The potential death of the Kings — and the corresponding re-birth of the Sonics — can be best understood through the lens of a long-term, yet potentially compromised, relationship, settled by two but observed by many.
Picture this: you and your girlfriend (or your boyfriend, whatever you like) have been dating for a long time. Years and years, in fact. Things were great for a long time, and you guys seemed like a lifelong match. Everyone around you said it, and you two, for awhile, seemed to know it, too. But over time, despite your best efforts, things go south. While things used to be good — wonderful, even — those days honestly seem like a distant memory. There’s been a lot of fighting, a lot of sleeping on separate beds. Feelings have been deeply hurt, and many things have been said that can never, ever be taken back. And while things fall apart, you can’t help feeling that you’re way more into the relationship than she (or he) is. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you just know in your heart of hearts that you care more about the outcome of this than they do.
One day, after a lunch out that seemed to start of fine, things degenerate. It’s always something stupid or insignificant, but neither of you can ever really let it slide at this point. A pointed discussion about something, anything, grows louder and louder until it’s clear that you two are just screaming at each other, no holds barred. Finally, in a moment of pure, unbridled rage, she/he throws whatever cold beverage they’re drinking right in your face, stands up, and storms out of the restaurant. You’re left sitting in an unsettled dining room, patrons and wait staff staring awkwardly at their food while stealing glances at you, dripping with Coke, and steaming like a tea kettle.
You can’t believe it. You can’t believe that your awesome relationship has gone so sour, and that there was nothing you could do about it. You can’t believe that two people who used to love each other — deeply, madly — stooped to this point, where minor molehills had been successfully built up into towering mountains. You don’t know, can’t figure it all out. But here you are, going downhill fast, with no obvious way out, no clear path towards resolution.
At that very moment, you feel a tap on your shoulder. You slowly turn around and see an acquaintance in a faded green t-shirt, standing sheepishly, a small smile on his face. You don’t really know his name, and you’re sure you haven’t seen much of him in four or five years. But he’s familiar to you, somebody that you used to know better. He leans close to you, and says slowly and measuredly that he’s sorry that things are going so poorly between you and your partner. He’s been watching your decline for awhile, and it tears him up to see you guys on the outs. It should have stayed solid, he says. It should’ve worked out, and he’s sorry it didn’t.
However, he says, if you guys decide to part ways, and explore different possibilities, he’ll take good care of her. Very, very good care of her.
You can’t believe it. And, without thinking — yes, almost reflexively — you close your hand into a fist, and smash it right into his face, and watch him fly into a table of horrified diners, silver spoons and pads of butter flying everywhere. And you are left there, shaking slightly, limbs trembling, with an entire room of people looking right at you, and what you’ve done.
Believe it or not, a professional basketball team represents many different things all at once, and it becomes messy to separate them all from one another. A basketball team, of course, is a collection of players, coaches, and support staff. It is a tradition of achievements and a record of failures, everything that’s good and bad about sports wrapped up into a neat little package, mass produced and distributed for our enjoyment, both in the flesh and broadcasted all over the world through a multitude of mediums.
But for us, the fan, it is far more. More than a collection of individuals or accolades, it is a collection of memories, associations with players and eras that they either succeeded or failed in. It’s an arrangement of songs and jingles, small visual and aural cues that bring us back to a place and time where many things seemed relevant and present and informed the way you thought about the world. It’s a way to organize and schedule blocks of times, from single evenings with friends to months-and-months of cheering, jeering, and beer-ing. A professional basketball team is everything except nothing; there is no way a basketball team, regardless of its record, players or track record, doesn’t carry deep, lasting meanings for a huge group of people who actively engages (or engaged) with that entity for an extended period of time.
Perhaps above all, a professional basketball team is a talisman against loneliness. It protects us from emptiness, fills vacuums that other people, places or things can’t. It fills our homes with sights and sounds, and fortifies our lives with memories and moments to remember. It brings other players into our cities and allows for new memories to be formed and new bonds to be forged. The highly performative nature of the NBA creates connections that can’t be replicated by any other sport, a certain interactivity that makes it feel like the players are doing things specifically for you, the fan. It’s highly personal and proximal, a point of attachment for many that can be both individualized and generalized, depending on the context and the persons who are interfacing with the team.
For fans in two cities right now — Sacramento, California and Seattle, Washington — we are seeing the importance of these talismans against loneliness. Seattle, of course, lost their team in 2008, the unfortunate but widely-forecasted conclusion to an ownership tango that masked arena funding and financial gain under the guise of “market viability” and filling a lucrative television market. Meanwhile, fans of the Sacramento Kings seem to have reached a moment of brutal resolution with the owners of their team, who have tried very hard to leave California’s central valley, where they claim an NBA team — specifically, a multi-million-dollar arena — cannot be supported. Latest reports, of course, link the Kings to Seattle, where a deal between the maligned Maloof brothers and a Seattle-based investment team are, by most accounts, all but a done deal.
