The Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings played a preseason basketball game — in Seattle. It was the first time the northwestern city saw an NBA game played in town since the SuperSonics were re-located and re-branded over a decade ago. It also marked Kevin Durant’s first return to the city that drafted him since the team was ripped from Seattle’s hands in 2008.
The preseason game was an eery reminder of a Seattle city and fan base that had its team sold and moved south. It’s also a reminder of the city’s longwinded fight to bring the NBA back where it belongs.
The fight received a sign of encouragement in December, with the National Hockey League awarding the city of Seattle its own team starting in 2021.
The fight began when ownership announced the sale of the team and rages on to this day. Here’s a comprehensive timeline of Seattle’s loss, and its fight to reclaim NBA basketball.
July 18, 2006 — The Sale
After failing to obtain Washington state funding to update Seattle’s KeyArena — a venue deemed unacceptable by NBA standards — then-CEO and majority owner Howard Schultz sold the SuperSonics, and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, to Professional Basketball Club (PBC) LLC for $350 million. PBC is comprised of a group of businessmen from Oklahoma City led by Clay Bennett.
Schultz reportedly sold the franchise to Bennett with the assurances that Bennett would not move the SuperSonics out of the city.
At the time of the deal, Bennett wrote in a letter to Schultz: “It is our desire to have the Sonics and the Storm continue their existence in the Greater Seattle Area, and it is not our intention to move or relocate the teams so long, of course, as we are able to negotiate an attractive successor venue and lease arrangement.”
But in an e-mail chain between Bennett and the other members of his Oklahoma City group later obtained by Seattle attorneys, there were other motivations behind his purchase of the team:
Tom Ward: “Is there any way to move here for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?” Ward wrote.
Bennett: “I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!”
Ward: “That’s the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here next year.”
Anthony McClendon: “Me too, thanks Clay!”
In an interview a few months later, McClendon admitted to the Oklahoma Journal-Record: “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here. We know it’s a little more difficult financially here in Oklahoma City, but we think it’s great for the community and if we could break even we’d be thrilled.”
Then NBA commissioner David Stern was made aware of McClendon’s comments and told Bennett there would be a huge fine in his future if those comments were true. Bennett later wrote to McClendon in an e-mail: “Yes sir, we get killed on this one. I don’t mind the PR ugliness (pretty used to it), but I am concerned from a legal standpoint that your statement could perhaps undermine our basic premise of ‘good faith best efforts’ ... “
Stern later fined Bennett a record at the time: $250,000.
Nov. 2, 2007 — The announcement
Bennett had his sights set on building a $500 million arena complex in the Renton suburb of Seattle. He asked Washington state government to foot $300 million of the cost, a bill that would have been passed along to the county’s taxpayers.
The state government decided against providing funding for the arena complex. On Nov. 2, 2007, Bennett told Stern he intended to relocate the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City once he got out of his lease with KeyArena. Bennett continued to maintain his stance that he would not move the SuperSonics outside of Seattle if the city and its movers and shakers came up with “a firm plan and funding mechanism for a new arena.” All the while, Oklahoma City residents had already agreed to an increase in tax for a basketball team in their city.
“Barring an 11th-hour save by Seattle,” wrote Greg Jones of Seattle P-I on this date, “the Sonics’ move could come as early as next season if the Oklahoma-based owners win their current lawsuit with the city.”
April 16, 2007 — One last dance
The SuperSonics defeated the Warriors, 126-121, in their final home game at KeyArena. Kevin Durant scored 42 points in 43 minutes. He didn’t have much help out there, either.
April 18, 2008 — The vote
The NBA’s Board of Governors — comprised of the owners of each NBA team — voted 28-2 in favor of Bennett’s ownership group’s motion to move the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. The only two holdouts were Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban and Portland Trail Blazers’ owner Paul Allen.
The city of Seattle also filed a lawsuit against Bennett’s ownership group to keep the SuperSonics in Seattle through the remainder of the lease at KeyArena which expired in 2010.
July 2, 2008 — Lease terminated
The Seattle City Council terminated the Seattle SuperSonics’ lease with KeyArena in exchange for a $45 million payment to the city.
“This is not the optimum solution anyone was hoping for,” council president Richard Conlin said. “The optimum solution would have been for the team to stay here, but that did not seem to be an option.”
The terms of the agreement also called for Bennett to pay the city of Seattle $30 million if a new NBA team was not moved to the city within the next five years.
“The city council is basically put [between] a rock and a hard place on this,” said council member Bruce Harrell. “If we don’t terminate the lease by today, then we walk away from $45 million.”
Oct. 8, 2008 — The first appearance
Oct. 14, 2008 — The grand opening
The Thunder play their first official home game against the Los Angeles Clippers in Oklahoma City at the Ford Center, later renamed Chesapeake Energy Arena in 2011. Headline: “Clippers spoil Thunder’s Oklahoma City debut.”
2011 — NBA Lockout
The 2011 NBA Lockout was a work stoppage that shrunk an 82-game NBA season to just 60. But it also created a killer deal for NBA owners by spiking the overall value of NBA franchises. After that spike in value, owners started holding onto their franchises by tooth and nail.
