BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/03/2014

Thiel: Silver proves Seattle’s futility with Stern

Silver apparently thinks Stern’s grudge against Seattle was funny. Seinfeld, he’s not. But he is much like Stern and the NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is not to be believed when he says he has sympathy for Seattle. / Wiki Commons

Now that David Stern has retired, perhaps the NBA is oozing toward the unfamiliar ground of honesty when it comes to Seattle. During an interview Saturday, new commissioner Adam Silver offered a quick retort to his questioner, author and noted contrarian Malcolm Gladwell.

“It has been said that keeping Seattle open was the stick to keep other teams in line . . . ” Gladwell began.

“That was Stern!” Silver said, smiling. He was attempting to be funny. It is doubtful anyone in Seattle sees him as the next Seinfeld.

The best humor always has truth at its core — even if the joke is old.  Silver was on stage at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, and Gladwell, his lone interrogator,  covered a wide range of NBA topics, including expansion.

Noteworthy in Silver’s response was an absence of denial, or even a vague defense, of his mentor. Silver knew Stern bore a personal grudge against Seattle, stemming from his perceived disrespect during his February 2006 visit to the Legislature in Olympia to make the case for a publicly funded re-do of KeyArena for Sonics owner Howard Schultz.

Stern reiterated his contempt for Seattle and state politics at the 2007 All-Star Game in Phoenix,  recounted here by colleague Steve Rudman. By then, the team was owned by Clay Bennett, but was not yet doomed to Oklahoma City, nor had voters yet killed the chance to retain the Sonics by voting I-91 into law.

“If the team moves, there’s not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision,” said Stern. “There’s no way the league would ever return to the city.”

Six years later, Stern stood firm in his conviction by successfully brow-beating owners into rejecting the relocation of the Kings from Sacramento to Seattle. Almost from the day Chris Hansen struck a deal to buy the Kings from the Maloof family, he had little chance to succeed.

Which brings us to the past weekend and Silver’s remarks. He elaborated on expansion by saying, “I’m very sympathetic to the city of Seattle. We had a team there the large portion of time I’ve been with the league. I hope we get back there some day, but right now I’m responsible for our 30 teams, not all of which are economically healthy.”

Silver, as do all commissioners, wants it both ways: He wants to keep the pot boiling in NBA-free cities while helping owners in current cities use the vacancy as a threat to governments who resist providing public subsidies. Hence, the Gladwell question, which Silver artfully dodged.

The exchange was instructive because it appears Seattle is about to go through another episode of manipulation, this time from the NHL.

From my visit last week to Vancouver with the Seattle Sports Commission, I learned there was eagerness from Vancouver officials for a neighborhood playmate, and intrigue from some Seattle business people about Hansen’s effort to get an NHL team to execute on his memorandum of understanding he holds with the city and King County to build an arena.

In the immediate absence of a team likely to relocate, expansion has a chance to happen more quickly with the NHL for a couple of reasons: A two-team expansion at a minimum $250 million fee each would bring half a billion dollars to spread immediately among the existing 30 owners, and beating the NBA to Seattle would give the team the best chance to succeed in a competitive market.

Plus, there is a potential owner in Seattle who was born and raised in the NHL’s Hockeytown of Detroit. Even though most people associate Steve Ballmer’s sports passion with basketball, he spent his first 18 years getting his lamp lit over hockey too. And given the often minimal throw-weights of some hockey owners, Ballmer’s candidacy would be thrilling to the NHL.

Without Ballmer, there’s a greater chance that Seattle will be tossed in the mosh pit with other cities such as Portland, Las Vegas and Kansas City. That’s where it gets smarmy because Silver, by dint of job description, is obliged to dissemble, prevaricate, manipulate and mislead in his mission to pit city against city to extract maximum cash/arena breaks from the aspirants. And Silver trained at the foot of the master.

I’m not saying that such dubious behavior should disqualify the NHL, or even the NBA, from coming to Seattle. I’m saying that sports commissioners are hired by owners to make their bosses money. Every other consideration is tied for last.

