What Happened To The Seattle SuperSonics?

The Seattle SuperSonics were the first major professional sports team in Seattle, and were a huge part of the sports scene in the pacific northwest. So what exactly led to the team leaving the city they called home for 40 years? In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how the sale of the team turned sour, after one side claimed that the other fraudulently misrepresented themselves over their true intentions of moving the team away.

Formation (1967-1976)

Since the NBA’s beginnings in 1946, the league has expanded and contracted several times, and by the late 1960s the NBA was ready to expand the league from 10 teams to 12. The two cities that were awarded franchises were San Diego, who would become the San Diego Rockets and later the Houston Rockets when they relocated in 1971. The other city that was granted a franchise was Seattle, when the NBA awarded a team to owners Sam Schulman and Eugine Klein. Conciendentally, both men also owned another team in San Diego, the San Diego Chargers. The team would be nicknamed the SuperSonics, which was chosen through a fan vote at the time. The name SuperSonics was inspired by the SuperSonic transport plane that Boeing was developing in Seattle at the time. Unfortunately mass production of the plane never became a reality, due the government contract being canceled, but the team name stuck anyway. As for the team’s colors, they wore green, gold and white, and remained that way throughout most of their history. 

Initially the SuperSonics played at the Seattle Center Coliseum which it was known at the time from 1967 to 1978. The Coliseum originally opened as part of the 1962 World’s Fair exhibition in Seattle, and hosted the Washington State Pavillion. By the late 1970’s, a brand new dome stadium opened across town, known as the Kingdome. The stadium would be home to four professional sports teams, the Seattle Seahawks, the Seattle Mariners, the Seattle Sounders (the North American Soccer League version) and the SuperSonics (who moved there after the 1977 to 78 season). The Sonics would play there for seven seasons, from 1978 to 1985. The team would make their way back to the Seattle Center Coliseum starting from the 1985 to 86 season and would play there for most of their remaining years in Seattle with the exception of the 1994 to 95 season. The Sonics temporarily played at the Tacoma dome while the Seattle Center Coliseum went under renovations, after which the venue would change its name to the KeyArena. 

The Sonics have also had a number of different logos of the years. The first logo lasted over three years from 1967 to 70, and featured a basketball with the space needle inside of it and a SuperSonic plane flying around outside. Their second logo was a little more generic, as they removed the SuperSonic plane and Space needle and just left the words Seattle SuperSonics. So not hard to believe this logo only lasted one year during the 1971 season. Things got a lot more interesting with their third logo, when the Sonics decided to embrace the 1970’s with this funky font. This logo lasted for three seasons from 1972 to 75. But then the SuperSonics stumbled upon arguably their greatest logo, that featured a depiction of the Seattle skyline and a yellow basketball serving as the backdrop. This iconic logo would last for 20 years from 1975 to 1995. Afterwhich the Sonics embraced the 1990’s by cramming as many colors as possible into their logo. In addition to their usual green and gold, they added red and a strange bronze color while also making the Space needle a prominent feature in the logo. The team would only use this logo for six years before it was replaced with the Sonics final design Which kind of looked like a cross between the Sprite and Crush soda logos). This Sonics design would last for seven years, between 2001 and 2008.

Championship run (1977-1980)

In the early 1970’s, the NBA was trying to close a merger deal with their rival basketball league the ABA. The Sonics owner, Sam Schulman was actually on the committee that oversaw the merger between the two leagues. Apparently he grew so impatient with the merger negotiations that he threatened to move the Sonics out of the NBA and join the ABA if they didn’t reach a deal. He also threatened to move the Sonics to Los Angeles and become a cross town rival to the Lakers. One of the issues holding up the merger was a lawsuit filed by basketball legend Oscar Robertson, who wanted to block the merger due to a clause allowing teams to claim a player in perpetuity rather than allowing them to explore free agency. The lawsuit was eventually settled in 1976 (which allowed players to become free agents), and the merger between the two leagues was completed later that year.

