Sonicsgate – A Review
In 2008, Seattle lost one of the pillars of its identity. For 41 years, the NBA basketball team, the Seattle Supersonics, excited fans with their up and down, high flying style of play. In 1979, made up of players such as Gus Williams, Finals MVP Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, and led by head coach Lenny Wilkens, the Sonics won the NBA Championship, the only professional sports title brought to the city at the time. In the nineties, the Sonics were a major force in the league, with the likes of superstars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, along with head coach George Karl. However, something happened in the 2000s, ownership changed, deals were made, lies were told. As a result, the Seattle Supersonics are no more.
Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team (2009) is a heartbreaking documentary highlighting the downfall of this franchise. In it, director Jason Reid provides a thorough examination to the reasons why the team left Seattle to become the Oklahoma City Thunder, leaving a gaping hole within the culture of the city. Through testimony from former NBA players, sports journalists, and political figures, Reid paints a solid and engaging argument as to exactly who was responsible for the team leaving. For any Sonics fan, or any sports fan in general, it’s difficult to watch this film without having some sort of emotional response. Growing up in Washington State, the Sonics were constantly on my family’s television set, and to see the domino effect play out in this documentary, only rubs salt in to a wound that has not yet started to heal.
The film names a number of people responsible for this tragedy. The first is Howard Schultz, former owner of the team. Coming from a business background and as the CEO of Starbucks, Schultz came to the Sonics thinking that his success would translate to the NBA, but he could not have been any more wrong. Never having had to deal with multimillionaire, basketball superstars, Schultz immediately alienated the best players on the team. Making bad decisions, such as giving big contracts to unproven names, Schultz literally pushed away the likes of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. In a telling scene, Payton, who is arguably one of the best athletes to ever wear a Seattle uniform, describes in his own words his desire to have stayed in Seattle, and his disappointment with not being able to come to terms with the ownership.
In probably the biggest mistake that he could possibly make, Schultz, reeling from the failure of his time as owner, sold the team in 2006 to the major villain of the film, Oklahoma City businessman, Clay Bennett. For all Sonics fans, we remember that press conference where Schultz tried to give good reason why he sold the team to a non-local, we all remember Bennett telling the press how he believed the Sonics will stay in Seattle, and we all remember how much of a crock it all was.
The very look of Bennett exudes that of a villain. With his large physic, high flattop, and jagged facial features, Bennett easily comes off as someone with a hidden agenda. For the years following his acquisition of the team, Bennett would repeatedly state how much he wanted the team to stay in Seattle, and how hard he would work to make that happen. But at the same time, the film provides nearly concrete evidence to prove the opposite. We see how Bennett would do absolutely nothing to improve the team, how he would be quoted as early as 2005 saying that he wanted a team in Oklahoma City, his ban on players to give interviews to the press, and his ludicrous attempt to relocate the team to Renton. One of the most damning pieces of evidence is that of a number of emails between Bennett, NBA Commissioner David Stern, and those of Oklahoma City businessmen, where Bennett clearly states his desire to move the team immediately, despite the team having a contract that was supposed to keep them in KeyArena for a few more years. These are the actions of a person who was clearly lying to an almost offensive level, manipulating the public perception that the team had no support staying in Seattle.
The list of villains in the film is a long one. Former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who had no association with the team prior, is shown as the last line of defense to keep the team from moving, going as far as testifying in court, but at the last minute, caved in and settled with Bennett and his colleagues, allowing the team to move while getting a monetary return, a monetary return that has yet to be given. The Washington State legislature used the situation as a political campaign talking point, but never allowed the issue to be voted on, literally silencing themselves from helping the team stay. A last minute offer from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to help renovate KeyArena fell on deaf ears. Even Commissioner David Stern, who is shown in 1995 praising KeyArena as a state of the art facility, is shown as a close friend and mentor to Bennett, clearly supporting the idea of moving the team, and claiming ten years later that the Sonics stadium is an unfit place to play.