On the eve of Dancing with Noah’s two-year anniversary, I’ve been through a Monday (4/29/13) overflowing with reverberating NBA news:
- Jason Collins came out of the closet – this is a beautiful thing and people who don’t realize that or see this as a non-story would be wise to take some time to listen to the struggles faced by anyone who’s ever had to hide a part of themselves for fear of being judged, blackballed, ignored or rejected. You don’t have to be thrilled about it, but this is one more person who’s making a massive leap into the world. Be happy for him.
- The NBA’s Relocation Committee voted unanimously to deny the Kings request to move the franchise to Seattle. For whatever it might be worth, the NBA Relocation Committee is made up of: Clay Bennett (the NBA can’t not see this as a terribly ironic placement), Peter Holt (Spurs), James Dolan (Knicks), Herb Simon (Pacers), Larry Tanenbaum (Raptors), Glen Taylor (Timberwolves), Jeanie Buss (Lakers), Robert Sarver (Suns), Greg Miller (Jazz), Wyc Grousbeck (Celtics), Ted Leonsis (Wizards) and Micky Arison (Heat).
So here we sit with a day that will reverberate throughout the NBA’s near-term, and potentially long-term, future. I’ve lived in Seattle since 2004 and I attended around 10-15 games per season when the Sonics called Key Arena home. It’s a progressive city, one that promotes diversity and supports alternative lifestyles. You can find anything from thriving art and music scenes to reenactments of medieval battles. It’s a populace that takes full advantage of the gifts nature has bestowed upon it which include the Cascade Mountain range, Mount Rainier, Olympic National Park, the San Juan Islands, Lake Washington, Lake Union and a million other outdoor activities enjoyed by Pacific Northwesterners year-round.
This past summer I read Jim Bouton’s classic insider account of life in Major League Baseball: Ball Four. Bouton was a 30-year-old knuckleballer who pitched for the then expansion Seattle Pilots. In a nod to the city’s long-standing struggle with pro sports franchises, the Pilots lasted a single season in the Emerald City before relocating to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers. It wasn’t until 1977 that the Mariners came into existence. Bouton spent the spring and summer of 1969 with the Pilots and I recall a small portion of the book touching on the lukewarm support from Seattleites. This is dating all the back in the late 60s. A forward-looking view shows the city’s often strained relationship with the pro franchises they simultaneously support:
- In the mid-90s, the Mariners owners threatened to relocate the team if a new arena wasn’t built. In 1995, voters defeated a ballot to pay for a new stadium. Then the M’s made the playoffs and the state Legislature capitalized on the momentum to come up with an alternate funding plan which included a .5% tax on restaurants, taverns and bars and a 2% tax increase on rental cars. Disaster was averted and the M’s got the stadium they demanded. The balance came out to $340mill from the public in the form of tax increases and $75mill from the M’s owners.
- In 1995, there was a proposal to issue county bonds to pay for a remodeling of the Kingdome (the Seattle Seahawks stadium at the time). The proposal was rejected (not surprising given the Mariners had just asked for public money as well). At the time, Seahawks owner Ken Behring did what comes so naturally to businessmen and sports franchise owners: He threatened to sell or move the team. Microsoft founder and billionaire, Paul Allen stepped in and committed to buy the team if a new stadium could be built. After some legal/political wrangling, there was a final public/private partnership that included the public contribution capped at $300million and Allen’s company First & Goal Inc. to contribute up to $130million.
- On June 16th, 1994, construction began on what was then called Seattle Central Coliseum and would eventually be renamed as Key Arena. The city picked up $74.5mill while the Sonics covered ~$21mill. The intent of the makeover was to bring the then-32-year-old arena up to par with other NBA arenas.
- And of course, the Sonics/Howard Schultz/Clay Bennett clusterfuck that resulted in the Sonics being sold to an out-of-town group on October 31st, 2006—so strangely appropriate that the deal was consummated on Halloween.
It’s no surprise that pro sports teams make threats and cities respond. In many cases, new arenas are necessary and the threats are nothing more than negotiation tactics that happen to play on the hearts and minds of local fanbases. But in my limited experience as an observer of these scenarios, it’s somewhat unique for a city to face three of these threats in just over a ten-year span. For a city that was already lukewarm on supporting pro teams with public funds, the Bennett/Stern false ultimatum was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For me personally, this was a watershed moment. I initially sided with the “Save Our Sonics” contingent and would cringe at the numerous editorials telling Stern and Bennett to pound sand. Over the next three years, I would reverse that stance.