So Silver has zero sympathy for Seattle. He doesn’t hope to get back to Seattle for its own sake. When he came to fully understand Stern’s vindictive, petty grudge against Seattle, he probably laughed. And yes, he needs a vacant Seattle to use as Gladwell suggested, as a stick to beat other municipalities, in the way that NFL uses the vacancy in Los Angeles to crush its governmental varmints.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was once NBA deputy sheriff under Stern. He and Silver are wolves from the same litter. So should Bettman come calling this year, it would be wise for Seattle to let hockey passion and civic ego come in tied for second behind ruthless cunning for the best possible deal.


  • jafabian

    I root for the Kings to do poorly, because the more they falter the more NBA owners will realize they shouldn’t have denied Chris Hansen’s bid for the Kings. For the NBA to return to Seattle it’s going to be thru purchasing and moving an existing team. IMO, the best shot at that would be the Bucks, Hawks and Grizzlies. The Bucks would make sense but I don’t see the NBA liking the idea of moving the Bucks which leaves the Hawks and Grizzlies.

    I’d love to ask Silver why the NFL, MLB and MLS work in Seattle and the NBA has been so problematic. Now, I know the reason why. The actions of the last two owners of the franchise soured the Sonics fanbase and the NBA will NEVER acknowledge that. But I’d love to hear the response.

    It’s time to drop the Sonics pipedream and just be satisfied with being home of the Super Bowl champs. Hopefully the Sounders did enough moves for an MLS Cup run and Coach Pete can duplicate his Fiesta Bowl run that he had at Boise State. I’m not even holding my breath for the NHL. I almost think NASCAR will be here before the NHL. Go Hawks!

    • Jamo57

      What? No hope for a Mariners miracle? ;-)

      • jafabian

        Sadly, I have accepted that’s going to be awhile. After this Seahawk season though I do think the M’s winning the World Series would be very, very cool.

        • MarkS

          The M’s management has to commit to winning first. Baby steps.

          • art thiel

            How did this discussion get here? There are other stories on the site for the Mariners. Stay in your lanes.

          • RadioGuy

            Okay, but can we keep the ice cream here? It’s after 11 and I’m getting the munchies.

        • art thiel

          And I would like ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    • RadioGuy

      Good points on a lot of things, although I’m thinking the NBA would be willing to lose Milwaukee because it’s so close to Chicago…they wouldn’t really be losing a market so much as altering its boundaries. The Grizzlies could probably be had because Memphis has never really warmed to pro basketball and Seattle is the more attractive market, but the Hawks stay for the same reason the NHL hung in there with Phoenix: The NBA likes Atlanta as a market although they didn’t prosper even when they had Dominique and some great teams under Lenny.

      Other than covering the NBA minimally for a radio station far away, I haven’t really followed it closely this season. I know Portland’s had a good year, but couldn’t begin to tell you how or why. I don’t hold anything against Sacramento because they were able to do something we weren’t: Keep their NBA franchise.

      As for the NHL, the only way I see them putting a team in Seattle right now is the prospect of beating the NBA to town with a new arena in the works and not on a drawing board or in a courtroom. But I’d stash ’em in Tacoma first, not the Key.

      • jafabian

        I think Herb Kohl carries a lot of clout that’s why I don’t think the Bucks will be moved. The Hawks have constantly been in the bottom in terms of attendance and they don’t dominate TBS the way the did in the 80s and 90s. Add to that they’ve previously been in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Tri-Cities and how they can’t hold onto an NHL team I don’t think the league will cry at moving them.

        Not sure I’d say Sac-Town was able to keep their team. Sterno did most of the work albeit behind Hansen’s back.

        • RadioGuy

          Kohl is the “X” factor here. He DOES have a lot of clout as a former Senator and there’s the family business that’s done pretty well (although he sold his shares long ago), but Herb is also 79. He absolutely wants the team to stay in Milwaukee after he’s gone, but who knows what his descendants will do?

