Thursday, May 16, 2013

Seattle and the NBA: Time to Just Walk Away

Chris Hansen's problem is that he isn't a big enough scumbag.

You see, the reason the NBA this week turned away Hansen's bid to buy the Sacramento Kings and move them to Seattle was that he was honest about his intentions. If he had followed the established NBA model, he would have gone about this thing entirely differently.

Clearly, the chief reasoning of NBA owners for declining to add Hansen and Steve Ballmer to their list of owners was that they were from Seattle. When the NBA ripped their team of 41 years out of Seattle back in 2007, it was intended as an object lesson for the rest of the league: Unless you bow to our extortion demands, you will lose your team.

Sacramento, obviously, got that lesson. After teetering on losing the Kings because of the failure to build a new arena, the city gave up every ounce of its soul in its desperate effort to keep the NBA in town. The new arena deal requires the taxpayers to foot about 60 percent of the tab.

So of course the NBA was going to reward the city that gave in to their extortion demands. And it would continue to punish the city that insists on limiting the taxpayers' role in enriching billionaire owners and their exposure to ever-ratcheting arena costs.

You see, Seattle thought it had done everything right for years. Its fans always supported the Sonics -- even when they sucked, the team still averaged 15,000 a game -- and were among the most rabid and knowledgeable in the league. (I was myself a season ticket holder for over a decade.) There's a reason so many NBA teams are populated with players from Seattle high schools: It is a basketball-saturated town.

We even bellied up to the bar in the 1990s on the arena demands -- spent $100 million tearing apart and renovating the old Seattle Center Coliseum, three-quarters of which was paid for by Seattle taxpayers. When it reopened in 1995, David Stern came and proclaimed the new facility as state-of-the-art for the next generation.

Six years later, it was no longer good enough for the NBA. Or so said then-owner Howard Schultz, who demanded a whole new arena from city, state, and regional leaders. Those folks, of course, were still paying off the bonds for the supposedly state-of-the-art arena they had just refurbished, not to mention their new football and baseball stadiums, and weren't exactly eager to take Schultz's extortion demands seriously -- especially since, in the early part of the decade, much of the town was hurting economically.

So Schultz -- who to this day is the least popular billionaire in town -- threw a fit of pique and sold the team to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett. Everyone immediately understood that Bennett intended to move the team to Oklahoma. But Bennett, wide-eyed and innocent, proclaimed piously that this was not the case.

Bennett, as documents later unearthed during the departure debacle disclosed, is a prodigious liar. At the same time he was telling Seattle fans all they had to do to keep their team was step up to the plate and deliver on their new arena plan, he was telling his business associates that moving the team to OKC was a done deal.

And that arena plan was a doozy. Bennett proposed building a $500 million arena in the relatively remote southern suburb of Renton, right next to the two worst traffic intersections in the state. Oh, and his investors were only willing to pay $100 million, at the most, for their share of the building. Of course, the state Legislature knew when it was being gamed and declined to play along. Soon the moving trucks had backed up and our team was playing in Oklahoma City for an ownership group comprised of proven liars and scumbags.

Clay Bennett, of course, was then named to head up the same relocation committee that was summarily slapped down the Seattle bid this time. Because that's the kind of league this is.

If Chris Hansen had really wanted to be part of this league, he should have understood that. If Hansen had really wanted to succeed in getting a team back to Seattle, he should have followed the established NBA model. Clay Bennett's model.\

He should have bought the Kings and lied about it. He should have claimed that he wanted to try to keep the team in Sacramento and was willing to work with locals. Then he could have proposed building a new arena in Davis and soaking taxpayers for 80 percent of the tab. And when they balked (as anyone sane would) Hansen and Co. could have packed up stakes and moved them up to Seattle.

That's the established NBA model. Which raises the question: Why would anyone want to get in bed with a business that toxic and dysfunctional in the first place?

We really don't want to be the NBA's Los Angeles -- the extortion threat the league can hang over every other city. Having just been the NBA's bitch, there's really no appetite here to be its tool as well.

This just-finished episode has just reminded everyone in Seattle what they were first taught eight years ago: The NBA is a malignant, dysfunctional entity that preys on cities people's normative civic pride and exploits that for the sake of enriching a few millionaires, who are the real owners of these teams. Cities don't own them, and Seattle was always intended to remind everyone else of that.

Thanks to David Stern, the NBA today is by, about, and for the 1 percent, while suckering the 99 percent into thinking it's about them. Quite a game, really. And when you see that from the outside, as Seattle basketball fans must, the desire to get back in just melts away.

It's time to just walk away from the NBA. We can still be a hoops city. It will be harder, but the foundation is already well in place. And we can find other diversions as well. How about those Sounders, eh?

The NBA can come back some day. But it has to be on our terms. It has to be our team, not something stolen from another city. By then, David Stern will be long gone. And so, perhaps, will be the scumbag ethos that rules the league.

No comments: