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The (Not So Super) Sonics

John Moe

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The Seattle SuperSonics watch a lead dwindle.
(Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images)
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"I would like to think I'm a Sonics fan."

That's something you don't often hear a die-hard fan say about his favorite team. Paul Merrill grew up with the Seattle SuperSonics and writes a blog about the team.

Paul's the biggest Sonics fan I know, but he isn't sure what he is anymore. "I'm not sure if the team playing right now is the Sonics. They might be the Oklahoma City Bombers. You know, I don't know who this team is out there."

Granted, Seattle is a city more prone to angst and self-analysis than most--all that coffee and rain. But there is a mood among basketball fans that stands in stark contrast to the raw, screaming energy that's supposed to accompany sports fandom. It's a darker mood brought about by the 2006 sale of the team to a group of Oklahoma investors.

"Right now it's in court. The Sonics have applied to the NBA to move to Oklahoma City. But they have a lease at Key Arena through 2010," says Seth Kolloen. He's the executive editor of the magazine Sports Northwest, and, like most locally born men, a lifelong Sonics fan. "It's a question of when they'll get to move the team. Will they get to move the team after this year? Not likely. After next year? Probably."

What's heartbreaking for fans is that in this fight, the bad guys, the guys who want to take away the team, are referred to as The Sonics, the same name of the team the fans have loved for over 40 years. Continuing to buy tickets puts money in those owners' pockets. But to walk away from the team violates the way you've been living as a fan for your whole life. You can't cheer. It feels wrong to boo, and you're too passionate to simply stop caring.

Seth Kolloen is trying another approach. "I've sort of slowly been shifting my affiliation down south to the Blazers, which is Portland. I realize that if the Sonics leave, then the Blazers are our area's NBA team. So the eye that I would normally keep on the Sonics, that eye is really looking at Portland right now."

So, as his marriage crumbles, he's checking out the neighbor. Thing is, the neighbor is a better match. The Portland Trailblazers are owned by a Seattleite billionaire. They have two starters from Seattle high schools, and their coach is a guy who spent his entire playing career with the Sonics. But the Blazers are also the Sonics' arch-rival, making it all seem so wrong and so right.

For some reason, the analogy of romantic love comes up a lot. "I've thought about the Sonics -- especially Kevin Durant -- as this amazing young player, as the equivalent of meeting this very attractive girl who is everything you always wanted but she might be moving out of town," says Kolloen. "So do you invest all this in her or do you just say, echh, you know? I'll go with someone who I know is going to be here."

The limbo of the Sonics is not just a personal issue either. It's also economic for Sam MacDonald. He's the general manager at Floyd's Place, a barbecue joint and sports bar near Key Arena, where the Sonics play.

"I started working here seven years ago," he says, "and when I started, this place was wall- to-wall packed on Sonics nights, especially on weekends. Our business is definitely off because of it."

MacDonald says the hardcore fans still cheer just as loud for the team, but even they seem to be carrying a weight on their shoulders. Cheering for a team that doesn't want to be your team. "All around, people want some sort of closure. They want an answer to what's going to happen with the Sonics. I don't know what's going on and I'd like to know what's happening with this."

Of course, what often ends up happening in these situations is that, yes, the team leaves. So what will happen to these conversations then? The Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Michael Shapiro is a professor at Columbia University and author of "The Last Good Season," a book about the Dodgers and Brooklyn. "When the Dodgers left, what Brooklyn lost was a common topic of conversation. For six months of the year, for as long as anyone could remember, the Dodgers played baseball.

"When you took the Dodgers away, that conversation ended. The kind of conversation you'd have waiting for the bus, waiting for an elevator, waiting at the butcher shop with strangers, in a way, that really only happens when you have a team. It mattered. It made a difference," he says.

So instead of love-gone-bad, it's more like death. For now, Sonics fans are left with feelings similar to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Will they ever reach acceptance?

"No," says blogger Paul Merrill. "I don't want to accept it, because there's a crime being committed, it feels like. This guy's walking in and killing the team in front of us and dragging the corpse off to Oklahoma."

As we talked, Paul's six-year-old son, James, sat listening to his dad. I asked him who his favorite player on the Sonics was. "I like everyone in the Sonics," he said.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By James raghianti

    From Seattle, WA, 02/19/2008

    See, What the national media don't realize is there is support here for the Sonics as there is 1 identified and 2 quiet ownership groups wanting to buy the group..

    What also is Clay Bennett wanted a Taj Mahal for Basketball that was never going to pass. We have offered a renovated Key Arena for 200 million but he's going to take a revamped arena in OKC for 120 million..

    That just shows he never had any intention of keeping the team here

    By Mark D'Antonio

    From Tampa, FL, 02/19/2008

    I went through this last year with my beloved Pittsburgh Penguins. It was hell. I grew up with the Penguins, and it looked like they were about to leave town and take Sidney Crosby with them.

    Even though I myself no longer lived in Pittsburgh, I couldn't stomach rooting for the team if they played in another city.

    Thankfully, it turned out alright for us. I hope it turns out alright for you.

    By Hank Summers

    From Cleveland, OH, 02/19/2008

    I lived through the Browns' move and can tell you that a team move isn't a big deal. The Browns filed left me in 1995 for another city and so I filed for emotional divorce, and I said to hell with them and took up with a younger woman, er, team, namely, the local college teams. (Ohio State, Kent State, Notre Dame, none of whom is going to move to either Baltimore or OKC). When a woman, er team, with the same name as the one who left me showed up 4 years later in 1999, I was able to say that I was no longer interested.

    By Jeremy Ward

    From Seattle, WA, 02/16/2008

    Fans are fighting back. We flew a banner in New Orleans today over the All Star Weekend festivities. Check it out: http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/sonics/archives/132065.asp

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