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Thursday, July 3, 2008
Careful, sports fans, you could be the next Seattle

By Kevin Jackson
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As an innocent first-grader in 1976, I returned home from school one day to get the devastating news that my dad's job was being transferred. My family was headed from the Pacific Northwest to the great unknown of some place called Tulsa, Okla.

As it turned out, Oklahoma would be only a blip on my childhood radar. We ended up spending just two years there before returning to the Seattle area, where I'd live for the rest of my school years.

During that brief stint in the Sooner State, I fell in love with a Heisman Trophy-winning running back named Billy Sims, who had every boy in my elementary school high-stepping on the playground. I quickly learned that fall Saturdays had only one purpose, and that I'd better start hating Texas if I wanted to fit in.

I've never seen a fan base with a stronger passion than Sooner football fans (and, yes, I lived for eight years in Red Sox and Yankee country). OU's Orange Bowl victory in 1979 prompted an impromptu block party in my neighborhood -- and there wasn't even a national title at stake.

During those Oklahoma years, I also attended my first NFL and NBA games -- even though Dad and I had to make the trek to Kansas City to catch the Chiefs at Arrowhead and the Kings at Kemper Arena.

I remember having one wish during those two years: I wanted Oklahoma to get a professional sports franchise.

On Wednesday, that wish was finally realized.

And when it was, I was left depressed and completely disillusioned about the state of being a sports fan in 2008.

I was boarding a cross-country flight from Newark, N.J., to Seattle when I got the news the Sonics had reached a buyout with the city. No other details were available, so I spent the five-hour flight wondering what the city could've possibly got in return for its firstborn -- the first pro team we ever had in the Emerald City, the first to win a championship and the squad with 41 proud years of history.

Whatever it was, I knew it wasn't nearly enough for our team.

When I finally landed at Sea-Tac, the first e-mail I opened was from a friend, passing along this comment from the conversation page on the Sonics' move:

This is not a column to rip Oklahoma fans. The state has a true passion for sports -- one I've experienced firsthand -- and it probably deserves a team. I'm sure some guy from Stillwater or Broken Arrow or Enid is probably as excited about Kevin Durant right now as I was last June.

And, frankly, one of the saddest outcomes from this whole fiasco has been seeing the way the two cities have been pitted against each other -- the ugly exchanges on message boards as one side insults the other.

Despite all that, there's no way any sports fan can look at Wednesday's developments as anything but extremely sad … and extremely scary. (Even folks in Oklahoma City.)

The Sonics didn't leave Seattle because of a lack of fan support. The loyalists in this city have supported the club through the highs and lows that every franchise goes through -- and even some lows that very few franchises go through, like when a carpetbagging owner is deliberately trying to put an awful product on the floor.

The Sonics didn't leave because they never had success here (they won six division titles, reached the Finals three times and brought home the title in 1979).

The Sonics didn't leave because the city never gave them a modern arena. (Remember, the remodeled KeyArena just opened in the fall of 1995.)

The Sonics didn't leave because of apathy. The grassroots organization, Save Our Sonics (led by the indefatigable Brian Robinson and Steve Pyeatt), has never given up hope, even when hope was in extremely short supply. Less than three weeks ago, a crowd of more than 2,000 fans gathered in front of the federal courthouse to show that Seattleites weren't going to surrender the team without a fight.

In case you haven't figured it out, the Sonics left because of money.

They left because their arena is a small, intimate building with great sight lines that make it a fabulous place to watch an NBA game. But it's an arena, not a shopping mall.

They left because the state legislature decided not to give Clay Bennett a new $500 million building, which would've been the most expensive of its kind in the United States, when the Sonics owner refused to specify exactly how much money he'd be contributing to the project.

Mostly, they left because two cities were pitted against each other in a high-stakes game of chicken.

When Seattle's car finally careened off the road Wednesday, it wasn't a day to debate the passion of fans in Oklahoma … or compare it to the loyalty of the fans in Seattle.

It was a day for all sports fans to wonder if their city might be next.

At a celebratory news conference late Wednesday in Oklahoma City, Bennett let out a sigh of relief and uttered three simple words: "We made it." All that was missing was a "Mission Accomplished" banner hanging in the background.

As they watched him speak, I'm sure Oklahoma fans were already dreaming of new team colors, a new nickname and the possibilities of a Durant-led team someday winning big.

Back in Seattle, much of the talk had already turned to landing a replacement team for the Sonics, and David Stern had quickly laid out conditions for the league's return in the next five years. Because the NBA is unlikely to expand domestically anytime soon, that team would most likely need to come from somewhere else. Maybe Memphis, maybe New Orleans, maybe Charlotte. I have no interest in any part of this discussion.

Forgive me if I don't want to play this game again -- even from the other side. I've learned it's a game in which there are no winners.