Seattle's Lost Supersonics and The Ironic Message Sent By The NBA

Phil CaldwellCorrespondent IIIOctober 5, 2010

Seattle's Key Arena built in 1994 for $75 million
Seattle's Key Arena built in 1994 for $75 million

(Part one of a three part series on the NBA's arena and fiscal strategy, published October & November, 2010) 

Two years ago the NBA sent every city in America a message. 

The NBA allowed the hijacking of the beloved Seattle Sonics and their 41-year history to Oklahoma City.

You would think that with this much time passed, fan anger and the hatred for the parties that did this might have mellowed. But if anything anger has intensified with most Sonic fans insisting they are finished with the NBA and all that it stands for. 


Efforts to promote the rival Trailblazers have been met with empty stares and apathy, with fans feeling insulted once again by the league that simply does not, nor has ever, liked or understood the city of Seattle.

Fans still detest the names of David Stern, Clay Bennett and Howard Shultz—more so today than ever. And yet there is nothing that will cause more pain in Seattle than their former team reaching the finals without them. It would be the colossal  “turning the knife” in the hearts of suffering Sonic fans.

There were many that felt this whole ordeal had more to do with the hated commissioner sending a message to other cities for daring to not hand over taxpayer money than it did Seattle’s support for their team. Seattle had paid their penance and funded over a billion dollars for new stadiums, starting with a new Key Arena in 1994, Safeco Field in 1995, and Qwest Field in 1998. 

Surely that would be enough to secure team commitments for at least a half-century. 

But just over a decade later, commissioner David Stern publicly pouted that ”Seattle funded two new stadiums but not one for the NBA.”


More than any other statement, that one infuriated the state of Washington—from the lowly tax payer clear up to the legislature fighting this battle with the NBA. It was a blatant lie. He knew it and we knew it, but sadly the rest of the country did not.

How had things deteriorated to this level so quickly?

A mere eight years earlier Seattle had basked with pride over the brand new sparkling arena they handed over to the Sonics in 1994. Stern himself gloated one evening to a local reporter about the sight lines and the state-of-the-art facility.

A decade later he was whining about the building, calling it dilapidated and not adequate for our league. He claimed Seattle had cold-shouldered the NBA's needs and built arenas for the other two leagues while ignoring the NBA. Thus a larger and more expensive venue needed to be built.

Seattle felt betrayed.  

Especially when those in favor of spending taxpayer funds in the first place were still paying for it politically, fighting off opponent’s arguments who insisted the money had been inappropriately donated to arrogant unappreciative billionaires.

In fact, the opposition had been so riled up over what happened in the 1990s with taxpayer money that they persuaded Seattle voters to pass measures decreeing no more funds would ever be spent on these kinds of ventures.

Seattle’s leadership argued David Stern’s claims were outrageous and insulting fabrications because the only remaining parts of the original 1962 Seattle Colosseum were four rafters and part of the upper bowl. The rest of the arena had been completely rebuilt from the ground up with a then-staggering $75 million price tag, paid for with taxpayer money that opponents howled should have gone to more important things like schools and roads.  

Since Seattle had done their part—and since that had cost some politicians their jobs—fans assumed Commissioner Stern would honor the community sacrifice by ensuring the team stayed where it originated. But less than a decade later here he was with team owners, demanding a new arena again while rolling out legal language maneuvering that would have made Bill Clinton proud.  

“Seattle is not supporting their team” he claimed, “the arena is woefully inadequate for NBA standards.” And worse was that frustrated, yet devoted fans of the Sonics were helpless to stop the injustice, especially with a wide-eyed Oklahoma City willing to donate the farm to attract the team.

David Stern, the one person who fans felt responsible for supervising and stopping league shenanigans, was gleefully part of the scam, and this suggested league cronyism at its worst.

The entire Puget Sound community felt back-stabbed and cheated. It was like a young family who saved for years to make a $10,000 deposit on a new house only to have the builder take the money and leave town.

Seattle had met the demands of an obscenely wealthy league and paid millions against their better judgment, but those who signed the deal to get that investment took the money and left, taunting the community as they did so.

Last year the very same David Stern, cornered in Las Vegas for a scant two-minute interview after crossing the path of a Seattle newspaper columnist in an airport, once again grumbled that ”the footprint of Key Arena isn’t big enough.”

It was an argument often heard during the breakup that never made any sense to the average fan.

The only reason to demand a larger footprint would be to allow a hockey arena under the basketball court. Why, Sonic fans wondered, would the NBA demand a hockey arena be under their basketball floor? The argument was particularly absurd since previous Sonic owner Barry Ackerley had demanded Key Arena be built specifically so that no NHL team could ever be hosted by the facility.Since the NBA demands the profits from stores and restaurants and parking, even if another professional team shares the arena, how could this possibly benefit the community?

But more importantly is the very real and disturbing fact that the lease signed in 1994 in Seattle to get Key Arena funded in the first place,  was tossed aside by the NBA the minute other teams managed to negotiate better deals from other cities!

David Stern was determined to use the Seattle situation to teach other cities a lesson, and he did! 

"If you resist NBA cash demands, cities, we will move your franchise, and we're not concerned with how much history your team has in your community."  

Or to put it otherwise:  "Cities are suckers to trust professional sports leagues!"  

Especially this one.

Don't assume wealthy team owners will honor the deals they sign!  

Leases that you thought meant long-term security for  your team ......... mean no such thing to franchise owners!  Not when smooth-talking lawyers can break those leases!

You want proof?  Look at what happened in Seattle!

Nice message David.  Funny how victories come back to haunt you! 


Read Phil's latest article on this subject at:


Read the follow-up to this article published October 30, 2010 at:


Also see part three published November 5, 2010 -