The Seattle SuperSonics went on a road trip in 2008 and never came back.
That’s when owner Clay Bennett moved the franchise and the Oklahoma City Thunder were born. Seattle Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer says the Thunder’s current success started when Seattle drafted future superstar Kevin Durant in 2007. And that makes this year’s Western Conference Finals even harder on Sonics fans.
“Once the team moved to Oklahoma City, they had Durant. They had Russell Westbrook. They had the foundation for a great basketball team," Brewer said. "That team was going to be a winner whether they were in Seattle, Oklahoma City, or Tahiti."
The reasons for the move were complex. Bennett, who bought the SuperSonics in 2006, is from Oklahoma. Seattle’s Key Arena was considered subpar by NBA standards, but there wasn’t much public support for building a new facility. Attendance was down, but some observers say rumors about the team moving made things worse. And many reports mention how bad the Sonics were in their final few seasons, but in 2005 they had reached the second round of the playoffs. Jason Reid directed Sonicsgate, a documentary about the team’s departure. He says it’s frustrating to watch franchise’s best season in years from more than 1900 miles away.
"People are upset and the better the Thunder do, the more upset people get. So out of all this anger and frustration with the team moving, it’s created a community and brought NBA basketball fans back together," Reid said. "We’re stronger and louder than ever. They aren’t rooting for the Thunder, but they’re watching and rooting against the Thunder."
Six-time NBA All-Star Shawn Kemp spent the bulk of his career in Seattle and still lives there. In an interview last week on radio station KJR, Kemp said the Thunder offered him front row seats to a first-round playoff game against Denver - an offer he swatted into the stands.
“I don’t think it’d be too smooth for the people around here to look up one day and see me sitting on the front row for the Oklahoma Thunder. People back here deserve basketball. It was taken and robbed from these people in this area," said Kemp, who went to the NBA Finals with Seattle in 1996. "My loyalty remains in this area for these people until they get a team back. I won’t be sitting on anybody’s front row until the Sonics is back in action.”
But while Seattle may still be mourning the loss of its team, fans in Oklahoma City are ecstatic the NBA has come to town. Berry Tramel is a sports columnist for The Oklahoman.
“99.7 percent of the seats were sold this season. You see the [Thunder] car flags flying all over the state like it's the state of Alabama or something," Tramel said. "It's really gone ga-ga. It's a statewide phenomenon, over in Tulsa, the other big metropolitan area in the state [they're] huge Thunder fans. So, [the team has] really taken Oklahoma by storm.”
The Thunder’s success has driven some Sonics fans to turn on one of Seattle’s native sons. Thunder guard Nate Robinson grew up in Seattle and attended the University of Washington. But when Robinson tweeted that Oklahoma City fans are “the best on the planet” he was heavily criticized in his hometown. That’s when Seattle fans crossed the line in the eyes of Times columnist Jerry Brewer.
“It got to the point where Nate Robinson’s mother had to go on a local radio station and defend her son. Nate Robinson couldn’t be more Seattle. He’s got the city skyline tattooed on back. He’s got the area code, 206, tattooed on his body as well. Why couldn’t we give him the benefit of the doubt?”
Royce Young runs the blog, DailyThunder dot com. Young says there’s some bad blood between Seattle and OKC, but he and many other Thunder fans feel for the Sonics faithful.
"I’ve never liked the fact that we had to take another city’s team to have our own team. We’re all absolutely in love with [the Thunder]," Young said. "I can’t imagine growing up with them and my future children falling in love with these players and 40 years from now somebody taking it away."
There is a small, grassroots movement working to bring the NBA back to Seattle, but even if it succeeds, the team’s official history is long gone. The deal to move the franchise to OKC allowed the Thunder to retain all of the Sonics history. That’s 41 years of Seattle basketball, including three trips to the NBA Finals and the 1979 NBA title. But Young says most Thunder fans would have preferred a clean start.
"We don’t care about Downtown Freddie Brown or Gary Payton or Shawn Kemp. And I’m sure that breaks a lot of Seattle people’s hearts, but I mean, that wasn’t our team," Young said. "That wasn’t our franchise. Our franchise started in 2008 with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and those guys."
When dared to repeat his comments to former Seattle SuperSonics big man Xavier McDaniels’ face, Young laughed, but quickly declined.
"I definitely wouldn’t say that to the X-Man," the blogger replied.
Depending on how you see it, tonight’s game against the Dallas Mavericks at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City is the Thunder’s first home game in the Western Conference finals … or their first since 1996. Either way, it’s Game 3.
This segment aired on May 21, 2011.