February 2012 — Who is Chris Hansen?
In the months leading up to February, a hedge fund manager purchased land south of Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners. His name was Chris Hansen, and he told Seattle officials an arena could be built on that land without a huge tax implication on its residents.
David Stern said shortly after in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune: ““Everyone says to us, ‘Well, would you consider going back?’ Of course, if they have a building. And so that’s where it’s left. We have no involvement,” Stern said. “But we certainly are — if anyone asks us, we tell them what we know and we’re happy to talk to them. ... There’s no shortage of potential sites, but the funding is a huge issue.”
Hansen, though, targeted the Sacramento Kings as a team to uproot and deliver back to his hometown. Kings fans were not thrilled:
On behalf of the 99 percent of us who make up the wonderful mosaic that is the great City of Sacramento, we have one message for the top 1/10th of the 1 percent who is engaged in actions detrimental to our community:
KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OUR KINGS.
March 2012 — Running out of options
Seattle moneymakers had been looking for any team in danger of running out of its lease. The New Orleans Pelicans (Hornets at the time) had been running on borrowed time, but the city agreed to throw $50 million toward arena improvements. Their lease runs through 2024.
The Bucks also faced pressure to get a new arena built. In 2012, they signed a six-year lease at the BMO Bradley Center, which gave them time to find funding for the new location. But in 2015, there were growing concerns that the city would not find enough funding to build a new location. And as part of the ownership deal by Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, the NBA could buy the team back if both a) the arena deal wasn’t in place by Nov. 2017 and b) the arena wasn’t in construction by the end of 2015.
The Bucks, though, later reached a deal and relocated to the newly constructed Fiserv Forum this season.
Sept. 2013 — Sale of the Kings
In the middle of the 2012-13 season, the Maloof family decided to sell the Sacramento Kings. But they nearly sold the franchise to Chris Hansen, whose intentions were to relocate the franchise to Seattle.
Hansen, though, was fined $50,000 for his role in attempting to stifle the city’s efforts to build a new arena in downtown Sacramento. The NBA subsequently rejected Hansen’s $625 million bid to buy the Kings. The Maloofs later sold the franchise to Vivek Ranadive for $535 million — an NBA record at the time.
2013 through 2016 — Hansen’s deal falls apart
Seattle City Council members, according to The Seattle Times, didn’t believe Hansen would be able to deliver on an NBA team before Dec. 2017. He was also asking the city for up to $200 million, and the council members weren’t sure if that much money was actually necessary. On top of it all, the Port of Seattle was threatening to sue if the vote to sell Hansen some land for the arena went his way.
”There was a lot of sentiment at the time that we shouldn’t vote at all,’’ then Seattle mayor and city council president Tim Burgess said. “That we should just wait and that there was no reason to proceed.’’
Hansen’s motion to buy the land he needed was rejected, 5-4.
But a new group with private funding for a new arena stepped in shortly after. Oak View Group (OVG) already had the funds secure to finance a new arena on its own. And it wasn’t banking on the SuperSonics expansion, rather it wanted to lure the National Hockey League out to the northwest.
Dec. 6, 2017 — An Understanding
Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan and OVG founder Tim Lieweke signed a $660 million Memorandum of Understanding. This cleared the way for a privately financed arena by 2020.
According to reports, at one point during the conference, Durkan ripped her jacket open, revealing a Seattle SuperSonics jersey inside.
August 1, 2018 — Center stage
After nearly a decade without an NBA team — the reason being a severely outdated home court arena — the Oak View Group (OVG) and Seattle Hockey Partners (SHP) agree to donate $700 million toward renovations for KeyArena. OVG says this is “largest private investment in Pacific Northwest sports and entertainment history.”
Sept. 24, 2018 — The stamp of approval
$700 million worth of privately funded money toward renovating KeyArena was unanimously approved by Seattle’s City Council. The deal meant the National Hockey League could expand to Seattle as early as the 2020-21 season.
It also meant that KeyArena would be updated to NBA standards. If the league were to expand again, Seattle had cleared the way to host a team.
Oct. 3, 2018 — An endorsement
Ahead of the Oct. 4 matchup between the Warriors and Kings in Seattle, Kevin Durant was asked if he think the city will be home to an NBA team again.
“For sure,” Durant told ESPN. “Most definitely. It’s a basketball city. It’s a sports town. ... They have a good representation of basketball in the NBA from Seattle-born players, Washington state-born players. And I feel like that whole brand deserves an NBA team. Just like the Golden State Warriors deserve a team or the Los Angeles Lakers deserve a team, Seattle is that same way. [A team] has that same type of impact in the community. So [we have] a lot of time in life before this whole thing is over, and I’m sure we’ll see a team before it’s time.”
The NBA isn’t planning an expansion in the immediate future, but when it does, commissioner Adam Silver says Seattle is among the cities the league will give strong consideration. Sonics fans deserve NBA basketball, maybe more than any other city. And with the new arena renovations, they have put themselves in position to reclaim it.