The SuperSonics early years weren’t partially great, they finished either near last or in some seasons closer to the middle of the pact in their division from 1967 to 1973. The Sonics hired legendary basketball player Bill Russell as head coach, and he helped lead the team to the playoffs for the first time ever in 1974, while also beating the Detroit Pistons in the first round 2 games to 1. They would however lose to eventual NBA champions the Golden State Warriors in the semi finals. Russell would leave the head coaching position in 1977, and was replaced by Bob Hopkins, no not Bob Hoskins, Bob Hopkins.., Yep there we go. Hopkins was actually Bill Russell’s cousin, and had agreed to take over after Russell left. Unfortunately, the Sonics struggled early in the 1977 season and Hopkins was replaced with Lenny Wilkens. The team play turned around dramatically, and the Sonics finished the season 47-35 and went on to win the Western Conference title, clinching an appearance in the NBA finals for the first time ever. In the finals they matched up against the Washington Bullets, but unfortunately the Sonics came up short and lost the series in 7 games. 

However, the SuperSonics would get the last laugh as the two teams would meet again a year later in the 1979 NBA finals. This time the Sonics beat the Bullets in 5 games, with Dennis Johnson winning finals MVP. This would be the SuperSonics one and only title while in Seattle. The championship team of Jack Sikma, Gus Willams, John Johnson, Lenny Shelton, Dennis Johnson, and more would make one last final run through the playoffs the next year but ultimately lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. After the 1980 season, the core of the team was broken up when Dennis Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns and Gus Willams seen here posing for his LinkedIn profile picture, sat out the season due to a contract dispute. The Sonics fell to last place, finishing with a record of 34-48. Interestingly during this time, the SuperSonics unveiled the first of it’s kind television cable subscription service channel called, “Sonics SuperChannel”. Which allowed viewers to watch every Sonics game for $1.33, or for $120 a season. The SuperChanel would last three seasons until after the 1984-85 season when it was shut down.

Struggles (1981-1988)

The owner of the Sonics, Sam Schulman decided to sell the team in 1983 to Barry Ackerley, a businessman who made his fortunes through his advertising and media companies. Even though they struggled for most of the 1980s, the SuperSonics had a surprising eventful 1986-87 season. Seattle hosted the NBA All Star game on February 8 1987, at the Kingdome. This was actually the second time Seattle had hosted the NBA All Star Game, after first hosting in 1974, and it would also be the last time Seattle would host the All Star Game. The Sonics’ power forward Tom Chambers, seen here manspreading with his cowboy hat, was awarded All-Star MVP after scoring 34 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 steals. 

After finishing the regular season with a losing record of 39-43, they still managed to make the playoffs as the seventh seed in the western conference. In the first round they stunned the second seed Dallas Mavericks by beating them three games to one. The Sonics then moved on to the semi-finals by facing the Houston Rockets and upsetting and defeating them in six games. The magical run however came to end, when the Sonics faced their longtime rivals the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The Lakers would sweep the Sonics in four games, and eventually would go on to win the NBA finals.

Return to Success (1989-1995)

The SuperSonics fortunes had begun to turn in the late 1980s, when the team drafted future all-star Shawn Kemp in 1989, and a year later drafted future hall of famer Gary Peyton in 1990. But the team really turned around starting in 1992, with the hiring of head coach George Karl where he helped lead the team through a number of successful seasons. During the 1992-93 season, the Sonics finished with a record of 55-27, and ended up going all the way to the Western Conference finals. They would face off against the favored Phoenix Suns, as depicted here on Tom Cruise’s shirt from the movie Jerry McGuire. The Suns were pushed all the way to seven games by the Sonics, and ended up defeating Seattle in the final game. The SuperSonics improved upon their record the next season going 63-19, which gave them the best season record in the NBA during the 1994 season. However, the team was shocked and upset by the Denver Nuggets in the first round, when they lost in five games. This earned the Sonics the dubious distinction of becoming the first number one seed team to lose to an eighth seed team during the playoffs.

