BY Art Thiel 06:31PM 01/21/2013

Thiel: The guilty pleasure of the return of the NBA

Some things are different than the Sonics’ departure to Oklahoma, but the Kings’ pending acquisition by Chris Hansen evokes some painful memories of the summer of ’08.

Chris Hansen, left, connected with some pro basketball history at a recent charity fundraiser, where he was joined by Lenny Wilkens and Magic Johnson. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Maybe if I hadn’t covered the trial in July 2008 while thousands of fans stood in the courtyard of Seattle’s federal courthouse futilely and forlornly chanting, “Sooper! Sonics!”, I’d feel different. But pro sports is a nasty business, never more so than when the Sonics were allowed to be sold out of Seattle, leaving behind a slag heap of lies, greed, embarrassments, betrayals and heartache.

Seattle’s voters (via I-91 ballot measure) and politicians told the monopoly extortionists of pro sports to drop dead. But the leagues know how to manipulate the musical chairs to make sure there’s always one less chair than players.

It’s Sacramento’s turn to be left standing, because wealthier Seattle wants back in, and the NBA wants the Addams . . . er, Maloof family out.

Yes, I’m glad to hear the NBA is on the verge of returning to Seattle. But it is a guilty pleasure, knowing  fans who supported the Kings in Sacramento, on a per-capita basis, were more committed to the franchise there, creating seasonal sellouts in 19 of the team’s 27 years.

I traveled to Sac-town in 1996, when the Kings hosted the Sonics in a playoff series. The Sonics won 3-1, and went on to meet the Chicago Bulls in the Finals. But I swear that the headache I developed in then-Arco Arena, bursting with maniacal fans and their damn cowbells, left me about two weeks ago.

In happier times, the Maloof family. / Sacramento Kings

But for reasons not of their making, the Kings fans are about to be hosed by the same forces that left Sonics fans wet and shivering — until a skinny little kid from Roosevelt High School, who used to wash my dishes after I ate at the Leschi Lake Cafe along Lake Washington Boulevard, showed up with a billion dollars and an inexplicable passion to restore the Sonics.

Chris Hansen’s preposterous story is at least as good for Seattle as it is bad for Sacramento. But the franchise-extrication saga has two mitigating differences worth noting.

Pending approval by NBA owners as well as survival of two lawsuits and an environmental impact study over Hansen’s proposed arena location in SoDo — none of which are guaranteed, so keep your confetti dry until the opening tip — Hansen is buying the franchise with expressed purpose of moving it to Seattle.

None of the prevarications, dissembling and mendacity that accompanied Howard Schultz’s 2006 sale of the Sonics to Oklahoman Clay Bennett and his fellow plains pirates will be a part of this deal. No balloons-and-cookies press conferences, no phony trips to potential new-arena locations, no hiring of Lenny Wilkens and Bill Russell as front men. Just a check, a handshake and the beep-beep of moving trucks backing up to the loading doors.

Doesn’t heal the hole in the soul of Kings’ fans. But compared to Bennett’s butcheries, this will be laser surgery. And Kings fans had to know, from the Maloofs’ many muddy footprints to the doors in Anaheim and Virginia Beach, VA., that the dirty deed was going to be done.

The other mitigating difference is . . . well, Sacramento, how did YOU get this team?

Same way as Hansen proposes to do.

When the Kings were failing in Kansas City — after failing in their original home of Rochester, NY., and later Cincinnati —  a group of business people purchased the franchise for $10.5 million in time to call them the Sacramento Kings for the 1985-86 season.  Joseph Benvenuti, Frank and Gregg Lukenbill, Bob A. Cook, Frank McCormick and Stephen H. Cippa were the Hansens of their day in the Delta.

The Kings made the playoffs their first year, then not again until that ’96 series against Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, et al. The  Kings had some great teams and seasons in the early 2000s, with a couple of splendid playoff series with the Lakers, but for the biggest part of its pro basketball life, the franchise has been largely the Seattle Mariners of the NBA — although the Kings’ hardwood grandfathers, the Rochester Royals, did win the 1951 title. No documentary evidence can be found about their visit to the White House of President Truman.

Now the wanderers are about to put down roots . . . no, that’s not accurate . . .  about to drop anchor in Elliott Bay for awhile. They will be Kings no longer, they will be Sonics, inheritors of the legacies of Wilkens, Bob Rule, Slick Watts, Fred Brown, Sikma, D.J., J.J.,  X-Man, Reign Man, the Glove, Ray Allen and, yes, Kevin Durant.

What about the history of Oscar Robertson, Nate Archibald, Chris Webber and the rest of the Royals/Kings? Who will recall fun stuff such as the fact that both the Kings and Sonics hired and fired as head coaches Bill Russell and Paul Westphal?

Hansen and Sonics fans want back Sonics history, and figure to get it. If there is a Repository for the Sporting Dispossessed, I am unaware. The vagabond chronicles will be another casualty of the rough business of pro sports. No one in Seattle has to care, of course.

I would have preferred the cleanliness of an expansion franchise. I would really have preferred that Durant, Westbrook, et al, to be playing dramatic games in town today. But I get that Hansen’s massive, elaborate workaround to avoid a direct public subsidy for the arena required him to bust a move now for the one and only NBA franchise that’s on wheels.

In a year or two, a relative few in this market are likely to remember that the team in green and gold used to be the Sacramento Kings. But for some of us, it will be equally hard to forget those thousands outside Seattle’s federal courthouse in the summer of 2008, reduced to helpless chanting in order to save a passion.


