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Seattle adjusts to life without NBA team

October 26, 2008|Tim Booth | Booth is a reporter for the Associated Press.

SEATTLE — The team store just a few steps from the silenced arena is three-quarters empty, barren of anything SuperSonics related except for a few logos affixed to the exterior.

Outside the former practice facility, the neighborhood cat still comes to sip water out of a basketball-painted bowl as one lonely employee continues watch over the front desk.

Bitter fans are walking around Seattle's neighborhoods wearing shirts bearing the Sonics logo surrounded by expletives directed at one-time team owner and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz.

For the first time in four decades, the NBA is about to begin a season without the Seattle SuperSonics, their colors and banners put into storage while the franchise with the only major pro sports championship in Seattle's history is 2,000 miles away and calling itself the Thunder.

Aside from a few shirts on clearance racks at local stores and 2008-09 SuperSonics calendars in racks at mall kiosks, all things green and gold have mostly vanished.

"My daughter keeps asking where the Sonics are playing," says Brian Robinson, one of the founders of Save Our Sonics, the fan group that worked to keep the team in Seattle. "I keep having to remind her there are no Sonics anymore."

Yes, the Sonics are gone, left to the history books and the hopes of remaining fans that sometime in the relatively near future, a franchise returns to the Emerald City to play in a renovated KeyArena and with the SuperSonics nickname resurrected from the scrap heap.

The loss of the Sonics over the summer was a stunning blow to fans who believed they still had two years to fight owner Clay Bennett's plan to move the team to his hometown of Oklahoma City at the conclusion of the team's lease with the city.

The city spent nearly $3 million in a federal court battle trying to enforce the remaining two years of the lease, while Bennett's attorneys argued that remaining in Seattle would cause financial hardship on the team and ownership group.

Then came the stunning, final twist: the city and Bennett's group agreeing to a settlement on the afternoon the decision in the court case was to be announced. The resolution left fans feeling bitter and angry.

"There was just a feeling that somehow it wouldn't happen. And when you operate on faith sometimes faith lets you down," Robinson said.

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels has staunchly defended his decision, even if it means getting heckled by disgruntled fans around the city.

"I have a dual responsibility: No. 1 to the taxpayers of Seattle, and No. 2 to the significant debt on KeyArena," he said recently. "We were only going to have two more years with the Sonics (before their lease ended).

"Now, the bonds are paid off. We're financially in the clear and have flexibility to move forward in the future."

Nickels' reasoning makes sense, but fans are connected by emotion and mention of the Sonics illicits varied reactions.

For 86-year-old Helen Stanger, the Sonics departure for Oklahoma City left her unemployed.

Well, in truth, Stanger was ready to retire from her 20-year position as the "per diem specialist," making sure the players got their per diems throughout the season. Stanger and her husband were basketball fans, and she picked up the job as a volunteer to fill time after her husband died in 1987.

What came with the job were endless relationships with players and their families. Patrick Ewing called Stanger his girlfriend. She admits to being in love with former assistant coach Dwane Casey, despite being 35 years his senior. Her saddest moment wasn't the Sonics' final home game last April.

"The one I felt the worst about the last game that Nate McMillan coached (at the end of the 2004-05 season)," Stanger said. "Nate and I were the best of friends for so many years."

As for the now Oklahoma City Thunder?

"I'm a realist. I had a feeling the day (Bennett) bought them that was what was going to happen."

NBA commissioner David Stern said immediately after the settlement between the city and Bennett that the league would help Seattle acquire a team if the state approves money to remodel the arena. If the money is approved and the city does not have a new team by 2013, Bennett is required to pay another $30 million to the city.

All those factors lead many involved to believe there will be an NBA team again in the Emerald City. The question is when?

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