SEATTLE – Only now, three years after their team left town, are basketball fans in this city coming to terms with seeing their beloved SuperSonics play in Oklahoma City.
Sonics merchandise is appearing in downtown stores again, although it's rare to see anyone wearing it. Lingering anger over the team's 2008 move to become the Oklahoma City Thunder is fading, and very little is being done on the political front to lure the NBA back.
As Sacramento Kings fans seemingly watch their team slip away, Seattle offers perspective on how to move on from a breakup. Seattle city officials barely talk about the team now. There are few physical reminders of the Sonics' existence in the trendy neighborhood where their old arena still stands, not in restaurants, not in shops and certainly not at the facility itself.
For devout Sonics fans, the last three NBA seasons have been tough as their team has become a contender in Oklahoma City. But other pastimes – in Seattle's case, professional soccer and outdoor recreation – have helped fill the void.
Go back a few years, however, and the thought of the Sonics leaving town would have been unimaginable.
This was Seattle's most successful sports franchise, bringing the city its most significant professional sports championship, the 1979 NBA title.
Through the five decades the Sonics played, the players developed a bond with the city – they often showed up in local parks to play ball, and the team's tough-guy mentality was adored by the notably polite town. When the team played Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals, a Sonics flag hung from the top of the iconic Space Needle.
"It was Kurt Cobain and (Sonics star) Shawn Kemp, that is what Seattle was culturally," said Adam Brown, producer of the documentary "Sonicsgate – Requiem for a Team," which detailed the team's move. "And the fact that of all the teams, that was the one we couldn't save is so tragic because it's the one that most unified our city."
Dispute over arena
Many factors conspired to open the door to the Sonics' relocation to Oklahoma City following the 2007-08 season, not the least of which was a series of failed attempts to build a new arena.
KeyArena was the team's home for more than 30 seasons. Located steps from the Space Needle and the boutiques and swanky bars of the Queen Anne neighborhood, it was the smallest arena in the NBA and lacked the revenue-generating frills now standard in many facilities.
But like Arco Arena in the Kings' heyday, KeyArena was raucous and intimate, where fans seemed to be on top of the court. It was a visiting team's nightmare.
It now hosts college basketball, concerts, WNBA basketball and women's roller derby. In the Sonics' final decade in town, three proposals to replace or renovate the arena – all involving public money – fell short.
Like the Kings, the Sonics had a devoted fan base and an arena that was packed when the team was good – and they were good most years. And yet, it wasn't enough to keep them.
"The lesson learned is that a significant number of markets will remain vulnerable," said Paul Swangard, head of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "The price of admission for being a major league city now seems to be a stadium that has many more amenities than the stadiums that were built 20 years ago, and if you chose not to invest in those amenities, you should probably expect to not have a team in your city."
Other sports thrive
The impact of the Sonics' departure has been mixed.
Unlike Sacramento, Seattle has a crowded sports landscape, even without the NBA. Both the NFL's Seahawks and major league baseball Mariners play in modern stadiums just south of downtown. The University of Washington's football and basketball programs have storied histories.
A Major League Soccer team, the Sounders, started play the year after the Sonics left. The Washington Stealth, a professional indoor lacrosse team, moved to nearby Everett last year.
Beyond the spectator sports, Seattle is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, majestic waterways and evergreen forests. It's the center of the 15th largest metro area in the country, a city that brought the world Nordstrom, Pearl Jam and Starbucks.
"There were a significant number of people who just didn't care (when the Sonics left)," said Art Thiel, a longtime sports columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who now writes for sportspressnw.com. "This is a diverse city with lots of activities and interests, and spectator sports are relatively new to the habits of several generations of people here.
"People have found ways to occupy themselves."
Still, NBA Commissioner David Stern recently described Seattle as a "very prime city" to get a team in the future – just as soon as a new arena is built. A spokesman for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said there are no plans under way to make that happen.
The Sonics' departure was quick and painful.
In 2006, Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett bought the team from an ownership group led by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. At a press conference adorned with balloons announcing the purchase, both sides tried to assure a nervous city that the priority would be to keep the Sonics in Seattle.
