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KURT STREETER

They will carry a lot of baggage

The SuperSonics' move brings back memories of nights spent with Dad, cheering for a team that didn't return his loyalty

July 06, 2008|Kurt Streeter

Jilted fans of runaway sports franchises -- long lost lovers of the Baltimore Colts, the original Cleveland Browns, the Los Angeles Rams and even the L.A. Raiders -- now, more than ever, I know your pain.

The reason it feels as if I just swallowed a handful of hot embers? It's my hometown team, the SuperSonics of Seattle. I grew up watching them, me and my dad, up in the cheap seats, game after game. The Sonics were the first team to make me cry (1972, a loss to the Lakers), and the first team to make me shout to the heavens with joy (1978, a playoff game against the Washington Bullets). They were also the first team to make me realize, when ownership wouldn't give Gus Williams a fat new contract, that pro sports was about business more than anything else.

Boy, was that lesson underscored last week.

In case you missed it, the Sonics are no more. They've gone the way of the Rams, shipped from the thriving west to the weary, mid-state flats.

Two years back, Seattle's team was bought by a group of buzz-cut boys from Oklahoma who told anyone who was numskulled enough to listen that they intended to keep the team right where it belonged.

And so it was then that a befuddling public game of chicken began.

It went something like this: The new owners immediately demanded a new arena in Seattle, even though the old one had been completely remade, at massive expense to common residents, in the mid-'90s. To build their digs, the Oklahomans, in their kindly, snake-oil salesman twang, asked the public to dole out a little more chump change: $300 million.

The rather enlightened people of Seattle, the vast majority of them anyway, quickly and loudly wondered why a bunch of millionaires were asking for such a generous guzzle from the public trough. If taxpayers were going to spend $300 million, the reasoning went, they'd rather spend it on beefing up the once-pristine public school system or old roadways such as the weary, elevated one that winds by the waterfront, looking as if it will fall in the next downpour.

What followed were months of name calling, hemming and hawing. There were lawsuits and clueless politicos and there was that money-lusting zealot, NBA Commissioner David Stern, castigating the people and the politicos for not being willing to dish out welfare to a bunch of out-of-town tycoons.

The Sonics arrived in 1967, a few months after I was born. That's 41 years of fan loyalty from the people of Seattle and Washington state, through thick and thin. Forty-one years, when all was said and done, meant nothing. Stern sided with the Oklahoma boys, and it all wrapped up last week in a sudden settlement.

Oklahoma City now has my hometown team. The cowboy owners have kindly agreed to leave the name and $45 million of payoff money in the land of the eternal latte -- a token of appreciation. Wow. Thanks.

David Stern, what are you thinking? You're allowing a team that has been one of the pillars of the modern NBA, a team with an NBA championship and three appearances in the league finals, to giddy up and gallop from one of the world's greatest cities, resettling in . . . Oklahoma?

This is the rough equivalent of abandoning a Malibu mansion for a dusty rambler in Coalinga. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, unless cows are your thing.

OK, so you're right, I'm bitter.

And I should know better than to think that any pro team has anyone's best interest in mind but its own. In big-time sports these days, loyalty is a one-way street . . . it flows from our thinning wallets to the ever fattening ones in the pockets of owners, athletic directors and players. The better, more astute part of me understands this.

But the better part of me is burning up in my angry gut right now. I'm sure there are a lot of readers who understand -- particularly the ones who once loved the Rams and the Fearsome Foursome.

Yes, this is personal. In the 1970s and '80s, watching the Sonics in nosebleed seats that went for as little as $3.50, I grew close to my father. We shouted our lungs out when the clock was running and talked about life when the action stopped. With him, at those games, I hoped and hurt and stomped my feet, learning not to make too much of winning or to take losses too hard. Most losses.

Two years ago, a few days before he died, I rode in the back of an ambulance with my weakened father. We were on our way to a Seattle hospice. My dad was out of breath, but he found the strength to mouth five words: "Memories," he said, before ticking off the names of two of our favorite Sonics. "Jack . . . Sikma, Freddie . . . Brown." He didn't need to say more.

Rest easy, Dad, this week cemented my loyalty to the only real NBA basketball team in my new hometown, and redemption will be sweet. Here's to watching Kobe and the Lakers lay the hammer on the Oklahoma Tumbleweeds, for many a year to come.

--

Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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