is unleashed in your mentions timeline.
Even Nick Collison, another Thunder player who was present for the franchise’s last days in Seattle, can see the rationale behind rooting against his team.
“I think I understand that,” Collison said. “It’s kind of a difficult situation, I’m sure, for Seattle fans. It was a really tough time when the team left. Now it’s kind of back in everybody’s face again now that we’re in the Finals and there’s a lot more coverage. I’m sure there’s people thinking, ‘That should be our team. It could be our team.’ So I understand it. I understand it’s not personal against us [players]. It’s a tough thing for them.”
Some people say they never root for or against owners. But don't forget the fans who avoided Dodger Stadium while the McCourts still ran the franchise. Or the Golden State Warriors faithful who unleashed years’ worth of frustration at Joe Lacob when he stood before them on a night that was supposed to be about Chris Mullin. And you can’t tell me if your favorite football team beats the Dallas Cowboys it doesn’t add to the experience to see shots of an agitated Jerry Jones on the sidelines or in his suite.
It takes the same willing suspension of disbelief you adopt in a movie theater to be able to enjoy sports events. Do you realize how few teams are without players who have appeared in arrest reports or owners who haven’t demanded public funds for their stadiums or made major donations to political causes you disagree with?
The mere act of following these Finals entails bestowing forgiveness on the owners and players who deprived us of nearly two months of pro basketball in November and December, then crammed as many games as possible into the next four months, no matter the risk of injuries or diminished quality of play.
Games tend to win out. LeBron and Durant have put on some fantastic shows in these playoffs, and now they’ll be on the same court. The psychology term is “cognitive dissonance” -- the ability of the brain to simultaneously process two conflicting beliefs, and it’s very much in play watching these Finals.
“How do I still watch sports?” Brown said. “Even seeing behind the curtain the way that we have in Seattle, I just love basketball. I love watching the best players in the world playing the best basketball in the world. It’s the way it brings the community together. I’m able to separate my anger from the NBA and how they did that with the fact that it is the best basketball in the world.
“I don’t think it’s fair for Seattle fans to expect all other sport markets to boo the Thunder. Most NBA fans are going to root for the product on the court and not the politics. I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to criticize us for feeling the way that we feel about it.
“It’s fine if you want to root for Kevin Durant. It’s hard not to. They’ve put together the most exciting team in the NBA. But once you know the politics behind it, you cannot in good conscience root for that organization to succeed.”
So now you understand why at least one person who isn’t from South Florida -- Adam Brown -- can bring himself to say this: “I’ll be rooting for LeBron hard.”