The following season, the Sonics once again returned to the playoffs finishing in second place in the Pacific Division. But once again, the Sonics were eliminated in the first round by the Lakers in four games. Seattle’s best chance at making the finals came in the 1995-96 season, when the Sonics bested their own single season record with a 64-18 win/loss record. They faced the Sacramento Kings in the first round and defeated them in 4 games. In the semi-finals, the SuperSonics swept the Houston Rockets in 4 games, advancing the Western Conference finals. In a back and forth series against the Utah Jazz, the Sonics were forced to play a game seven when the Utah jazz beat them in game six, 118-83. In a close game, the Sonics narrowly defeated the Jazz 90-86, clinching their first appearance in the finals since 1979. 

The Final Years (1996-2008)

Heading into the finals, the Chicago Bulls were heavily favored due to having future hall of farmers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and hall of fame coach Phil Jackson on their team. The series got out to a terrible start for the Sonics, losing the first three games in a row and staring down an embarrassing sweep. The SuperSonics rebounded winning game four, thanks due in part to a change in strategy of allowing Gary Peyton to defend Michael Jordan. In game five, the Sonics once again defeated the Bulls, pushing the series to six games and a potential upset. However, in game six, Chicago’s Dennis Rodman repeated his incredible defensive performance from game 2, which helped the Bulls defeat the Sonics 4 games to 2. The 1996 NBA finals trip would turn out to be significant, as it marked the last time the SuperSonics franchise would make the finals.

The team would however make the playoffs again over the next seasons, advancing to the semi finals both times. However they would lose to the Houston Rockets in 7 games in 1997, and to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in 1998. After the season head coach George Karl was fired after back to back second round playoff eliminations, but probably didn’t help that he didn’t get along very well with Sonics General Manager Wally Walker. The SuperSonics stretch of playoff runs throughout the 90’s had come to an end, as over the next decade the team would only make the playoffs another three times. A surprise playoff run came in 2005, when the Sonics won their division and made it all the way to the semi Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. The Sonics had all-star Rahard Lewis and future hall of famer Ray Allen help push the series to six games, where the Sonics ultimately were defeated by the eventual NBA Champions Spurs. The 2005 season would mark the beginning of the end of the SuperSonics time in Seattle, as this was the last time the team would make the playoffs. 

Sale and Relocation (2008)

The SuperSonics first owner Sam Schulman (seen here posing for the cover of Hard Nipples Monthly), and the team’s second owner Barry Ackerly (seen here with Patrick Euwing both riesling at the same time that they’ve made a huge mistake), the two provided stable and consistent ownership for the Sonic’s first 33 years. That would all change when in 2001, when Acklery decided to sell the franchise to a new buyer. The team was sold to Starbucks founder Howard Shutlz , along with many others who bought a minority stake in the Sonics (58 other partners to be exact). Shultz would only end up owning the team for five years, during which the Sonics lost large amounts of money as a franchise. Hoping to turn things around, Shultz sought financial help from the state of Washington in funding a new arena someplace around the Seattle area. After failing to come to an agreement for financing a new arena, or the cost for renovating the KeyArena, Shultz felt he had no choice but to sell the team. The KeyArena at the time was the smallest venue in the NBA, only seating a little over 17,000. Even the sale of the team was a struggle, as Shultz preferred to sell the team to a local, Seattle based group, but none panned out. The Sonics were then shopped around to groups from St. Louis, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Anaheim, and San Jose before Shultz agreed to sell to an ownership group based out of Oklahoma City. 

Clay Bennet, a former part owner of the San Antonio Spurs, had become an instrumental part in helping the New Orleans Hornets (as they were known at the time) relocate to Oklahoma City for two seasons, following the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans.  During this time Bennet formed a group interested in buying an NBA franchise, and on October 24, 2006 the $350 million deal between Howard Schultz and Bennet was formalized by the other NBA owners. Part of this deal required that Bennet pursue “good-faith best efforts” for at least one year in trying to secure a new arena in the Seattle metropolitan area. However, pretty much right at the same time Seattle passed initiative 91, which prohibited public tax payer dollars from being used to build arenas for either the Sonics or it’s sister team the Seattle Storm. 

