Grantland’s Brian Phillips is one of the most eloquent sportswriters around, and Friday he used his graceful control of language to take on a mighty delicate topic: the complicated, tense relationship between Seattle Sonics fans and Oklahoma City Thunder fans. This is my response.
Dear Brian (and other sympathetic Oklahomans):
Thanks for writing! It was really nice to hear from you, even under these awkward circumstances.
I must say: as a Sonics survivor, I winced through whole paragraphs of your thoughtful letter. My eyes wanted to jump ahead rather than face your calm, generous words about the facts of our “shared” franchise.
And while I do appreciate the sentiment, there’s little comfort in knowing the franchise, in so much as it remains at all connected to the Sonics, is in great hands.
I’m more interested in how you address a really tough issue: how does one, in good conscience, invest time, energy or emotion in the NBA (as opposed to only your team) as a corporation — one that trades on our love of community, our childhoods, or the sport itself. As Ethan Strauss put it: for the NBA to be good business, it has to be more than a business.
This, as you seem to intuit, is one of the reasons we felt so raw and exposed when the Sonics departed. Seattle fans were forced to contemplate not only the treachery we felt helpless to prevent, but that all our fond memories were drained of value by the final reveal: we had been duped.
Not by Clay Bennett, but, in a way, by all the good times.
You liken our occasional and upsetting intrusions in your Thunder superfunfriend times to those unsettling horror film flashes of a scary dead girl in the background. I love this, because the metaphor holds for our purposes too; watching the Supes leave was like being Bruce Willis at the end of Sixth Sense — we now understood that we’d been dead the entire time. It laid bare the whole illusion of professional sports.
That Clay Bennett could move a team to a city that would never be able to support a team like Seattle only made it much, much worse. There are more than twice as many people in Washington as in Oklahoma. Seattle’s TV Market, the metric that will increasingly determine how much money an NBA team can make, is two and half times bigger than Oklahoma City’s. By definition, whatever joy was created in Oklahoma was less widespread and widely felt than the pain in Seattle.
And because it made no objective business sense in the long term, the move was (correctly) interpreted as Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and others simply taking because they could.
You are correct, all us sports fans are linked in knowing that we are eternally at the whim of powers greater than we can influence. But I think you also understand acknowledging that (sports) death connects us all is different than not having a pulse.
You see us with greasy, clumped hair and pale, green skin, surprising you in the mirror. But we still can’t even hear “Thunder” without reflexively thinking “Sonics.” It’s not a flash of horror but the constant, aching reality for Seattleites who still pay attention to the NBA. When the Thunder capture the interest of the whole country, as they’ve deservedly done in the past three years, we’re forced to consider the image of our own disintegrating flesh.
Our only recourse is knowing that 30 years from now, it’s more likely there will be an NBA team in Seattle than one in Oklahoma City (Unless there’s a zombie apocalypse, in which case Zombie Sonics will take on a very different meaning). It just makes no practical sense for an NBA team to be there. Will OKC erect a tent city for media, entourage and spectators during the Finals?
Woah, sorry about that petty and sneering sentiment.
But it seems I can’t help it, despite your magnanimous overtures.
So let’s just let’s leave it at this: enjoy the world of the living while you’re in it — it’s the only thing to do. And as you bask in the light of your perfect team, please don’t think that we haunt you from the shadows out of jealously alone. We’re also waiting to see when you’ll join us on the other side.
Then we’ll talk.