Thursday, November 15, 2012

Does the basketball "fairy tale" in OKC have lessons for Brooklyn? Yes, but...

The Oklahoma City Thunder, a widely-admired basketball team, have as sketchy an origin story as any, but according to an article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday, A Basketball Fairy Tale in Middle America, that back story doesn't matter much.

If so--and some online comments on the article contest it--that should be an encouraging sign for the Brooklyn Nets, who've already accomplished a mostly successful rebranding in a celebrated new arena.

Then again, the ongoing construction around and near the arena, as well as the differences between Brooklyn--surely not as monolithically hungering for a team--and OKC, may make it more difficult to craft that Brooklyn fairy tale. But I sure expect people to try.

The summary: no more "Zombie Sonics"

The key passage in Sam Anderson's essay is this:
Professional athletes, on the other hand, have rarely had much of a presence here. That began to change in 2006, when a consortium of wealthy Oklahomans, led by the financier Clay Bennett, bought the Seattle SuperSonics — a once-proud franchise that had been stuck for years in the drain-swirl of mediocrity. Most people assumed, cynically, that Bennett was buying the team in order to move it, as quickly as possible, to Oklahoma City, his hometown. He had pledged to make a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle — an effort that came into suspicion shortly after the sale, when the new owner demanded that Seattle come up with nearly $300 million to build a new arena. Seattle refused, at which point the ownership group announced, regretfully, that it was going to have to move the Sonics to a city with a suitable arena — a city that also happened to be Oklahoma City. The fallout was intense: lawsuits, protests, scandal. Even Oklahomans who love the team admit that they were uncomfortable with the way it was acquired. The sportswriter Bill Simmons, in solidarity with the people of Seattle, referred to the Thunder exclusively in his columns as the Zombie Sonics.
One of the miracles of the modern Thunder — and there are several — is how quickly they’ve made people forget the stain of their origin. The re-branding of the franchise has been quick and efficient: the team is now widely perceived as principled, well run and — above all — thoroughly Oklahoman. ESPN recently named it the No. 1 sports franchise in America. This fall, it seemed like a step toward closure when the Seattle City Council approved a plan to build a new basketball arena there. Simmons announced, just a few weeks ago, that he was officially retiring the phrase Zombie Sonics. In almost no time at all, the Oklahoma City Thunder had achieved escape velocity.
Note that the plan approved in Seattle, as noted by sports facility analyst Neil deMause, looks to be less demanding on public funds than Bennett's demands.

The backlash

In the comments, Oklahoma residents saluted Anderson for his sympathetic portrait of their city and state, while others were tougher. One, for example, cited the absence of gay rights there.

But the toughest comments came regarding the origin story. Wrote Charles Michener of Cleveland:
This fairy tale is just that—a glib, feel-good saga that's been too widely told for too long in the sports media. Sure, the making of the wonderful Thunder through the draft is a worthy model for other small-market teams in the NBA (and perhaps the only one available to them in this era of outsize rewards for a handful of superstars). But Sam Anderson's giddy account skates over the original sin of the Thunder's creation - Clay Bennett's perfidious theft of the team from the Sonics, abetted by the equally perfidious David Stern, not to mention the nasty streak in Bennett's right-wing, Koch brothers-style politics.
Added MKT of Portland, OR:
The article completely failed to mention Aubrey McLendon's malfeasance (both basketball-related and corporate) ... the documentary filn _Sonicsgate_  [link] is also illuminating and gives needed perspective on the story of the Sonics
Kristin of Boston, an Oklahoman, wrote:
For the most part you got it right, but a few things (from an east-coast oklahoman):
1. Part of the Thunder phenomenon in OKC can be attributed to how Oklahoma fans treat their teams in general. The saying goes that it is often faster to find your connecting flight to Oklahoma by looking for people in Sooners and Comboy (and more recently Thunder) gear than looking for the info board. Supporting these teams is essential to the 'okie' identity and wardrobe.