Early the following year, Bennet proposed using tax money to fund a $500 million dollar arena just outside of Seattle, in Renton, Washington. Unfortunately, that deal never materialized as Bennet failed to convince legislators on the new arena and by April of 2007 Bennet had backed away from the plan. Not long after that, concerns were raised in August 2007 when Aubrey McClendon (a minority owner in the Sonics) mentioned in an Oklahoma City newspaper, “The Journal Record”, that the SuperSonics were not bought with the intention of keeping them in Seattle, but rather to relocate them to OKC. Bennet tried to distance himself from the comment saying McClendon was not speaking on behalf of the ownership group. However the NBA went ahead and fined McClendon a quarter of a million dollars for the comments.

Despite Bennet’s public comments about the Sonics commitment to Seattle, moves were already underway to try to break the deal the Sonics had with the city. On September 21, 2007, Bennet sought legal arbitration on whether the Sonics could leave the KeyArena early, by continuing to pay the lease but not having the Sonics actually play in the arena. The city pushed back stating that part of the lease specifically mentions that the team must play ALL of their home games at the KeyArena through September 2010. Because of this, a judge rejected Bennet’s request for arbitration on the issue. A month later, just a day after the Sonics first game of the season, Bennet informed the commissioner of the NBA David Stern, that he planned to officially move the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City as soon as it was legally possible. At this point, a year had passed since the team was sold to Bennet’s group, which meant they no longer were legally obligated to look for a new arena in the Seattle area. To make matters worse for Sonics fans, Bennet publicly stated that the team would not be for sale, and would not entertain any offers from local groups to keep the team in Seattle. However, there was another one last attempt to renovate the KeyArena by the Microsoft CEO at the time Steve Balmer (who now owns the LA Clippers). He offered to pay for half of the $300 million dollars needed to bring the KeyArena up to date, while the city of Seattle and King County would pay the rest. Unfortunately, the deal was not approved by the state legislature by the April 10 2008 deadline. 

In early 2008, voters in OKC approved a $120 million dollar renovation to the Ford Center (now known as Chesapeake arena) as well as the construction of an NBA practice facility. A few days later Bennet and Oklahoma City came to an agreement on a 15 year lease to the Ford Center. And to sweeten the potential move, the Oklahoma state legislature also approved a bill that would give the Sonics ownership group tax breaks and other incentives if the team moved to OKC. At this point, it was all but inevitable that the SuperSonics would leave Seattle for Oklahoma. And on April 18 2008, the NBA owners approved in a vote of 28-2 to allow the Sonics to leave Seattle for OKC. The two dissenting votes were from the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cubin and the Portland Trail Blazers Paul Allen. With the approval formalized, the Sonics would now be able to move to OKC for the start of the 2008-2009 season. Part of the deal between Clay Bennent and Seattle,  was he had to pay 45 million dollars to break the Sonics’ lease on the KeyArena early, while also promising to pay another 30 million dollars if no NBA team comes back to Seattle by 2013.

Legacy & Future

Howard Schultz, seen here taking in the smooth sounds of a Sonics game with jazz musician Kenny G,  for his part regretted his decision to sell the team to Clay Bennet and his group. Schultz stated, “Selling the Sonics as I did is one of the biggest regrets of my professional life. I should have been willing to lose money until a local buyer emerged.” In one final attempt to block the move, Howard Schultz sued Clay Bennet’s ownership group stating that they did not act in “good-faith” to find a suitable site for an arena in the Seattle area. Shultz used publicly released email exchanges between members of Bennet’s ownership group, openly discussing how they preferred to move the team to OKC. Bennet claimed that the emails were taken out of context, and that his group had spent millions in trying to keep the Sonics in Seattle. Eventually the NBA stepped in and filed a motion in a Seattle federal court, stating that Schultz lawsuit against Bennett would put the Sonics franchise in an unstable situation and the NBA would be forced to take control of the team itself. The NBA also stated that Schultz had signed an agreement that prevented him from suing Bennet’s group prior to the original sale of the team. A little later, Schultz conceded that it would be difficult to win his case against Bennet with the NBA intervening, and he dropped his lawsuit in August of 2008.

