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News » After 41 seasons, NBA is without a team in Seattle

After 41 seasons, NBA is without a team in Seattle

After 41 seasons, NBA is without a team in Seattle
SEATTLE (AP) - The team store just a few steps from the silenced arena is three-quarters empty, barren of anything SuperSonics related except for a few logos affixed to the exterior.

Outside the former practice facility, the neighborhood cat still comes to sip water out of a basketball-painted bowl as one lonely employee continues watch over the front desk.

Bitter fans are walking around Seattle's neighborhoods wearing shirts bearing the Sonics logo surrounded by expletives directed at one-time team owner and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz.

For the first time in four decades, the NBA is about to begin a season without the Seattle SuperSonics, their colors and banners put into storage while the franchise with the only major pro sports championship in Seattle's history is 2,000 miles away and calling itself the Thunder.

Aside from a few shirts on clearance racks at local stores and 2008-09 SuperSonics calendars in racks at mall kiosks, all things green and gold have mostly vanished.

"My daughter keeps asking where the Sonics are playing," says Brian Robinson, one of the founders of Save Our Sonics, the fan group that worked to keep the team in Seattle. "I keep having to remind her there are no Sonics anymore."

Yes, the Sonics are gone, left to the history books and the hopes of remaining fans that sometime in the relatively near future, a franchise returns to the Emerald City to play in a renovated KeyArena and with the SuperSonics nickname resurrected from the scrap heap.

The loss of the Sonics over the summer was a stunning blow to fans who believed they still had two years to fight owner Clay Bennett's plan to move the team to his hometown of Oklahoma City at the conclusion of the team's lease with the city.

The city spent nearly $3 million in a federal court battle trying to enforce the remaining two years of the lease, while Bennett's attorneys argued that remaining in Seattle would cause financial hardship on the team and ownership group.

Then came the stunning, final twist: the city and Bennett's group agreeing to a settlement on the afternoon the decision in the court case was to be announced. The resolution left fans feeling bitter and angry.

"There was just a feeling that somehow it wouldn't happen. And when you operate on faith sometimes faith lets you down," Robinson said.

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels has staunchly defended his decision, even if it means getting heckled by disgruntled fans around the city.

"I have a dual responsibility: No. 1 to the taxpayers of Seattle, and No. 2 to the significant debt on KeyArena," he said recently. "We were only going to have two more years with the Sonics (before their lease ended).

"Now, the bonds are paid off. We're financially in the clear and have flexibility to move forward in the future."

Nickels' reasoning makes sense, but fans are connected by emotion and mention of the Sonics illicits varied reactions.

For 86-year-old Helen Stanger, the Sonics departure for Oklahoma City left her unemployed.

Well, in truth, Stanger was ready to retire from her 20-year position as the "per diem specialist," making sure the players got their per diems throughout the season. Stanger and her husband were basketball fans, and she picked up the job as a volunteer to fill time after her husband died in 1987.

What came with the job were endless relationships with players and their families. Patrick Ewing called Stanger his girlfriend. She admits to being in love with former assistant coach Dwane Casey, despite being 35 years his senior. Her saddest moment wasn't the Sonics' final home game last April.

"The one I felt the worst about the last game that Nate McMillan coached (at the end of the 2004-05 season)," Stanger said. "Nate and I were the best of friends for so many years."

As for the now Oklahoma City Thunder?

"I'm a realist. I had a feeling the day (Bennett) bought them that was what was going to happen."

Before he became an NFL wide receiver, Nate Burleson was a basketball junkie. As a fifth-grader, he got a chance to perform in a charity event at the old Seattle Center Coliseum during halftime of a Sonics game. The number of free throws the kids made determined the amount of money the Sonics would donate to travel for their summer league basketball team.

"I remember, I believe it was Nate McMillan (who said) 'that kid can shoot.' I was like 'I'm going to be an NBA player,"' Burleson recalled. "That was as far as my hoops dreams went."

The departure of the Sonics is even tougher for Burleson this season, who often showed up at games with his Seattle Seahawks teammates. Burleson's football season is done after a serious knee injury in the opener.

Now, it's rehab and watching basketball games from afar.

"There's definitely a void," Burleson said. "... And with the teams struggling as a whole in the state of Washington, it's even tougher."

Any future for the NBA in Seattle now sits with the Washington Legislature. A group of local businessmen, headed by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, remains behind a $300 million renovation of KeyArena that would include $150 million from Ballmer's group. Even former players like Gary Payton have expressed an interest in getting involved.

Another $75 million would come from the city. The final piece is contingent on the Legislature authorizing a diversion of 1 percent of the hotels tax in Seattle from the convention and visitors bureau to the city.

NBA commissioner David Stern said immediately after the settlement between the city and Bennett that the league would help Seattle acquire a team if the state approves money to remodel the arena. If the money is approved and the city does not have a new team by 2013, Bennett is required to pay another $30 million to the city.

All those factors lead many involved to believe there will be an NBA team again in the Emerald City. The question is when?

"I'm always trying to think of what we can do that is positive (and) how we can get a team back," Robinson said. "If we want to get into finger pointing on this issue, there are so many fingers to be pointed and there is such a terrible history that nobody is innocent.

"We're going to do our best and work to get a new team, and I think we're really well-positioned to do that."

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: October 24, 2008


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