SonicsGate

October, 12, 2009
10/12/09
5:59
PM ET

"It's like fighting a hurricane. You hope the hurricane's not going to blow your house down. But good luck with that."

-- Author Sherman Alexie, in the new documentary SonicGate

When your strongest weapon is hope, you're out of bullets. And that's the feeling NBA fans had in Seattle throughout the painful multi-year "teamectomy" they recently endured.

John Paxson
Howard Schultz, Clay Bennett, starring in How Not to Sell Your NBA Team 101.
(Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty Images)

SonicsGate (which is now viewable in its entirety for free online) is the movie that documents just about every step of that miserable process.

It's a documentary with a big four-part mission:

  • To make clear the steps that led to the team's departure. The crucial events were so disparate, even people following closely would have a hard time following the story.
  • To give Sonic fans a vehicle to grieve.
  • To put viewers in the shoes of sports fans who are -- when push comes to shove -- amazingly unable to exercise any power over the people who matter, including owners, leagues and politicians.
  • To do something besides complain.

SonicsGate succeeds mightily at the first three. On the last point ... I don't know what the solution is, but in succeeding in pointing out that nearly everybody was wrong, it's hard not to wonder ... what would have been right?

Watching the documentary is (brace yourself, we're getting graphic) a bit like puking. There's an "aha" moment -- oh yeah, that's what my lunch tasted like the first time.

Even though I covered it pretty hard in real time, thankfully, I had forgotten many of the details of this whole endeavor. But SonicsGate snapped them right back into focus.

For instance, remember this series of e-mails among Thunder owners?

Tom Ward: Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?"

Clay Bennett: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!"

Tom Ward: "That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year."

Aubrey McClendon: "Me too, thanks Clay!"

It's not alarming that these Oklahoma-based NBA fan/owners would be eager to have their NBA team move home. But at the time, the owners were bound by a signed agreement with the former owner, Howard Schultz to make a good faith effort to keep the team in Seattle.

So, when these e-mails were made public, Bennett actually had the nerve to claim (on video, in SonicsGate) that when he said he was a "man possessed" he was talking about being possessed with keeping the team in Seattle.

If the mainstream media has showed us someone lying more blatantly than this, I am not aware of it. Seeing it on video, I'm insulted once more. The documentary may have been worth it just to once again set up this all-time whopper.

If you don't have a strong stomach for that kind of thing, don't watch SonicsGate.

But if you do, by all means tune in for a tutorial in how badly the public can be treated by insiders and powerbrokers. You know the beginning, middle and end of the story, but there's a lot here you probably didn't know:

  • Sherman Alexie does eloquent rage better than anyone, and his is the heartbeat of this movie when it's at its most interesting. A lot of the movie speaks to people in Seattle. Alexie speaks to just about anyone who has ever been ripped off.
  • Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton softened the fanbase -- before all the Oklahoma City craziness. Kemp was irate that Jim McIlvaine was making so much money and asked to be traded. Payton moaned about a contract that made him of the highest paid guards in the NBA. Eventually both left and the team began losing. None of those things help fans pass referendums.
  • This documentary does a tremendous job making former owner Howard Schultz look like a fool and a hypocrite. It's done with some good reporting (former team executive Wally Walker: "Howard thought he could motivate [the players] in a way they didn't know they could be motivated") but mainly just by letting Schultz talk. In archived news footage, he does an amazing job of making himself look ridiculous. He may emerge as the ultimate villain. (Pay special attention to the special thanks section of the credits, where it says "for nothing, Howard.")
  • Is this a tale of disenfranchised and powerless sports fans? Or is it a tale of one city wronged by another? This matters. The first story is universal. The second one is a Seattle-only story. SonicsGate makes one big mistake, in my estimation, in this regard. When Clay Bennett is on the screen, as often as not there's essentially the hokiest jaw harp music imaginable -- the message is that he's dumb because he's not from Seattle, and it doesn't wash. He outmaneuvered everyone and got his team against long odds -- he's clearly not dumb.
  • The stadium financing game is messed up and wrong all over this country. It's a national battle, but, as it pointed out in SonicsGate, it's fought locally. You ever play Risk? All over the map, it's 60 armies going against one little army after another. Whatever city doesn't feel like paying, the big army can march over there and pick them off. The cities are vying against a bigger opponent, and instead of working together they work against each other, with predictable results. Throughout the documentary, people like Ross Hunter and the people from Citizens for More Important Things make principled arguments that say, in essence, we can't pay for a stadium when we don't have enough money for good schools. Hard for anyone to tell them they're wrong. However, like a lot of people with strong ideals, they may lack pragmatism ... when the CEO of Microsoft has his checkbook open ready to fix up your stadium, you play ball.
  • The other person in the movie who gets his own "I'm a dummy" music is the mayor at the time, Greg Nickels. His dopey soundtrack seemed well-earned, especially for clutching defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting a deal to give the team away when everyone interviewed for the movie seemed to think a judicial victory to keep the team was moments away.

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