There are very few cities that understand what the fine people of Seattle are feeling this morning. The anger. The bitterness. The anguish. The pure disgust and hatred for the carpet-bagging owner that ripped your heart out and stomped on it. We all know how that feels here in Cleveland. Watching the Oklahoma City Thunder win the NBA’s Western Conference last night is one last kick in the gut to the Pacific Northwest.
Back in 1995, Art Modell stood all smiles with the Governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening and told the world “I leave Cleveland, Ohio after 35 years, I leave a good part of my heart and soul there. I will never forget the kindness of the people, the fans that supported the Browns for years. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition. I had no choice.”
I’m not here for dredge up the past. We all know Modell had a choice. It was called selling the team. He was a terrible businessman and was all out of money. He had two choices to bail himself out – sell the team or move them to a different city for a sweetheart deal. He chose the latter. Art played the “the city won’t build me a new stadium” card as long as he could. Meanwhile, less than two years later, the city of Cleveland broke ground on a new stadium on the old site on the lake front, 74.7% of which was publicly funded.
I still say shame on the NFL and then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for ever allowing Modell to operate the way he did and leave a town which sold out every single game for 20-plus years. Tags thought everything would be OK, because he would work out a way to repay the city. Even though we would get our team and colors back after a three-year hiatus (and we all know, its just not the same) and the success on the field hasn’t been anything close to what we had hoped for, at least we have a team to cheer for.
What does Seattle have today? No team and the records and history that went to Oklahoma City with it.
I confess I didn’t know what the Sonics meant to the city until I watched the amazing and sad documentary about the team’s move titled Sonicsgate. For those who don’t know the story of how why the team moved, here’s a brief synopsis:
Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks Coffee, was the owner of the Sonics in 2006. He was a very unpopular figure after buying the team, swooping in, changing the culture, feuding with star player Gary Payton, and attempting to run the team like he ran Starbucks. His tenure as Sonics owner was best described in an ESPN.com article from 2006 by Frank Hughes:
That, in a nutshell, is Howard Schultz, an entrepreneur whose romantic attention was focused exclusively on his basketball team for about a year. Then things didn’t quite go the way he envisioned, he got bored and discouraged, and he decided that he wanted out (regardless of the impact on people’s lives).
After five years, Schultz sold the team to an Investment Group led by Clay Bennett, an Oklahoma City businessman. Schultz claimed he sold to Bennett’s group because they would do everything they could to keep the team in Seattle. Meanwhile, from day one, it was obvious that just wasn’t true, despite what Bennett said publicly. Like Modell, Bennett claimed that the city needed a new city funded arena. NBA Commisioner David Stern went on record agreeing with Bennett’s assessment. However, Bennett and his people put together a $500 million arena proposal to the city that was never realistic. The arena was proposed in the Renton area at the I-405/1-5 corridor, one of the busiest traffic areas in greater Seattle area. It was just a simple move of covering their bases, so when the arena deal wouldn’t pass, they could leave Seattle and say “well the city never stepped forward, so we had to move.”
Meanwhile, the Sonics still had a a Key Arena lease with the city through 2010 with a lame duck team.
Lawsuits were filed. Private emails were leaked. The NBA, Bennett’s Group, and the city of Seattle eventually settled on breaking the lease, with the city receiving $45 million and the possibility of an additional $30 million by 2013 if a new team hadn’t arrived.
So it is bad enough that the NBA and Bennett’s group ripped the team out of the city, leaving it without it’s most cherished franchise. Then the salt in the wound came from the leaked emails. This is from the Seattle Times in April of 2008:
On April 17 last year, team co-owners Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward talked about whisking the Sonics away to Oklahoma as soon as possible even though it would mean breaching the KeyArena lease, according to the city’s motion filed in U.S. District Court in New York City.
“Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?” Ward wrote.
Bennett replied: “I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!”
Ward: “That’s the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year.”
McClendon: “Me too, thanks Clay!”
That exchange occurred just after the Washington Legislature refused to authorize taxpayer money for a $500 million Renton arena Bennett had proposed.