Kevin Durant’s rookie year in 2007 was a disaster. The Sonics had been gutted in a way that reminded me of the plot from Major League where widow of the Cleveland Indians’ owner builds a crappy team with the purpose of moving to sunnier climes in Florida. The 2007 Sonics were in full blown rebuilding mode in a city they’d soon be saying goodbye to. They finished with the 2nd worst record in the league and ranked 28th out of 30 teams in attendance. The “save our Sonics” chants that would randomly ring out throughout the season were painfully pathetic; pathetic in the sense that it was a futile chant from a half-empty arena of half-enthused fans. As a regular ticket buyer, I would get promotional emails every few weeks offering lower bowl seats for $15. I’m talking 10 rows back at an NBA game—for $15! No one else was going to the games, so they damn near gave tickets away. Every Durant jumper or glimpse of success was lifeline of hope for Seattle fans that somehow, someway the team would remain here. There were lawsuits, talks of Steve Ballmer buying the team, dreams of investors who preferred Sonics jerseys to shining suits of armor. But it was all for naught and over time I accepted that the team would relocate. It certainly helped that from the time the Bennett group purchased the team up to the release of Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team in 2009, evidence mounted revealing what most people suspected already: The Sonics had been purchased with the intent of relocating to OKC. After so many months of being lied to, the confirmation of these assumptions at least validated the anger. And with that in mind, please forgive the people of Seattle for not rallying with a Kings-like battle cry.
Watching Durant and Russell Westbrook thrive in OKC didn’t enflame the ill feelings I felt for Bennett or Schultz or Stern. Rather, it hardened me to the cold reality that sports are a business; a chillingly merciless business that, as a collective, isn’t concerned with fans beyond the amount of money they spend or demographics they fall into. This was the end of the child-like innocent fan that lived inside of me. Maybe being 26 or 27 is too old to come to that obvious conclusion, but it reshaped the way I watch and interact with sports and to some degree, I’m thankful for it.
Fast forward to 2013 when the owners of the Kings agreed to sell the franchise to Seattle-born billionaire Chris Hansen. The Seattle streets were covered in throwback Sonics hats, shirts and jerseys. Oskar’s, a local bar just a few blocks from Key Arena, owned by former Sonic icon Shawn Kemp, has been aglow in the potential return of the team. Sonics fans and Kings supporters have sniped at each other on blogs, Twitter and in comments sections. It was a petty, trite game being played; as if mutual love for basketball teams was reason enough to fight with a stranger. Meanwhile, the actual men in control of the situation (Stern, Hansen, Kevin Johnson, the Maloofs, the Kings new prospective ownership group) skated by with minimal criticism outside of Seattle and Sacramento. All of us sat and waited anxiously for the verdict of a 12-man jury; the aforementioned Relocation Committee. They voted unanimously to keep the Kings in Sacramento. For once they voted to eschew the money in favor of doing the right thing; of doing what they should’ve done six years ago when Clay Bennett purchased the Sonics. For once, this money grubbing association got it right. With any luck, the league’s setting a new precedent for itself; one that will see it work more closely with local politicians instead of divisively as we saw with the Sonics situation. (The Sacramento arena deal breaks out like this: the city takes on $258mill [primarily from parking fees and ticketing fees] while the investment group would account for $189mill and be responsible for all capital improvements.)
In the process of the vote, the NBA changed the rules of the game on the people of Seattle while simultaneously getting it right for the fans in Sacramento. For the people of Seattle who supported this team and league uninterruptedly for 40 straight years, this vote is grossly unfair. The league created an environment where inconsistency exists and it’s within that environment that they should have alienated a market, but sadly that won’t be the case. People will still invest time, money and emotion in getting pro basketball back to Seattle and I do respect their resilience; their ability to separate the anger from their passion.
As for Jason Collins … I’m happy for the man. I find it amazing that this is still a topic for discussion. Part of my amazement may stem from the fact that I’ve become an adult in ultra-liberal Seattle where terms like “social justice” and “white privilege” stay on the tips of tongues; where marijuana and gay marriage are both legal. I spent my Saturday night at the Seattle Poetry Grand Slam where young, creative, expressive, strong poets stood vulnerable on a stage and expressed themselves and, in some cases, their sexuality in front of a packed Seattle Town Hall. They expressed their struggles through beautiful emotive words with a raw, but harnessed energy, but their descriptions of their love didn’t escape my realm of knowing or comprehension. The pain and sadness of not being accepted rang through their voices and met the crowd who groaned in painful understanding. And I think about Jason Collins alone in locker rooms, on buses and planes, surrounded by homophobic slurs that stung; sometimes more than others. That loneliness is so unbelievably unfair. For this man to finally reach a level of comfort to expose himself on the largest stage in the world makes me want to hug him in acceptance and support.
After John Amaechi came out in 2007, I think there was a hope that his revelation would lead to more gay athletes following suit, but in terms of the major sports leagues, that hasn’t been the case. With gay marriage gaining nationwide support, the issue has again risen to the forefront of athletics where former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo recently commented that four NFL players may come out on the same day as a way to relieve the pressure of going it alone. Whether or not Collins’s decision is based in large or small part on the current climate of improved gay rights awareness, his coming out is nothing but a positive and it feels good to see an NBA player leading the way and getting the overwhelming support he received today.
It’s a good day to celebrate the two-year anniversary of a blog and it’s a good day to honor what this game has brought me not just over the past two years, but the past 25 years of my life where basketballs have been bouncing, nets splashing, struggles struggling—be it labor wars, substance abuse, homophobia, media, marketing, or the actual on-court product. Basketball has provided me an outlet from the stresses of being a living human being in the 21st century and given me a lens through which to see the world unfold in a most a familiar context. I’m thankful for days like this when the league gets it right even if they’re jobbing my city in the process.
Encourage your local and federal representatives to fully vet your NBA owners