That same year, Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 91, which barred the city from helping finance sports arenas unless the investment would guarantee a profit equal to a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond.
KeyArena had undergone renovation in 1995, aided by $74.5 million in city funding. New stadiums for the Seahawks and Mariners came after that, both with the help of public financing. Many fans said the city had arena fatigue by 2006.
At the same time, the team hit its worst stretch on the court in 20 years. It started the 2007-08 season with three wins in its first 18 games. By the end of the season – during which the Sonics won a franchise-worst 20 games and drew barely 13,000 fans a night – it became clear the team was headed for the Great Plains.
"If there's anything worse than asking for public money, it's asking for public money for a last place team," said Brown, producer of the "Sonicsgate" documentary.
Brown and the other creators of "Sonicsgate" were die-hard fans. They never missed a game on television and typically attended 10 to 15 games a season at KeyArena.
As he spoke last week in a home south of downtown where the documentary was produced, Brown wore a Kevin Durant Sonics jersey. Durant was drafted by the Sonics, but played in Seattle only one year before the team moved.
Durant leads the NBA in scoring this season for the Thunder, as Seattle fans watch him blossom from afar.
Off to a smaller market
Ultimately, the Sonics moved to a community with one-third the population and far less national recognition.
In this case, the move stemmed from an owner's desire to bring a team to his hometown and to escape what the NBA had tagged an outdated arena: The Oklahoma City Arena opened in 2002 and seats 1,000 more fans for basketball games than KeyArena.
"What happened here was a reality check," said Jason Reid, who directed the "Sonicsgate" documentary. "It proved the fans were naive in thinking we could save the team. There were too many forces working against us."
Much like the "Here We Stay" campaign that has sprung up in Sacramento, a fan group called "Save Our Sonics" fought to keep the team in Seattle. They held public rallies and drafted former Sonics stars like Gary Payton to help their cause.
"It was unimaginable to think the Sonics would be gone, just like I'm sure it is in Sacramento," said Brian Robinson, who co-founded Save Our Sonics.
When the team left despite the fan efforts, Robinson was angry. Life felt different, he said. There was a void in his routine, and it took him months to figure out what it was: "It used to be that I watched every game at night with my son," he said.
But over time, he said, he redirected his energy toward replacing the Sonics. He follows NBA news, regularly checking his BlackBerry for league updates, especially when it comes to the topic of teams relocating.
Many fans have turned to the professional soccer team, the Sounders, as a new outlet for their loyalty. Their devotion is reflected in the attendance numbers: The Sounders have drawn more fans to their home games than any other team in the league the past two seasons.
"It hasn't been as hard on this town as it might be on, say, Sacramento," said Mike Lewis, who co-owns a bar three blocks from KeyArena. "We've got three other professional teams. That's helped deaden the pain."
Lewis' bar, the Streamline Tavern, has weathered the Sonics' departure, as has the broader Queen Anne neighborhood. Kemp, the former Sonics star, recently opened Oskar's Kitchen, a trendy lounge two blocks from KeyArena. And while a bar across the street from the arena has changed ownership since the team left, there are few empty storefronts.
That's not to say there aren't stories of heartbreak.
Few people in Seattle have taken the Sonics' departure as hard as Lorin "Big Lo" Sandretzky, once named "Seattle's Biggest Sports Fan" by a local TV station.
The moniker isn't just a reference to Sandretzky's 6-foot-8, 400-pound frame; he missed just five Sonics home games in the team's final 20 seasons and hasn't missed a Seahawks home game in 25 years.
Leaning against a pole in front of a quiet KeyArena on a bitterly cold February afternoon, Sandretzky still mourned the Sonics' move. Over his shoulder, the team store for the WNBA's Seattle Storm sat quiet. A faded outline on the store's facade scars the spot where a Sonics logo once hung.
"As a fan, you're held hostage by the money manipulators," he said. "The bigwigs that have the power, they really don't love the fans, and it's a shame, because we're the ones putting bread on their table.
"We loved this team, but there just wasn't enough love."