In an e-mail exchange later in April, Bennett told McClendon it was “quite likely” the team would play in Seattle another year but that he was “attempting quietly and without litigation” to “work through the lease.”
The Sonics were to Seattle what the Browns were to Cleveland. It was their team. During their great years in the late 70′s and early 80′s as well as the Shawn Kemp/Gary Payton teams of the mid to late 90′s, the Sonics were selling out night after night. They were averaging just under 2,000 less than capacity even in the lean years before the move.
Does this sound familiar to any of you?
People forget, but the 1994 Cleveland Browns were a playoff team. They went 11-5 and hosted a wild card game. They were coached by Bill Belichick, had the NFL’s top ranked defense in terms of points allowed (12.8 per game), and had a solid running game with Leroy Hoard leading the way. They were fun to watch.They were a team on the rise, but when the rumors started to swirl in 1995 after a 3-1 start, the swoon began. Belichick knew he was a dead man walking and after the team lost to the Bengals in OT to fall to 4-4, Modell announced the move. Mid-season!
The team would finish 5-11, but after the move to Baltimore, things of course took off for them. Thanks to the incredible drafting of Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens were the 2000 Super Bowl Champions and have become a perennial contender and model franchise ever since. Modell sold 49% of the team in 2000 and the remaining 51% in 2004 to Stephen Bisciotti. He was forced to sell in 2000. Why? Because “despite a no-cost stadium lease, all revenues from parking, concessions, and TV, as well as a reported $25M Maryland subsidy, Modell’s ownership of the Ravens resulted in continual financial hardships.”
According to Bisciotti’s bio on the Ravens website: ”Steve’s initial investment to the team provided funds to secure free agents for the 2000 Super Bowl XXXV championship team.”
Raise your hand if that makes you ill.
Worst of all for Browns fans all over the country was watching Modell raise the Lombardi Trophy. I can never get that image out of my head. Old Uncle Artie grinning from ear to ear with his joke of a son, sperm lottery winner David Modell, with cigar in his mouth by his side. My blood is boiling. I have to stop.
Sonics fans have to have had that same pit in their stomach’s last night when the Thunder – their team, with their star player, Kevin Durant, who played in their city before the move – won the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the move. And there was Bennett, looking out of place and awkward, with his white t-shirt on over his buttoned-down, right smack dab in the middle of the trophy presentation.
It is tough to quantify just how ill Seattle fans feel compared to how we felt back in 2000. Both were pretty fresh wounds that hadn’t and never will completely heal. My old friend, Mike Dolin (no relation, so relax people) grew up in Cleveland, is an Ohio State grad, has been living in Seattle since 2007. He, like so many of us, felt completely betrayed when the Browns were taken from us. Sadly for him, he had to witness this same thing happen in the city he now calls home. I asked him, as someone who saw both horrific situations from the inside, how he thought these two were related:
In looking back on it, I can honestly say, as devastated as I was when the Browns moved, Seattle was just as wronged as Cleveland, and maybe even more so. The Sonics were Seattle’s first pro team, and only champion (’79). They were engrained in the fabric of the city, much like the Browns and Cleveland.
More from Mike:
To put it into perspective, this would be like Modell becoming frustrated that he couldn’t get a new stadium built. Instead of investing in a new stadium himself with other private inverstors, he sold the team to Steven Bisciotti in ’95. Bisciotti then told Cleveland he had every intention of keeping the team in Cleveland, but the taxpayers would have to build basically the New Cowboy Stadium in the most heavily congested area of the city. All the while Bisciotti would be sending emails back and forth with his other Baltimore investors to ensure them that the move was happening.
So yes, I feel for you all in Seattle deeply this morning, as all Clevelanders should. You were screwed by the NBA the way the NFL screwed us here. No doubt about it. For those who haven’t seen the Sonicsgate documentary that I spoke above before, it is a must-watch, thought-provoking piece that will make your skin crawl.
As ESPN and Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons said “The Sonics were stolen from Seattle – STOLEN – literally, and if you don’t believe me, watch this movie.”
Here is the trailer:
Here it is in long form, director’s cut:
Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman