11 January 2013

Seattle Sonics Reprise? Or Meet the Seattle Kings?

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

The Maloofs are thisclose to selling a majority share of the Sacramento Kings to a group from Seattle who wants to bring an NBA franchise back to Seattle. The Sonics left in 2008 and relocated to Oklahoma City. Since then, hardcore Sonics fans stomached the bittersweet rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder as they transformed into one of the premier teams in the Western Conference and battled the Miami Heat in last season's NBA Finals.

Last year, rumors swirled that the Maloofs intended to move the Kings from Sacramento to Orange County and play their home games in Anaheim at the Pond (where the Ducks play their hockey games). The cable TV deals in the affluent O.C. were significantly more lucrative than the greater Sacramento area and the Kings could reach a wider audience in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Discussions cooled down and the Maloofs balked on shipping the Kings to the O.C. after they drew the ire of owners from both the Clippers and Lakers. It was ambitious to think that SoCal could support three pro hoops teams. Then again, SoCal is a peculiar sports market mainly because Los Angeles is largest city in America without an NFL team, yet it has no problems supporting two MLB teams, two NHL teams, a pro soccer club, and of course, two other NBA franchises.

The Pacific Northwest seemed like a logical choice for relocation. From a geographical standpoint, a move from Sacramento to Seattle would keep the Pacific Division in tact and not upset the harmony and balance in the NBA. The league would have a major realignment issue if the Kings moved to one of the Midwest cities lacking a NBA presence like St. Louis or Kansas City.

I lived in Seattle in the late 90s in the post-grunge era when the Seahawks struggled, the Mariners were one of the best teams in the West, and the Sonics were a perennial playoff team. The Sonics played their home games at Key Arena in the shadow of the Seattle Space Needle. Key Arena was more like a college gymnasium and lacked swanky luxury boxes, but one of the concession stands tried to cater to the yuppie crowd serving sushi and craft beers.

Sonics fans were too subdued for my taste, compared to the raucous insanity at Seahawks games. There was an underlying class differential among the grouping of fans. Seahawks faithfuls were working-class Joes, but the majority of Sonics season ticket holders were yuppified and included a huge influx of new money from the dotcom-ers.

I attended a Sonics game one night and witnessed an incident that foreshadowed the eventual departure of the Sonics for another city with more fervent fans. I went to the game with four friends. One of them boisterously cheered for the home team, occasionally jumping up to give our group high-fives whenever Shawn Kemp threw down a thunderous dunk or whenever Gary Payton drilled a three pointer. He got scolded not once, but three different times by three different fans because they felt he was either too loud, or standing up too much.

Yeah, a Sonics fan got hushed by other fans for cheering too loud. Talk about the beginning of the end.

I feel bad for the Sonics super fans. They're part of a close-knit community of diehards who attended every home game and never missed a play but they were such a tiny minority because Seattle is generally a fair-weathered sports town. The Sonics' fanbase was spread out in the Seattle suburbs and surrounding islands in Puget Sound, and scattered across Washington state and Idaho. A majority of fans couldn't commute to home games as easily is the case for most east coast squads. For example, the Knicks sold out Madison Square Garden even when they had terrible teams, because fans could easily ride the subway to the game or take a train to Penn Station, a major suburban rail hub located right underneath the Garden.

Seattle lost the Sonics in 2008 and their diehards went into mourning. The outlook was bleak. It was the second NBA franchise to flee the Northwest that decade after the Vancouver Grizzlies bailed for Memphis in 2001. Basketball fans in Washington state did not give up. They prayed that they could entice a struggling franchise like the New Orleans Hornets to make a new home in Seattle.

Enter the Maloofs. The family has fallen on financial hardships and sold their stake in the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. They also want to sell a majority share of the Kings to the Seattle group, yet retain a small piece. If the deal goes through, professional basketball could return to Seattle as early as next season. Games will be played at ancient Key Arena until a new stadium will be constructed presumably in the SoDo district where the Mariners and Seahawks play in state-of-the-art stadiums.

The Sonics reached the upper echelons of popular culture two decades earlier when Xavier "X-man" McDaniel made a cameo in Singles, a film about a group of Generation X'ers seeking validation and love in rainy Seattle amidst the grunge subculture. During an awkward sex scene, the main character struggled to prevent premature ejaculation, so he conjured up the X-man to help him out. X-man stole the scene with his famous line... "Steve, don't come yet."

For the sake of basketball fans in the Pacific Northwest, I hope they find a resolution and a new team. Then again, the move will come at the expense of another city's fan base. Sacramento Kings fans are on the cusp of getting kicked to the gutter as the latest group of sports fans to get shafted by the economics of professional sports. The Kings were the only game in town for Sacramento residents, and I doubt they will get a new franchise in the immediate future. Although Sacramento is the capital of California, the city's residents incurred a huge hit during the real estate bust. Most of the wealth disappeared overnight and the remaining market is not viable enough to support an NBA team. Sacramento's loss will be Seattle's gain.

If the Kings find a new home in Seattle, will the new owners retain the "Kings" name and use their colors (purple and black)? Or will they reboot the old team name and return to the emerald green and gold uniforms and usher in the era of the Sonics 2.0? 

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