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The villainization of David Stern in Seattle

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The NBA has set the stage for a vote to keep the Kings in Sacramento next week. Some in Seattle are angry at David Stern for doing exactly what they wanted him to do in 2008. Is that fair?


In 2008, the people of Seattle and many allies across the nation screamed as Clay Bennett sandbagged the Emerald City on an arena deal and gained approval to move the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. David Stern, the commissioner who brought Bennett into the NBA and who ignored (for the most part) the dishonest exit plan the Oklahomans implemented, received a good portion of Seattle's anger. (I say "for the most part" because he did fine minority partner Aubrey McClendon for an inappropriately honest email about taking the Sonics to OKC ASAP that came out into the public eye.) Stern ripped Seattle and Washington state politicians for their lack of reverence to the NBA and dismissed a last-minute push by Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer to keep the Sonics where they'd been for 41 years.

Basically, Stern didn't give Seattle, particularly its politicians, the benefit of the doubt.

More: Kings coverage at Sactown Royalty Seattle coverage at Sonics Rising

Fast forward to 2013. An out-of-towner cut a deal to buy a team he planned to move immediately. That team had decades of strong local support, and there were investors willing and able to buy the team and keep it in place. Elected officials had stepped up and continued to step up to ensure an arena deal with public investment would be in place. And Stern gave that city and its politicians the benefit of the doubt. Stern did the exact opposite of what he'd done in Seattle.

And Seattle, or at least a vocal minority in Seattle, hate him for it. Because that out-of-towner is Chris Hansen, and he intended to take the Kings to Seattle. But next week, the NBA Board of Governors is expected to reject relocation, forcing Hansen to pull out of his purchase agreement and forcing the Maloofs to continue bluffing about their financial state or sell the club to a Sacramento investor group.

If Stern did wrong in 2008, he did right in 2013. That seems obvious ... but it's also pretty easy to see why some in Seattle are so angry about what's happened. This is a "right" that isn't at all correcting a "wrong" because the wronged party (Seattle) isn't getting made whole. It's nothing like justice, where the aggrieved receive considerations. It's more a positive development in NBA custom: Sacramento has set a precedent in which relocation must be justified as a failure of the incumbent city.

The league -- and at least one of its owners -- has said that the 7-0 vote by the relocation committee to recommend rejecting the move was about Sacramento, not Seattle. One imagines that if that were the standard in 2008, Seattle may have had a better chance of convincing more owners to reject relocation. Instead, relocation to OKC passed 28-2. (Seattle native and Ballmer friend Paul Allen and Mark Cuban voted against it.)

So it's perfectly understandable that Seattle would be upset with Stern: his apparent change of heart about the burden of persuasion on relocation decisions came five years too late for the Emerald City.

(That said -- and at the substantial risk of being called very bad names -- there's sufficient evidence that Seattle's elected class did, through arrogance and ineptitude, tank the city's bid to keep the team in 2008, which makes the relocation decisions different enough to suggest that nothing has changed at the NBA level. In other words, the Seattle/Washington political structure's attitude from 2005-08 on this issue is so diametrically different than what Sacramento and California have offered in the past three years that the comparison is unworkable from any elevation lower than 10,000 feet. Stern's feelings on relocation possibly have changed, but Sacramento's political structure has done so much more than Seattle's did that it'd be impossible to tell.

So the vocal minority in Seattle can believe one of two things: Stern learned from a mistake in Seattle and decided not to inflict that pain on a second city, or Sacramento simply succeeded where Seattle -- particularly its elected officials -- failed. My guess is that a few of the loudest folks will pick Option C: Stern hates Seattle and has done everything in his power to punish the city. And down the rabbit hole they go.)

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