          I agree with everything you say about Atlanta but as a large hub city for an entire region, it makes people unrealistic about the fact it’s just not that great for sports teams operating there.

          As for Sacramento, they came up with new owners and a commitment for a new arena. That, plus what would have been a battery of lawsuits against the NBA had the Kings moved, pretty much forced Stern’s hand. He’d have spent his “golden years” testifying in California courtrooms.

          • Jared S.

            What lawsuits would Sacramento have had against the NBA? The team had no arena lease to break, unlike the Sonics here. Not that the league felt bound to respect that contract.

            And as for the whole “Sacramento got it done, Seattle couldn’t” narrative, I don’t feel like rehashing the whole thing for the nth time, but let’s just say it’s a lot easier to get it done when you have many, many years to finally get it right and a commissioner stacking the deck in your favor, rather than against you, as well as no previous history of stadium/arena fatigue.

        • art thiel

          The NBA doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee or anywhere unless it was a last resort. I-91 made Seattle a last resort.

          Doesn’t matter how it happened; the Kings stayed.

      • art thiel

        You’re moving franchises like chess pieces. They are run by real people with families and have fans who would be as aggrieved as those in Seattle.

        The T-Dome sightlines are terrible for hockey. The first 15 rows can’t see the puck.

    • art thiel

      I don’t wish ill on the Kings on their fans. They were nearly as victimized as Seattle and its fans. Relocating teams is rewarding monopoly operators at the expense of paying customers. The fact that it’s so often doesn’t diminish the foulness of the deed.

      The NBA will always blame others. They never took responsibility for the ’99 lockout that alienated so many fans. Why would they start now?

  • Jamo57

    After the Super Bowl my son offered to pick up a copy of the subsequent issue of Sports Illustrated which he dropped off over this past weekend. Imagine my chagrin upon leafing through it to find the article following the Super Bowl story about Seattle’s all-time greatest victory was a farewell to David Stern.

    That is the yin and yang of being a Seattle sports fan right there. (sigh)

    • art thiel

      Somebody swiped my issue. Glad they did.

  • poulsbogary

    It’s time for Seattle sports fans to grow up and not let him be a thorn in our sides anylonger.

  • 1coolguy

    The quality of NBA ball is bad enough without adding more teams to the league.
    Expansion isn’t happening anytime soon.
    Seattle’s chances of landing a team that isn’t one moved from another city are nil.
    Our best chance was a few years ago with the NO team (Pelicans) when they were on their lips and the NBA took them over.
    Of course our BEST chance was when Schultz sold us all out, but for some odd reason none of the billionares stepped up, which I thought was weird.
    There’s always a chance for another recession to flesh out another team that goes broke!

    • Kirkland

      Re: our other billionaires: Gates has no interest in owning a sports team; Allen of course has the Blazers; I think Ballmer was brought in as a last-gasp effort before the Sonics moved, but it was too late; and good luck trying to figure out Bezos..

      Another building issue for the NHL here: where to build the practice rink? Ice plants aren’t cheap to build and house, and there won’t be room in the SoDo arena for one. The Mountlake Terrace one is impractical because it’s Olympic-sized instead of NHL-sized, and though there are good local rinks in Aurora, Lynnwood and Kingsgate to name a few, will an NHL team disrupt their other clients?

      • art thiel

        Ballmer is rich enough and bored enough that he could own both NBA and NHL teams.

        I could be wrong, but I think the practice rink is a hood ornament when the concern should be whether the car runs.

        • 1coolguy

          As to the NBA quality, I refer all to Jerry Wests’ quote last week:

          “Just look at the league, this is the weakest I’ve ever seen this league. We are depending on people who go to school for a year to come in and change the sports as a franchise, rarely does that ever happen. And everyone is talking about a great draft class this year, I think it’s just the opposite, I think it’s a poor one myself. These franchises have really struggled at one time you can get a branded name, these kids are not branded.”

          • poulsbogary

            T Wroten. 76ers, 15 and 45.
            Nice point Jerry.

    • art thiel

      Your point about product dilution is true. The bottom half of the NBA is as bad as I’ve seen.

