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Steve Aschburner

Seattle struck it rich with rookie Kevin Durant in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Seattle struck it rich with rookie Kevin Durant in the 2007 NBA Draft.

Spurned Seattle fans may end up sticking it to another city


Posted Sep 14, 2012 10:00 AM

Four years after anguishing through one of the nastiest divorces in sports history, NBA fans in Seattle are ready to date again.

They are on the rebound -- an appropriate term -- thanks to the agreement reached Tuesday between San Francisco businessman Chris Hansen and the Seattle City Council on a $490 million arena plan. The project is touted as a public/private partnership, with the city putting up about $200 million, and has as its goal the acquisition of NBA and NHL teams, though mostly the former.

Seattle, after all, was and presumably still is a pro basketball town. The SuperSonics played and generally thrived there for 41 years, enjoying more postseason success than the other two major-league franchises -- MLB's Mariners and the NFL's Seahawks -- combined. The Sonics went to the playoffs 22 times, reached the Finals three times and won the NBA championship in 1979.

Along the way, they featured some of the league's most dynamic players, from Spencer Haywood, Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, Fred Brown and Jack Sikma to Tom Chambers, Detlef Schrempf, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Kevin Durant. (That last one still strikes a nerve in the Pacific Northwest due to his sudden departure -- with the moving vans -- after his rookie season.)

Those players and the teams on which they played were beloved, cheered and eventually mourned when the franchise's local legend of an owner, Starbucks impresario Howard Schultz, sold to Clay Bennett and others in a group that promptly bolted for Oklahoma City. The Sonics became the Thunder, leaving Seattle its NBA nickname, a WNBA offshoot, outdated KeyArena and Squatch the mascot. But neither its record book nor future visits from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the sport's very best stayed.

Now, for the first time since being so unceremoniously dumped, Seattle might be poised for a glorious return to the NBA. All it needs to do to exit the ranks of the brokenhearted is shift to the ranks of the heartbreakers. This Jennifer Aniston can become an Angelina Jolie by simply targeting and swiping some other city's team.

Big-time professional sports is not for softies.

A story on Forbes.com Wednesday speculated about the franchises that Hansen and his group of investors could pursue. After conceding that the New Orleans Hornets, with new owner Tom Benson (and NBA commissioner David Stern's pledges to that city), probably are off the market, it provided thumbnails of the usual suspects: the Sacramento Kings, the Charlotte Bobcats, the Memphis Grizzlies and even the Milwaukee Bucks. Each of those has one or more of the contributing factors -- attendance woes, limited TV market, outdated arena, cash-strapped owners -- that typically drive a team's relocation.

The NBA isn't likely to expand anytime soon, so snagging one of the existing 30 teams for the Emerald City is Hansen's only realistic shot. With an offer of $400 million or so -- a buyout package that ends up in a businessman's pocket but does nothing for the people wearing replica jerseys or the kids with the Fatheads on their bedroom walls -- he could do to one of those cities what was done in 2008 to Seattle.

Remember, Seattle was a terrific NBA town, a place whose hoops heritage deserved better. This was an especially tough, emotional summer for Sonics fans, too, watching the team that was once theirs go to the Finals. For a minute, it looked as if the Thunder might even beat the Miami Heat for the NBA title. As one local told Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer in June, it felt "like being in your ex-girlfriend's wedding, and she looks better than she ever looked for you."

Another way to look at it is like the climactic end of "The Graduate," when Dustin Hoffman bangs on the glass high above the church floor, forlornly calling for "Elaine! ... Elaine!" as Katherine Ross' character is about to be wed. When Hoffman is able to fend off some irate wedding-goers and snatch the bride's hand, we root for him. When the two crazy kids hop onto a city bus, settling into the back seat in a classic, "Now what?" moment, the cameras follow them, same as our sympathies.

No one gives a passing thought to the guy she left at the altar. Maybe he makes off with another fella's girl at the end of it, hops into Hoffman's abandoned Alfa Romeo and lives happily ever after. All's fair, after all, in romance and sports franchise roulette.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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