We Sonics fans knew this day was coming.
We knew it back in 2008, that stinking, rancid, lame-duck year when we saw flashes of Kevin Durant’s future dominance just as the powers that be inexorably moved to steal away the team to Oklahoma. We knew it, even as it turned us into temporary Mavericks fans last year and made us crave a late-career Tim Duncan miracle this year. We knew that youth, talent and hunger were eventually going to win out.
We knew it, and still, it hurts. Bad. At the moment, being a Sonics fan is like getting dumped and seeing your ex go on to star in a movie opposite Brad Pitt. And not even Tree of Life, take-me-seriously Brat Pitt, but climax-inducing Thelma and Louise Brad Pitt.
Like true impotents, there’s nothing we can do about it but vent our rage on sports radio and Twitter—quick tokes of bluster that end with us sinking into even deeper despair.
Why so much fury?
Well first, our team was jacked in true gangster style—a group of outsiders fronted by Clay Bennett rode into town, spat in our faces and took what they wanted, with an assist from the blowhard Howard Schultz and fluffing by David Stern.
If it were a Kurosawa movie, we’d at least have Toshiro Mifune to slice Bennett from head to pelvis. As it was, our politicians played the craven village leaders who bow and scrape before their masters for mercy; they received a Bennett pistol-whipping for their efforts.
We know this story by heart. Every twist and turn has been excruciatingly cataloged in the film Sonicsgate, our own Titanic, in which we end up sinking towards the bottom of the sea while Bennett sails off dandling Kate Winslet.
It’s not just that the heist succeeded. It’s that the crooks not only took our team, but our history.
We see the Oklahoma Thunder hats with “1967” on them, the year the franchise started in Seattle. We see the Thunder media guide that references Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, as if either has ever set foot in Oklahoma.
Worst of all, Bennett even boxed up and carted away the championship banners and jerseys that hung from the rafters of Key Arena. The guy even owns the 1979 championship trophy, which he is kind enough to loan out to a Seattle museum for display.
We thought we owned that history and that no one could take it. We cheered for Spencer Haywood when he came to town in 1970, ran on to the streets when the Sonics won it all in 1979 and lost it when Payton and Kemp flushed down alley-oops in the 1990s.
We all maintain our personal databases of highlights: Lenny Wilkens’ cool control from the bench; Slick Watts in his headband; “Downtown” Freddie Brown dropping bombs; Dennis Johnson putting on the defensive clampdown; Jack Sikma’s perm; Gus Williams flying off on a break; Tom Chambers’ two-hand jams; Xavier McDaniel’s snarl; Nate McMillan surveying the offense from the point; the cool professionalism of Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins.
Those memories are connected to nights with our families, messing around with our friends or just sitting and luxuriating in Kevin Calabro’s mesmerizing play-by-plays.
And it’s not even all about those fuzzy, golden remembrances. We’re also imprinted with Benoit Benjamin’s loafing, fat Vin Baker, Jim McIlvaine’s overcompensated mediocrity and Vernon Maxwell chucking a dumbbell at Gary Payton.
After a sustained slide toward terrible, the 2007 Kevin Durant draft pick was our first sign of hope in years.
When the Sonics were ripped away, it made us question what it was all worth. Maybe we were just fools all those years, loving something that not only couldn’t love us back, but could be sold out from under us.
Most of us will say we bear no ill will toward Oklahoma’s fans—except the ones who troll our message boards—but that’s not quite true. Really, when we look at Oklahoma fans, waving their cute Thunder sticks and yelling their heads off, we see frauds, people behaving as if they’re entitled to this team, not simply the beneficiaries of some nasty backroom dealing.
We know that, without a series of nauseating circumstances piling up to open the door to the pilfering, we’d be the ones cheering—that would be our team. And that makes us even more uneasy.
Because, Thunder fans, whatever bickering might occur between us—we are essentially you, and you are us.
We find you to be dolts because you applaud as if this all weren't an amusement predicated on the whims of a few rich men, as if the brilliance on the court reflects on you as individuals. We once harbored the same illusions.
What we wish for most is our innocence—or our ignorance, really—the thought that somewhere, in some universe, none of this had ever happened, and it was us basking in the aura of Durant, Westbrook and Harden’s staggering talent.
Instead, we’ve got a hedge funder who has a plan to build an arena and lure a troubled team—the Kings are currently in the crosshairs—to Seattle. We alternate between hope of getting our Sonics back and the realization, as much as we might try to shut it out, that if this happens, we’re just playing Bennett and Stern’s game.
If it happens, some of us will swear off the NBA forever and will stick to that. Others might follow along, but never with a full heart. Some will buy season tickets, go to the games and appear to cheer as if nothing ever happened.
But it did, and none of us who grew up with the Sonics will ever forget that.
So in the meantime, those of us who aren’t too bitter will turn on the television Tuesday night and watch the game. And that collective roar of rage, pain and catharsis you hear whenever Dwyane Wade hits a pull-up jumper or LeBron slams home a put-back?
That will be us.
Doug Merlino literally wrote the book on Seattle basketball, The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. Follow him on Twitter @dougmerlino.