Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Los Angeles Sonics and the lies of legacy


When the Supersonics first came to Seattle in the late 1960s expansion of high level basketball, they were the first major professional team in Seattle. Sure, I suppose the Seattle Metropolitans count, as they won the Stanley Cup in 1917. But, for the growth of modern Seattle, the Sonics are the first team that really matters.

Soon after the the Sonics came the Pilots (which quickly moved to Milwaukee) and then ten years later the Mariners and Seahawks. But, by the time professional baseball and football were getting their feet set in Seattle, the Sonics had already built a championship team by 1979.

As seems to be tradition in Seattle sports, a rich Californian was behind it all. Sam Schulman bought into the NBA in the late 60s and ended up with the Seattle franchise. Schulman made most of his money making movies (though he himself was rarely listed in credits). He was also part of a group that bought the San Diego Chargers in 1966. When you look for him now, he’s most well known for his early ownership and stewardship of the Sonics and his impact on professional basketball.

And, it was Schulman, not Clay Bennett, that first threatened the move the Sonics out of Seattle.

While Schulman was eager to buy into the NBA, he seemingly had no particular love for the institution. His early years as a professional basketball executive were spent trying to reform the game. His struggle to bring together the NBA and the rival American Basketball Association and change how player contracts were handled.

Schulman’s primary battle with the NBA (over player contracts) culminated in the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Haywood vs. National Basketball Association, which ended up allowing teams to sign players with less than two years of college experience. Schulman had signed Spencer Haywood, who had left college after less than two years. The NBA sanctioned the Sonics, and Schulman took it to court.

Schulman’s primary antagonist throughout the Haywood saga and the effort to bring ABA teams into the NBA fold was Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Los Angeles Lakers. it was in this context in the early 70s that Schulman threatened to move the Sonics.

Steve Pluto quoted Dick Tinkham’s telling of the threat in his history of the ABA:
There were a lot of crazy things going on. (Seattle owners) Sam Schulman and I were on a merger committee and Sam told me that if the NBA teams wouldn't support our merger agreement, he was going to sign Haywood, move his franchise to Los Angeles and join the ABA! He told Jack Kent Cooke that his was what he planned to do. He said he would move right into Cooke's backyard if Cooke didn't back him. But, like everything else that was talked about and threatened, nothing came of it.
This threat was made in private as it was not reported in the Seattle media, as far as I can tell. But, if Tinkham’s retelling is correct, it says a lot about Schulman, who has been remembered as one of Seattle’s most important and loyal sports executives. We can’t doubt his California roots, he had already had interest in the Chargers before he came up to Seattle.

The story also fits the geography of sports at the times. The ABA’s franchise in Southern California, the Los Angeles Stars, had moved to Utah in 1970. Their new San Diego team wasn’t established until 1972. The NBA’s San Diego Rockets has also moved to Houston in 1971. And the Buffalo Braves wouldn’t move to San Diego as the Clippers until 1978 and Los Angeles until 1984.

If Haywood had lost in the Supreme Court and Cooke had worked successfully to keep the ABA at arm’s length, Schulman moving the Sonics to Los Angeles seems much more likely. But, history turned out differently. Haywood won his case and most of the ABA came into the NBA in 1976.

And, three years later, the Sonics beat the Washington Bullets in five games and the commuting owner of the Sonics enshrined into Seattle sports history.

Wrote Steve Kelly of the Seattle Times:
For the 16 years he owned the Sonics, Schulman turned sports ownership into a thrilling high-wire act. 
He took chances. He made headlines. When he failed, it was colossal. But when he succeeded, it stirred this city like nothing Seattle sports has seen. 
Schulman was a showman. He came to Seattle with all the elan and marketing chutzpah of a Hollywood pitchman. He knew how to win games, win hearts and fill seats.
Sam Schulman was also the first person to threaten to take the Sonics away, if only in private. If he’d been driven to it, the Sonics would’ve been the second professional team to leave in a few years. After only one season on Major League Baseball, the Seattle Pilots left to become the Brewers. Losing the Sonics would have been a major sporting crisis in Seattle.

With the Sonics seemingly secure in Seattle, civic leaders battled with professional baseball to eventually bring the Mariners. They also brought together the community to fund a multi purpose stadium for football and baseball before a major league franchise was secured in either sport.

It certainly wasn’t easy going for sports boosters during the Boeing Bust era:
By 1971, many people had had enough. Although community activists like Frank Ruano continued to lob complaints at the County Council, bids for the new stadium on the King Street site went out. Despite disapproval and concerns from International District groups, the commissioners stuck to the findings of an environmental impact study which claimed minimal damage to the Asian enclave lying to the east of the proposed site.

During the Kingdome's official groundbreaking ceremonies on November 2, 1972, some 25 young Asian protesters hurled mudballs at the dignitaries in attendance. Several hundred spectators watched as County Executive Spellman's speech drew chants -- "Stop the Stadium!" -- from agitators. Dissenters booed other speakers, including a Seattle Kings representative seeking to attract a professional football franchise. Spellman hastily planted the gold home plate on the field, but the ceremony was a bust.
In this climate, jobs walking out of Seattle as Boeing shrank for seemingly the first time ever, and vocal opposition to a new stadium, the Sonics skipping town would’ve been a death blow. It isn’t likely we would have ever ended up with the King Dome, the Mariners, Seahawks or the modern Sounders.


Where Sacramento sits now -- about to lose their only major league sports franchise in their history -- is almost a perfect bookend to the history of Seattle sports and the city’s self image. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Seattle was ten years off the World’s Fair when city leaders made a strong argument to the world that Seattle mattered. Sports teams are a major part of that argument. Simply put, towns with teams matter.

In the 40 years since Schulman made the threat in private to move the sonics and mudballs were launched at people for suggesting even more major league sports, Seattle is well established. Sacramento is hanging on by a thread. If we end up getting the Sacramento Kings and turning them back into the Sonics, we’ll put Sacremento back in the place Seattle was in 1966.

The hopes for Sacramento in 2014 would be a lot less bright than for Seattle in 1966. The sports scene is a lot less fluid now. Rival national leagues just aren’t founded anymore and the current leagues don’t expand all that often. And, its not often you can beat a city like Seattle in a struggle for a team.

Clay Bennett and the OKC Thunder notwithstanding, Seattle has come a long way since 1966. The Sonics leaving hurts so much maybe because it has been one of the city's’ few civic failures in recent years. The Pilots leaving certainly hurt the city’s pride, but it wasn’t treated like the mortal sin like the creation of the Thunder.

The fact is, Seattle has become a city secure with major league sports. If Seattle’s civic leaders want a NBA team enough, they’ll get it. Seattle has become that kind of city. If not Sacramento, then maybe New Orleans. Some other lesser city will give up its franchise to us eventually. And, in doing so, we’ll drop that other city back into the sports franchise oblivion Seattle last saw almost 50 years ago.

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