Hoops Heartache

Are the Sonics Really Coming Back This Time?

You have permission to get your hopes up. But you may have to keep them there for a while.

By Benjamin Cassidy November 22, 2021

From a Sonics rally at Occidental Park on June 14, 2012, but this vibe still abides.

It’s been a bittersweet fall for NBA fans in Seattle. While the glow of the Climate Pledge Arena ice has offered a welcome reprieve from The Big Dark, the Kraken’s inaugural hockey season has also highlighted the hoops league’s absence in this town on a near-nightly basis. 

Our cephalopodic franchise has invited this tangle of emotions. Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and George Karl have all checked out the franchise’s digs, and GP’s sweatshirt made it clear he wasn’t just there to support the new squad. Throwback Sonics gear, an adjacent street named after Lenny Wilkens, even an “NBA locker room” placard at the arena—no one’s being subtle here. The Kraken’s opening games in Climate Pledge Arena have been both a celebratory culmination and a pitch: Are you seeing this, Adam Silver?

Rest assured: The NBA commissioner is watching. Last month, in a video tribute to Wilkens, Silver noted the excitement around the arena, which has been outfitted to NBA specifications (the locker room sign isn’t just aspirational). For this reason and others, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan reports that her conversations with him about bringing back the Sonics have been very positive. “He obviously can't make any promises,” says Durkan. “But my sense is Seattle's at the top of the list, and we'll have a basketball team playing here, I'd say, within five years.”

Jaded fans may not want to hear this after some near-misses (the Sacramento relocation no-go still stings). But to borrow a phrase from the basketball beat writer cognoscenti, there’s a growing consensus around the league that it’s a matter of when, not if, the NBA will right a wrong and return the Sonics to Seattle.

One reason is the most powerful one: money. The NBA took a financial hit during the pandemic, and an expansion team’s fee—likely a multibillion dollar one—would provide an immediate influx of cash to the league’s existing 30 franchises. Some observers have raised questions about whether owners will want to share revenue with more teams, but Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said earlier this year that it’s in the economic interest of NBA owners to expand “in Seattle.”

Silver hasn’t explicitly stated the same, but he’s come close. At the end of 2020, he acknowledged that expansion was “inevitable.” In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, he said, “We didn’t make a secret out of the fact that we hated to leave Seattle.” But KeyArena was “not at NBA specifications” back then, and there weren’t plans for an overhaul. With Climate Pledge Arena, “you now have the state-of-the-art arena that didn’t exist back then.”

One of the power brokers behind the overhaul to KeyArena, Tim Leiweke, is friends with Silver. He’s “100 percent certain” the Sonics will come back. Brother Tod, the CEO and part-owner of the Kraken, sounded similarly confident at the Wilkens event.

The city has no shortage of well-heeled corporate types to loop into an ownership bid (though Kevin Garnett would bring athlete representation and some much-needed Marshawn energy). A rep for Bruce Harrell says the city’s next mayor will be a “committed partner” in the effort to bring a team here, too.

Durkan will hew to Harrell’s wishes, but she intends to stay involved with the campaign after she leaves office. The current mayor is a legit Sonics die-hard. She can recall a miracle win at the Seattle Coliseum from 1976—a Slick Watts special—like it was yesterday. Spencer Haywood’s legal battle to play in the NBA provided inspiration for her career in law. A Sonics sign has hung on her office door at City Hall.

At a recent conference, Durkan recounted a pre-pandemic visit to a game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, two teams with relocation rumors attached to them. Silver asked why she was in New Orleans. “I looked at him,” Durkan recalled, “and I said, ‘I’m just shopping.’”

The mayor thinks the Pelicans will likely stay in New Orleans. Ownership wants to keep the team there. And she knows all too well that the league’s last relocation—when Clay Bennett moved the Sonics from Seattle to Oklahoma City—didn’t go over well. “I think the NBA learned a lesson about moving teams in a way it hadn't before, so I think they're always reluctant to move a team. Because it’s so disruptive, not just to the city, but to, really, the NBA as a whole.”

As for expansion, the NBA doesn’t add teams often. The last time was nearly two decades ago, when the Charlotte Bobcats replaced the city's departed Hornets. But most everyone involved seems to think Seattle’s worthy of similar restitution.

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