...4. As for the move from Seattle, it's clear to most that Bennett never intended to have them stay. Oklahoma City got a taste of a professional team while hosting the Hornets after Katrina. While Bennett was in the wrong, don't blame the team or the fans.
THUNDER UP!
By contrast, aarmom of Seattle wrote:
Fairy tale? Your storyis a fairy tale; the author loves basketball but he exhibits an amazing naivete and lack of curiosity in perpetuating this "fairy tale".
"The stain of their origin" may have been forgiven by Bill Simmons, but not by many knowledgeable basketball fans, including Charles Barkley, who took the Thunder to task for claiming Seattle's stats as their own, and not by Seattle basketball fans.
These wonderful and civic-minded owners are religious bigots: all Thunder games begin with a prayer, usually led by a preacher. They play in Chesapeake Arena - Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake, gave $1 million in 20047 to the anti-gay marriage organization Americans United to Preserve Marriage; another Thunder owner gave $525,000 to the same organization.
I'm sorry Oklahoma City suffered a horrific tragedy, but this isn't a fairy tale - it's a story of greed and backroom deals between Clay Bennett and David Stern, assisted by an apathetic Howard Schultz.
Their transition and the outright lies committed by Bennett in order to steal the team from Seattle and transport it to OKC as part of a "citywide Renaissance" will always be an asterisk in whatever success they achieve.
C. Jama Adams of New York wondered:
The remarkable goodness of OKC's citizens would be a bit more believable, given their adoration of a young Black male, had the writer addressed, even briefly, issues such as race relations in OKC. How were the tax dollars and the perseverance used to build a more inclusive city?
...Supporting sports teams speaks to our need for communal events. It would be nice to have known if in OKC the pursuit of a sense of community and the ecstatic, went beyond the worshipping of Durant as a near God, the building of a secular temple (the stadium), and the wearing of the ordained garments. How does this get extended to other community and spiritual needs?
A debate

Jordan of Oklahoma wrote:
One thing I will say though is that Seattle had the chance to keep this team, and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring history. The people of Seattle passed Seattle Initiative 91 that rejected sports subsidies and ultimately doomed their chances at retaining the team. They wouldn't build a stadium, and Clay Bennett rightfully took it elsewhere. As an OKC resident, the bitterness I see from former Seattle fans is stunning. I can promise you one thing, if the people of OKC were asked to build a new stadium, it would pass in a landslide. Loyalty is a two-way street.
Stuart J of Seattle responded:
Mr Bennett had zero intention of keeping the team in Seattle. Mr Stern knows how to play the game: blackmailing a city to increase the amount taxpayers pay up so the team moves strikes fear into other cities, who are then forced to pony up in order to keep their team. Who wins? The league and the owners. Who loses? Fans and taxpayers.
And Seattle taxpayers are the ones who have forced the NBAs hand and proved what a fraud the league is, because the arena deal on the table now is much better than what Seattle would have gotten a few years ago, and is probably much better for taxpayers than an increase in sales tax, which according to Wikipedia is what taxpayers are paying for the Chesapeake / Ford arena.
Mused David of Toledo:
Why should the public pay for "sports subsidies" when the public is incapable of reducing the national debt, seeing that every American has health insurance, maintaining our infrastructure, providing jobs for all our wounded warriors, etc.?
Why can't billionaire sports team owners, who realize enormous windfall profits when they sell to the next owner, pay for their own stadia? (George W. Bush bought into the Texas Rangers for $600,000 and cashed out 9 years later for 14.9 million.)
Stuart J added:
The way the league blackmailed Seattle was no fairy tale. The way sports teams in general extort taxpayers is not a fairy tale. The Thunder was built on the backs of Seattle fans who had to endure a terrible last season as the now Oklahoma GM cleared cap space so that Mr Bennett and Mr McClendon would lose less money before they moved the team to OKC.
A word from the author

In Behind the Cover Story: Sam Anderson on the Civic Magic of the OKC Thunder, the Times Magazine blog asked the author a few questions:
You are a basketball obsessive. What drew your eye to this particular story?
The Thunder is a magical team. Everyone wanted to hate them after the debacle over whether the team would stay in Seattle, and many succeeded and even kept it up for a few years. But the team became so likable on so many levels (the personalities, the playing style, the organizational class, James Harden’s beard) that a lot of that hate just melted away. That’s not to say that many people in Seattle don’t hate them still, understandably. But the players are so young, they had all of this potential and then they actually realized it — which is such a rare thing in sports.

Your article has a sort of precapitalist fairy-tale quality. Is money the big bad wolf?
I think it is a sort of old-timey “golden era of sports” type of story. It kept reminding me of stories of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940s and ’50s — how it was just this perfect fusion of community and team. But then of course the Dodgers got sucked off to the West Coast and Brooklyn went into a downward economic spiral that lasted something like 40 years — and that was all about money. The amazing thing about the Thunder is that the team’s origin story is definitely not a precapitalist fairy tale. Ask anyone in Seattle. But now the team has come to seem that way.
Anderson, by the way, wrote a 9/16/07 article for New York Magazine about Dodgers nostalgia and Atlantic Yards, Exorcising the Dodgers.

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