Tom Rider was in a hotel somewhere in Ohio or Indiana — he can't remember which. He was headed back home to Washington from law school in Rhode Island in 2007 when he learned that the Seattle SuperSonics had been awarded the second pick in the draft. The diehard Sonics fan was ecstatic, because almost everyone believed the Portland Trail Blazers would pick Ohio State center Greg Oden first overall and leave Kevin Durant, a lanky perimeter forward out of Texas, for the Sonics at No. 2.
As far as consolation prizes go, Durant was as good they came. After the Sonics snatched up the 6-foot-9 scoring machine, Rider went to watch the eventual Rookie of the Year a handful of times the following season. The array of skills in a player Durant's size was "awesome," Rider recalls, and he pictured watching Durant develop into an MVP candidate over the next decade.
Now, though, Rider cannot bring himself to watch Durant. What was once awe-inspiring, Rider now calls "horrible." It is not that Durant's play has changed — the uniform has.
While most of the country is pulling hard for the Oklahoma City Thunder to defeat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Seattle may be one of the few places where the distaste for LeBron James is outstripped by the bitterness over the Sonics' unseemly relocation saga. Four years after leaving the Emerald City after a 20-win season, the franchise that brought Seattle its only modern major sports championship now seeks to do the same for the Sooner State. For Seattle fans, it is like watching a longtime girlfriend find fame, fortune and love with someone else within months of a sour and emotional breakup.
"It's still really fresh, and this really rehashes it," Rider said. "The way it went down and the way they left town really made people bitter. I'm happy for some of the players. Kevin Durant and Nick Collison are still there, so I'm excited for them, but overall most Seattle fans want the Thunder to go to hell, to be direct."
Those unfamiliar with the details of the Sonics' departure might say, so what? Sports teams move. Business decisions are made. The Browns left Cleveland for Baltimore, the Expos left Montreal for Washington, D.C., and the Hornets left Charlotte for New Orleans, just to name a few recent examples. If Clay Bennett and the rest of the Sonics ownership group got a better deal in Oklahoma City, they had a professional obligation to relocate.
It was not so simple, however, as outlined in the excellent documentary Sonicsgate. The details are laid out expertly the two-hour piece, but suffice to say that the machinations behind the relocation were not as simple as dollars and cents. In the view of many fans, Bennett's group bled the organization of any connection to the city, cut corners on concessions and put such a poor product on the floor in the final years in Seattle that fans were destined to be turned off. By the final year, the only reason to watch the team was Durant, as an ugly courtroom and legislative drama pulled fans' emotions in several directions. Few Seattle residents actually believed the team would move until it actually packed up and joined a covered wagon train southeast.
Yet because the Sonics' departure was played out in backrooms rather than on cable TV, the Thunder are the sentimental favorite in the Finals, while the Heat are the despicable foils. The majority of fans seem to sympathize with Cleveland against James, rather than with the millions of Sonics fans against Bennett.
Adam Richter, a diehard Sonics fan who was a member of a comedy troupe in Seattle and is now a journalist in Pennsylvania, still wears an old Sonics T-shirt on weekends. The ultimate villain for him remains NBA commissioner David Stern, whom Richter felt was complicit in and even helped facilitate some of Bennett's bolder moves. The sting is unlikely to wear off as long as Seattle remains without a team.
"One big difference is that Minnesota and New Orleans got teams again," Richter wrote in response to a question about his thoughts on the Thunder in the Finals. "Even Cleveland wasn't Browns-less for long. Seattle is still without the only men's pro team that ever won the city a championship."
Talk with a Sonics fan long enough and the conversation usually comes back to that 1979 title team. Coach Lenny Wilkens led a team with Jack Sikma, Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson to consecutive NBA Finals, with the team beating the Baltimore Bullets and Johnson taking the series' Most Valuable Player award. Officially, that championship is now a part of Thunder lore, and if they beat the Heat in the Finals this year, the team will surely boast that it is the second title in franchise history.
The shared history has mired several Sonics greats of the past two decades, such as Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, in limbo. For either player to have his jersey number retired, he would have to travel to Oklahoma City, a place with which neither man has any visceral connection.
If Oklahoma City fans want to cheer for their team, though, Rider will not begrudge them that. Chesapeake Energy Arena has quickly earned a reputation as one of the loudest in the NBA, and while Seattleites may get disgusted watching the Thunder, it is not because of their current fans.
"I don't think a lot of people have an issue with the Oklahoma City fans," Rider admitted. "When it first happened there were barbs thrown back and forth, calling them hillbillies and this and that, but it's the same thing as if a team came up here, I'd be excited. I don't think a lot of people, including myself, have an issue with them. I'm excited for them that they have a team.
"I just really hate that it's mine."
Five years ago, the consolation prize was Durant. This time, there is no consolation. If the Thunder win the title, Seattle gets nothing except the acrid memories of what it lost, and how it lost it.