The NBA died on July 2, 2008. It died to me, at least. That’s the date the new ownership of the Seattle SuperSonics reached an agreement to move the team to Oklahoma City. The circumstances behind the relocation are nebulous best, nefarious at worse. The entire ordeal has been documented many times over by people more knowledgeable and passionate than me. I’m not going to venture down that rabbit hole. I never really did. I haven’t read many articles on the subject; I never watched Sonicsgate; I never heckled Howard Schultz at a Costco; and I was measured almost to the point of indifference about the possibility of a Sonics return. That’s just how I coped. I declared the NBA dead to me and moved on.
I was devastated of course — the Sonics had been my team since the days of Dale Ellis and Tom Chambers — but I also felt weirdly relieved. Relieved that it wasn’t the Seahawks or the Mariners.* As much as I loved the Sonics, they had always been my third favorite Seattle sports team. If I had to pick one to leave, it would have been them, and it wouldn’t have been a Sophie’s Choice.
Also, at the time of the move (ransacking), the NBA was mostly boring, and when it wasn’t boring, it was annoying. The Jordan Era was fun (although I think of it as the Gary Payton Era), but in its immediate aftermath NBA basketball just wasn’t a very good product. The ’98 lockout was a slap in the face to the fans; the talent was so unevenly dispersed that teams in the East were making the playoffs with fewer than 40 wins and the East champ was routinely getting crushed in the finals; the refereeing was shady, to say the least (when Ralph Nader gets involved you know something is fishy); guys like Rashard Lewis and Jerome James were getting paid like they were Bird and Kareem circa 1982 when they were playing like Bird and Kareem circa 2002; the postseason was interminable**; the gap between March Madness and the NBA playoffs had become a nearly uncrossable chasm; every time David Stern opened his mouth publicly he came off as a smarmy, petty dictator wannabe; and then there was an incident in which a player went into the stands and started pummeling a fan because a different fan threw a beer at him, and his teammates thought the best way to handle the situation was to join in the melee and throw haymakers willy-nilly.
Simply put, the NBA sucked. And even before I knew who Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon were, the league was barely hanging on with me. When the Sonics ultimately were killed, it seemed to me as much a coup de grace as an act of murder.
Then things changed. As the 20-aughts became the 2010s, the NBA actually started being halfway watchable again. I was doing my best to ignore it, but as a sports fan in today’s everything-is-everywhere culture, it’s impossible to cut a major sport out of your life completely. Heck, it’s impossible to cut non-major sport out of your life completely; I can tell you right now that Jimmie Johnson is the current Sprint Cup leader, and I don’t even like NASCAR. So slowly the NBA started resurrecting itself in my life. I found myself watching NBA highlights at the sports bar longer than just a random glance; I was reading Bill Simmons’ NBA articles and listening to his NBA podcasts; and occasionally I was sneaking a peek at the NBA standings. It was just small things like that. But in 2011, I broke down and actively turned on the radio to listen to the last few minutes of Game 6 of the NBA finals. Afterward, I felt guilty, like I had relapsed, like I was Dennis Rodman downing kamikaze shots days after leaving rehab.
The unnerving truth is that the NBA is really good right now. With LeBron James ascending tantalizingly close to GOAT status, a new crop of exciting, fun stars like (groan) Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Paul George emerging seemingly every year, and old dogs like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki still kicking around, things have been really tough on us haters recently. We’ve had a few good moments — I immensely enjoyed the 2011 lockout, and the Chris Paul to the Lakers snafu was a treat — but overall the NBA hate landscape has mostly been barren.
For this reason, I’ve changed my hating strategy. Instead of trying to stonewall the NBA completely, I now follow it from afar, and I pull for every team but Oklahoma City. In all my other experiences as a sports fan I’ve always rooted for a team; this is the first time I’ve ever expressly rooted against a team. It’s pretty fun. And since the Zombie Sonics are actually good (really good) it’s exciting too. Last season, the Russell Westbrook injury was a godsend (sorry, Russ, nothing personal) and two years ago LeBron saved the day at the last moment (it was Miami and Seattle against the world). This year it’s shaping up to be just as dramatic as OKC currently has the best record in the NBA. I can hardly wait for the playoffs to get here. And the beauty of explicitly rooting against a team is that there is only one way you can be disappointed. The odds are always in your favor.
If the Sonics ever do actually come back to Seattle, I’ll stop all this nonsense and return to being a banal causal NBA fan. Until then, a hater I shall stay.
*Relocation rumors for each team abounded in the ’90s. In 1992, we very nearly saw the advent of the Tampa Bay Mariners. And the Seahawks actually did move to Los Angeles in 1996 (kind of). In retrospect, it’s remarkable that the Seahawks and Mariners both survived some truly terrible owners (Jeff Smulyan and Ken Behring, respectively), while the Sonics were sold down the river by Howard Schultz.
**This Onion story (which coincidentally mentions the Sonics) hits the nail on the head.