  • giorgio547

    Great! Now we can all line up to give more to the Gods of the NBA. Too bad we don’t live in San Francisco where if MLB wanted to play in the City they paid for it. If the NFL, NBA, NHL want to play, go to San Jose… “Jus sayin” – Ron Swanson, Parks’n Rec

    • art thiel

      I don’t think you’re being forced, Giorgio.

      Notaboomer is offering you a luxury suite for pro frisbee.

      • giorgio547

        “Ding” – Just like “Boing” and every other business “too big to fail” has played Washington D.C. and Washington State like a Stradivarius, so too has both professional and amateur sports. I realize that this taxpayer arm twisting argument routine will be a fight to the death, what with it being your livelihood and all, but at what point does Romney’s “Corporations are people,my friend” ring sour to those among us who don’t make it to the big show and who can’t be helped by a State that subsidizes every business disproportionately because they are “To big to fail?” Do you really believe that people aren’t being fleeced right out of their shorts by, in this case, professional sports?

        If Notabomber gets a subsidy, it must mean he knows Pro Frisbee’s newest team The 405 “S” Curves are “Too big to fail” and his corporation can’t miss making a huge profit, if there is no bottom line. “Jus sayin”…

        • art thiel

          The corporate welfare issue is a legit one, and bigger than we can deal with here. I’m generally against subsidies for pro sports, and I also think Hansen’s financial plan has put the lighest touch on the public side that I have seen in Seattle.

          By using a municipality’s ability to borrow money more cheaply than a private firm, a lot of money is saved that helps make the arena project work. The cost to taxpayers isn’t dollars spent but other borrowing opportunities foregone. That is is a cost, and taxpayers need to be presented at a cost/benefit analysis to understand whether it’s worthy.

  • notaboomer

    dood, seatlle has two–TWO–pro frisbee teams! enjoy the heck out of it!

  • Gregory

    I don’t understand Seattle’s willingness to kiss the NBA ring after what they’ve put us through. Forcing it won’t work. Chris Hansen throwing bags of money at them wasn’t enough, it’s time to look at the NHL. It’s a league that actually wants us and will kick start the arena project. Once it’s built the NBA can come back with hat in hand. Their product is as poor as it’s ever been, let’s make it work to our advantage.

  • raccooni irascarri

    I volunteer at a wolf sanctuary south of Olympia. Wolves are intelligent, loyal and beautiful creatures! They are not wolves of the same litter. They are just litter.

  • DJS425

    I’m so tired of the NBA and their business model. We built a brand new Key Arena that dictator Stern asked for which he said was “special to me” and “Seattle should be proud. Less than 10 years later they were asking for 200-300+ million for a new one?! Thats not fair. The city did what they were asked of by NBA. Just like the Mariners and Seahawks except NBA got their $ first. We built stadium for Mariners, MLB stayed. We built stadium for Seahawks, NFL stayed. I still can’t believe that trash thrown our way in 2008 AND 2013. Fans didnt deserve this, 41 years of support, just to get kicked in the nuts! My payback to the NBA is NOT going to games (Ive been to 1 in NJ since than) and not spending $ on anything NBA. Outside the 1 game I attended couple years ago I have stuck to my guns and still will with none of my money going to anything NBA related. The NBA fckd up when they left Seattle. Proof? The 2013 Seahawks. Ask the NFL just how much $ they’re making off Seattle.

    Also people are forgetting this statement made by David Stern after the thievery of the Sonics. Sounds like a lot of promises were made in this, and up till today, none fulfilled .

  • Cary

    I enjoy watching sports as much as the next guy, but realizing the grim reality of the pro sports business model of scamming cities into either paying for a team or watching them go bye bye to another city that will pay makes me wonder sometimes why people even put up with it or at least don’t acknowledge the absurdity of it more often? The men at the top profiting off of this system obviously just prey upon each city’s civic pride while in reality, not giving a damn. But I guess that’s just America, home of the brave and land of the free who passively accept being screwed over and over in just about every avenue..