Now, loneliness — or, the impending threat of it — makes us do and say strange things. No one likes the feeling of being disconnected with others. Even those who would describe themselves as introverted do not spend all of their time alone and self-isolated. They eventually seek out the company of others and become purposeful (and in some cases, maybe even desperate) in their actions to establish social bonds and expand interpersonal networks. They eventually seek a reconnection with others, even if the process of dissolution was painful and dreadful. I’d venture that a particularly traumatizing experience sometimes heightens that push towards re-establishment, and motivates those who have been expunged from various social networks to, for lack of a better term, “get back in the game.”
Through events and circumstances far beyond any individual ticket-purchasers’ control, the same loneliness has now connected the fans in these two cities, though the circumstances that produced this deeply troubling feeling are different as night and day. Fans still raw from the departure of the Sonics at the hands of Bennett, McClendon and Schultz are understandably excited about the prospect of getting a team back, even though, as Sonics superfan Sherman Alexie aptly states, “[they'll] have to break the hearts of people just like [them].” Meanwhile, fans in Sacramento are hell-bent on keeping their partner, their talisman against loneliness for the last 27 years. And understandably, they are reluctant to hear anyone who would think to accuse them of not being supportive of their team, and indeed, have some justification in lashing out against those who assert that they’ll take good care of them, just in case things don’t work out.
The end of a relationship produces many shades of grey, and different ways to go about sorting out individual boundaries and desires. This seems no different. While things are in the air and emotions are heavy, it seems appropriate for everyone to allow the two conflicting parties the time and space to work things out on their own, without too many conflicting opinions compromising the possibility for productive dialogue. They deserve the chance to work things out the right way, and start building something new with the air mostly cleared and previous transgressions forgotten.
It is my opinion that the Kings should remain in Sacramento. The Kings are not the Sonics, and really, they never should be. The Kings franchise needs new owners in Sacramento that care, who can repair the bonds between organization and the ravenous fan-base that made Sacramento the best NBA city in the entire country not that long ago. The harsh realities of the modern NBA require a state-of-the-art arena, for better or worse, so a viable plan to replace Arco Power Sleep Arena Pavilion needs to be negotiated in good faith between committed partners (which the Maloofs never seemed to be). The team needs an influx of cash and excitement to get their front office in order, and get the team on a rebuilding plan that has built winners in Oklahoma City, Portland, and Golden State; something that will not happen with the cash-strapped Maloofs. And all of those things — every single last one — can be found in Sacramento, California’s beautifully interesting capital city, who have unconditionally loved their team (not its owners) for so long. It does not, and should not, happen in another city. It isn’t right.
The NBA has an opportunity — and perhaps a responsibility — to set a precedent about how to right these wrongs; how to regulate the destruction of peoples’ talismans against loneliness. Kings blogger and public historian James Ham is correct: if Sacramento is to keep their team, Seattle should not be left to sit alone in the dark much longer. They need an expansion team. They need a new Sonics. Perhaps it doesn’t happen until 2020, when another franchise can be created in London (a long fascination of Boss Stern, and a likely policy point for boss-elect Adam Silver) to balance the conferences. But there needs to be green and gold uniforms in the NBA again. There needs to be an opportunity for Payton and Kemp to retire their jerseys, for awesome songs to be composed, for the Emerald City to have a chance at a championship. Perhaps it will take some time; longer than those in the 206 would like. But it’s the right thing to do.
That said, it’s unlikely to happen. And if the undesirable happens and Sacramento loses its team, to the investors in Seattle or elsewhere, it will be incumbent upon all parties to begin the awful, terrible work of moving on. It will be up to the Seattleites, both attached to the organization officially or informally, to decide whether Chris Webber is a Kings’ or Sonics legend, and whether the new team will be the Sonics at all. It will be up to them to deal with the undesirable (and ultimately unjust) feeling of being perceived by the general NBA-viewing public as thieves who pilfered someone else’s possession with hardly a thought or care. Likewise, it will be up to the Sacramentoans — like we all must do when a relationship ends against our desires — to get going with their post-Kings world as well. That may mean following the model of jilted Sonics fans, who continue to scream their hearts out at Thunder games, or expanding their fledgling “activist” movement to get a new arena and sign up season ticket holders (and when activism involves essentially getting already rich men richer with our own hard-earned dollars, Lord help us), or maybe just resolving to never watch the NBA ever again.
But it will be in line with the harsh reality of the NBA: that rich men own teams, not fans, and that cities that cannot or will not contribute their own tax dollars for an arena are left vulnerable. It is not right. It is not fair. Love and support should be enough to keep your team from leaving you. But it’s not, and it’s been a long time since that was the case.
But it is worth fighting for your relationship, especially when the odds are truly stacked against you.