In another last gut punch to the fans in Seattle, the Sonics before they left drafted three promising talented players in Kevin Durant (the 2nd overall pick in the 2007 draft)  Russell Westbrook (the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft) and Serge Ibaka who was the 24th overall pick that same year. The three would later be joined by James Harden, who was drafted third overall in the 2009 draft, and became the first player in Oklahoma City history to be drafted. With the move to Oklahoma City complete, the Seattle SuperSonics officially changed their name to the Oklahoma City Thunder on September 3, 2008. The four recently drafted players  would become the foundational core of a dominant team, helping lead the Thunder to their first NBA finals appearance in 2012. They faced off against another dominant group of four in LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and old SuperSonics veteren Ray Allen. The Heat would end up defeating the Thunder in five games, earning James and Bosh their first championships. 

Part of exit negotiations with Seattle was that the Thunder would not use the SuperSonics ame, nor would they use the team’s colors. There seems to be some discrepancies over the exact details of who owns what in the Seattle-OKC break up. Based on the research I found, OKC got to keep the trademark on the SuperSonics name, and their history, but they left the SuperSonics championship trophy, banners, and retired jerseys in Seattle to be displayed at the museum of history and industry. Technically, the Thunder still own the Sonics history, but this in effect leaves the door open for a new ownership group in Seattle to purchase the naming rights to the “SuperSonics” from the Thunder if and when the NBA awards a new team or another team decides to relocate to Seattle. 

Possible relocations or expansion of NBA

In the years since the Sonics moved away, there’s been a number of teams rumored to be thinking about relocating to the northwest. Some teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks briefly considered Seattle as a potential move, but have since been sold to new ownership groups. And as part of their sale were required to keep the teams in their current markets. One team to note was the Sacramento Kings, who possibly came the closest to actually moving to Seattle. In 2011, a group of investors led by Chris Hansen, no… not that Chris Hansen,… yep that Chris Hansen, who is a hedge fund manager from the Seattle area. He had begun buying up real estate near the Seahawks and Mariners home stadiums, with the intention of building a new arena in that area, He later came to an agreement with the city of Seattle on privately financing the construction of the arena. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings had long been trying to find a solution to building a new arena, but like many other teams failed in their attempts to get public support behind it. By early 2013, a tentative agreement had been reached between Hansen’s group and the Maloof family who owned the Sacramento Kings on the sale and relocation of the team. 

Upon hearing of this agreement, David Stern and the NBA once again stepped in and thwarted the potential sale of the team. WIth the of the league office, the city of Sacramento formed an alternate group of investors who would keep the team in Sacramento. This alternate group was headed by Vivek Ranadive (VA-VEK RON-A-DEE-VAY) and would later be joined by Shaqille O’neal who bought a 5 percent stake in the Kings. Long story short, the NBA owners eventually went to a vote between relocating the Kings or keeping them in Sacramento and the owners voted 22-8 in favor of staying in Sacramento. The Kings eventually got their new arena when the Golden1 arena opened in 2016. I’m sure quite a few SuperSonics fans probably felt like they dodged a bullet there anyways, I mean who really wants Sacremento’s sloppy seconds?

There is a potential glimmer of hope for Sonics fans, on December 4, 2018 the NHL unanimously approved the expansion of the league by adding a new franchise in Seattle. This was due in part thanks to the renovations to the KeyArena, now known as Climate Pledge Arena. Starting in October of 2018, the Climate Pledge Arena underwent a massive overhaul costing around 900 million dollars. The renovation plan ultimately led to the NHL approving of an expansion to Seattle, which in all likelihood helps increase the chances of the NBA hopefully expanding into Seattle sometime in the future. So what do you guys think about the Sonics moving to OKC? Should the NBA have stepped in and intervened like they did? Let me know in the comments below!


5 responses to “What Happened To The Seattle SuperSonics?”

    • Loved the story, respect the research, but indeed I wondered lonely as a cloud, as I wandered through layers of textual tapestry what had happened to the fucking name indeed


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