  • Tim

    Great column. I do feel their pain and it is indeed a guilty pleasure. Since I don’t really watch much television, and can’t afford to go to games anyway (don’t think there will be those great standing room only tickets for seven bucks anymore) I’ll relish like I always have, listening to Calabro bringing the games to life for me on the radio. I was so pissed in 2008. Now, I’m sort of luke warm but know I’ll be sucked in to the madness eventually. Especially if they’re intent on building a championship which I suspect they (the owners) are.

  • tedsfrozenhead

    I do feel for the Kings fans but as someone who has gone thru it on both sides it is easy to see where Sac went wrong. They can blame the Maloofs or Hansen all they want but the blame lays with the city and Kevin Johnson, they saw this coming and tried to wish it away.

    Kevin Johnson and the leaders of Sacramento should have had a deal to buy the Kings all set up and waiting for the right time when they first saw what the Maloofy show was all about. They should have stepped up when the Maloofs flaked out on the arena deal, or when they tried to move to Orange county….but they just sat on their hands and did……nothing. How many times does KJ think the NBA Board of Govs are gonna listen to him? Just once I would say, and that time has come and gone.

    While I understand their pain, I don’t feel bad at all. GO SONICS!

  • Michael Kaiser

    By the looks of that lady on the left of the Maloof family portrait, the Maloofs can’t all be that bad.

    • Pixeldawg13

      Nobody’s that bad when they have a billion dollars. At least, in the sense you raised.

  • 1coolguy

    I had season tickets to the Sonics for many years – great seats next to the Sonic wives, who were all good people, esp the McMillans. Then they were down to just 1 player worth watching, Payton, who put out 48 minutes a game, every game. They were’t very good but Gary was worth the price of the ticket.
    Then after another Sonic loss and no serious ballin till the 4th qtr, I turned to my wife and said “you know, for $200, it’s tough to watch these guys anymore.” The least any of them was making was $3m and it was difficult to stomach. Especially since Wally was the GM and had ZERO idea how to bring in good players.
    I have up our tickets after more than 15 years and was glad I did. I really don’t know why anyone would care to blow bucks watching players who now must average $10m throw a ball into a hoop.
    The big money and high ticket prices ruined the pro sport for me.
    But alas, I have enjoyed myself MUCh more since I now am a loyal paying customer of the Huskies – now that’s a bb game worth watching: Enthusiasm, players WANTING to be there, action all game long AND at an affordable price. GO DAWGS!!!

    • notaboomer

      you must have missed the utah game.

    • RadioGuy

      Like you, I used to go to Sonics games (mostly in their first few seasons) but hadn’t attended one for years by the time they left Seattle. The NBA used to be so much fun in its earliest days here, but by the time the 2000s rolled around, the fun had largely been sucked out of going in person. Why willingly pay so much more to receive so much less?
      I prefer attending prep games and watching players from the town named on their jersey who leave it on the floor every night. To them, it’s not just a job. The skills level doesn’t approach the NBA, but anyone who’s been inside a packed gym during a one-point game with a minute left will tell you the intensity is no different either on the court or in the stands.
      I hope the people clamoring for the NBA’s return get what they want and deserve, but many of us don’t need the Sonics to enjoy basketball.

  • notaboomer

    kevin calabro began his pro b-ball broadcasting career with the kc kings in 1983-84.

  • Trygvesture

    Nice piece, Art. Again. You threaded the needle here– I saw the self serving, SE Grins of the Schultzians (the same that nauseated Bowker et al, surely), the complicity of Stern and whatever accomplices are handy at any given juncture, the mess of ego-profiteering that rules prosports, the hometown-ness of the fans and busboycumsavior, the joy and the quandary of the whole thing. Nice.

  • IamHonest

    I’ll feel as bad for the Kings fans as the rest of the league felt for us…. ok, done.

  • roosevelt

    One would have to be a sociopath to not feel for the losing party in this absurdity called NBA style business. I have my doubts about getting back in bed with Stern and his cronies.

    • Will

      By the time this deal gets done the NBA might be a broken toy, much like the NHL. The new Hansen palace could turn out to be a white elephant.

  • Mechguy

    I just can’t do it,,, I used to be a huge fan of the sonics. But that game called basketball is gone. Its just not the same anymore and its hardly worth watching a bunch of thugs walk around the court and jump at the hoop while pounding their chests. It used to be a team game and when the sonics won the world championship , they were the best TEAM in the league. Now its almost mandatory that you have one aloof superstar who disdains the rest of his team and expects them to feed him, or else. I could care less. The way the league treated us as fans and Seattlites was just beyond painful and more like bruising. I wont watch a league with Stern as boss and Clay Bennett as owner, its disgusting. .

  • billbird2111

    Sound familiar Thiel?

    “All this is speculative, of course, but the virtue of expansion is not. There will be no hijacking of another fan base, which has been, since the day in July 2008 the Sonics left, the most odious consequence of bringing back the NBA — doing dirty unto others as dirty was done unto you.

    Hansen reiterated Tuesday that he is not going to be predatory.

    “We’re not going to go around saying, ‘Please sell us your team,’ “he said. “We’re not going to pry a team away.”

  • Mike B

    Every article about the Kings/Royals mentions Oscar Robertson but forget the great Jerry Lucas.