The NBA’s Red State Hoops Strategy means you may be rooting for different teams than you realize.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a stolen franchise, having been torn from Seattle in 2008. A mere four years later, they are in the NBA Finals. They are also being relentlessly promoted by the NBA as a team to love. We are told to see them as America’s sweethearts, with their small-town vibe and roaring crowds in shirts that read, “Team Is Family.”
In reality, they are the brilliant culmination of a planning meeting NBA Commissioner David Stern had with Republican strategist Matthew Dowd about how to give the league “red-state appeal.” This was in conjunction with the NBA’s establishment of a dress code and road-behavior guidelines, and Stern’s general sense of rather blunt unease that a league built on a foundation of black, inner-city talent would repel wealthier white fans.
States don’t get much more red than Oklahoma, where every district voted for John McCain in 2008. The Chesapeake Energy Arena is named after minority owner Aubrey McClendon’s Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a company that makes its profits through fracking, the splitting open of the earth to extract oil and natural gas.
Fracking has been linked to earthquakes, contaminated drinking water and global warming. Not surprisingly, McClendon is a climate change denier. He’s also, for good measure, a staunch gay rights opponent, and a main funder for the 2004 group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, aimed at smearing then-presidential candidate John Kerry’s military record in Vietnam. And he, like majority owner and major Republican donor Clay Bennett, took hundreds of millions in corporate welfare to move to Oklahoma City. It’s all so very “red state appeal.”
It’s not surprising that efforts are being made to squelch mention of the team’s Seattle roots. More surprising is how much traction this line of thinking has among those who should know better.
ESPN’s Bill Simmons once railed against the move to Oklahoma City. In a column titled “Thunder Family Values,” Simmons writes about his newfound Oklahoma City love. He ends his piece: “Is it possible to feel happy for Oklahoma City while continuing to feel absolutely, unequivocally terrible for Seattle? Actually, yes.”
More eye-opening is the similar message sent by Seattle Sonics legend Gary Payton. Payton attended rallies aimed at saving the Sonics and was vocal in his criticism of the move. But the man known as “The Glove” said, “It’s not our team anymore. Let’s move on and get our own.”
To my Seattle sisters and brothers: Don’t get over it. Your anger is just.
This isn’t about spite or jealousy or anything of the sort. It’s about protecting the future of hoops in the Emerald City. Seattle has the income, the passion and the real estate to bring basketball back. The NBA needs Seattle more than Seattle needs the NBA.
But on what terms will the Sonics come back? The people of Seattle took a stand against being ripped off by the NBA and handing billionaires $300 million of corporate welfare. All of that courage, drama and pain will have been for nothing if they accept the terms that Stern will attempt to impose.
When the NBA demands a new arena as a precondition for pro ball, you can demand private funding for the new facility, like they did in Philadelphia. Or you can demand a dollar of public ownership for every tax dollar. You can point to Green Bay and say, “If the Packers have fan ownership, why can’t we?” It’s not just about having the Sonics return, but how they do. Until then, we should all hope to see the Thunder fall flat.
Let every owner itching to move their team to greener pastures see that it’s not all parades and glory. If Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon don’t believe in climate change, let them believe in karma.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner).