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Sonics Fans: Spencer Hawes Is On Your Side

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As reported by the SunBreak late last week, it appears as though the legal aspect of the Seattle Sonics' relocation has finally been settled.

Sonics Fans Receive Ounce of Flesh in the Mail, Courtesy Clay Bennett
This week, 2007-08 Sonic season ticketholders--those enrolled in a marketing program called the Emerald Club--started to receive settlement checks as a result of their participation in a successful class action lawsuit against the Professional Basketball Club LLC, the former owners of the Sonics and the current owners of the OKC Thunder.

To date, and likely forever, these checks are the only direct payment to former fans for the loss of a beloved sports franchise that had been in Seattle for 40 years. (Disclaimer: I was a former Sonics season ticketholder, a member of the Emerald Club, and a member of the class in the lawsuit. My wife and I received our check yesterday.)

However, it would be incorrect to assume that the emotional aspect of a city losing its team has been resolved for Sonics fans. The Sonics were brought up on a number of occasions at this weekend's Adonai Hood Classic, whether it was kids wearing Kevin Durant Sonics jerseys or people referring directly to how much more special the tournament had become since the Sonics' departure.

"With the Sonics gone, you don't get ball like this in the 206," said the MC at this past weekend's Adonai Hood Classic. "This is all we got."

The emotional strain of losing a team that had been around for four decades was not lost on Seattle native and Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes who showed up to the second day of the Adonai Hood Classic decked out in full Sonics gear, paying homage to his hometown team.

"It's an issue I think that's near and dear to everyone's heart, especially the guys from Seattle that are now playing in the league," said Hawes after competing in the Hood Classic three point contest. "A lot of us, if nothing else, it's a chance to come home and see your family and play in front of your family and now we don't have the ability to do that. So hopefully in the next few years we'll get it figured out a little bit and try to work towards have a team back here. But it's something that took a bit out of everybody from the fans to everybody in the community -- it's a big loss."

From the perspective of people living outside of Seattle, it's a big loss that Seattle fans should get over -- had they really wanted the team, so the argument goes, they could have kept it. However, while the team was definitely sub-par during its final two seasons in Seattle, it would be a stretch to say lack of fan support was the primary reason the team left. A more accurate explanation would be that the team was lost due to a combination of corporate and political interests, not to mention the justifiable trepidation about paying for a third professional sports facility after Qwest Field and Safeco Field. Given the way the final act of the drama played out, the fans have every right to be frustrated with their city's leadership.

Sonics Fans Receive Ounce of Flesh in the Mail, Courtesy Clay Bennett

When former Seattle Sonics owner Clay Bennett announced that he intended to move the team to his home state of Oklahoma, he and his co-owners were challenged with lawsuits. The City of Seattle sued to enforce a lease that would have held the team here until this year. Howard Schultz claimed that the new owners he'd sold to had lied about their desire to keep the team in Seattle.

The City's case, which seemed like a slam dunk, fell apart at trial when former Mayor Greg Nickels was dismantled on the witness stand. (Sherman Alexie's testimonial that the NBA players were "Greek gods" was of limited legal utility.) The City’s case turned what should have been a perfunctory contract enforcement proceeding into a circus and the city, probably wisely, folded the tent and settled without ever learning the court's decision. Schultz quietly canceled his lawsuit shortly afterward.

We can debate whether the Sonics would have won the case or whether the team would have stayed beyond the term of their lease -- Bennett certainly could have moved the team later or sold it to another owner. But the strange progression of the trial itself is as much a contributor to the Sonics leaving as anything else. The people behind Sonicsgate, the award-winning documentary that dissects every aspect of the relocation in depth, have done an excellent job presenting a very complicated situation in its entirety and continuing to keep the issue alive in the minds of local fans. Sonicsgate had a table to sell merchandise at the tournament and it's an effort that Hawes appreciates.

"I think having the guys from SonicsGate here, having all that kinds of stuff," said Hawes, referring to the table that SonicsGate had set up to sell shirts at the tournament. "I think the credit goes to them for continuing to keep it a relevant issue and really showing people the facts of how everything went down."

Ultimately, what one could glean from the overall atmosphere of the Adonai Hood Classic -- both Hawes and Fans wearing Sonics gear as well as multiple references to their absence -- is that the sting of a drawn out relocation process is still felt among basketball fans in the area. The SunBreak article notes that it's "strange...how little the Sonics seem to be missed outside a precious few fans." As someone who grew up in the Bay Area during the Oakland Raiders' hiatus in LA, there is a noticeable difference comparatively but that could be attributed to major differences in the process of relocation.

However, fandom is deeply personal and often irrational and Sonics fans were ultimately caught in a web of complicated corporate and political interests that made the decision far more complex than a simple binary and more painful when the situation deteriorated in stages. So in a very real way, when NBA players like Hawes -- or, moreover, Sonics legend Gary Payton -- make the effort to stand up for the fans after civic leaders threw up their hands, shrugged, and said we'll get 'em next time!, it gives a public voice to the private hopes of many basketball fans in the city.

Related Links:

For more on the city's case against Clay Bennett and the political wrangling involved, check out Sonicsgate.org.

For a sense of fan reaction after the decision to move, check out this gem from KJR.

For more on Hawes' participation at the Hood Classic, check out the Adonai Hood Classic storystream.