It’s time for the Seattle SuperSonics and the Oklahoma City Thunder to officially set sail from one another. The NBA needs to separate their histories.
On Valentine’s Day, SportsCenter tweeted out recognition of a scoring accomplishment by Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
Celebrating Westbrook’s achievements is valid and worthy. He deserves and has earned the recognition. It’s the conflation of the Thunder’s records with the Sonics’ records that moves Westbrook ahead of Gary Payton that lit a fire with Seattle and basketball fans.
The response was swift and vicious. Even the current WNBA champion Seattle Storm weighed in, tweeting “This isn’t a thing.”
Many tore into ESPN for daring to use such a statistic. Understandable. It’s maddening to see examples like this pop up every few months or so. Yet, while the network could use more care, I don’t necessarily fault the Worldwide Leader. This is squarely on the NBA’s shoulders.
Should it stay or should it go?
There has long been debate whether or not to acknowledge the past regarding sports team relocations and how to do so. Should records and histories be passed along and counted as a history of the current squad? Should individual accomplishments and any achievements like, say, a league title be embraced and specifically referenced by the team in its new location? Or rather should they stay and live with the city the team has left behind?
There does not seem to be a consensus on this.
For the majority of professional sports over the past century, the whole history is carried through, regardless of which stop along the team’s journey things occurred. It’s why the Dodgers can still call upon their many years in Brooklyn from clear across the country. It’s also why the most traveled team in sports — the NBA’s Kings who call Sacramento home by way of Kansas City, Omaha, Cincinnati, and Rochester — can still lay claim to the NBA championship the then-Royals won in that New York burg nearly 70 years ago.
A Dawg of a ‘Move’
Then, you’ve got a relocation like the Cleveland Browns.
The original Browns fled to Baltimore ahead of the 1996 season to become the Ravens. It was a cut so deep to the Ohio city, perhaps to football itself, that the league agreed to give a team back to Cleveland through either relocation or expansion by the end of the decade. Not only did Cleveland get their Browns back in 1999, they got a rare dispensation: the Baltimore Ravens would be considered the expansion team not the new Browns, retroactive to 1996.
In addition, Baltimore would give up all Browns records and history, the new squad would be recognized as a continuation of the original franchise, and the three seasons without pro football in Cleveland would be considered a bad dream, er, hiatus.
The birds and the bees
Take also the curious case of Charlotte and New Orleans in the NBA.
The Hornets shuffled off to the Crescent City in 2002. Charlotte fielded the expansion Bobcats in 2004. Less than a year after the purchase of the New Orleans Hornets in 2012, the team announced it was changing its name and identity to the Pelicans. Something more representative of the city and Louisiana. (They’d tried to procure the Jazz moniker for a return engagement but Utah wasn’t having it.)
When the switch became official, the Bobcats did something unprecedented and requested to reclaim the Hornets persona. The league agreed, the Pels agreed, the sports gods (and fans) agreed. And Buzz City was born again in Charlotte.
But it wasn’t just a name and colors; the league (and the Pels again) agreed to modify the history books. The Pelicans history would now originate in 2002, recorded for all time forward as the expansion team. The Bobcats’ history would be absorbed by the rechristened Hornets franchise, as well the original Hornets history from 1988 to 2002. Like the Browns, the period between 2002 and 2004 would be labeled a hiatus.
The precedent is set. Of course, the significant difference with Seattle from these others is that an NBA team has yet to return to the Emerald City.
Seattle and OKC
Look, I understand when someone buys a team, they are buying the whole package, including the history. It’s part of a club’s value. There are many things one can fault Clay Bennett and his crew on from that time, but that’s not one.
Everyone negotiating the lease settlement to allow the team to move to Oklahoma in 2008 also recognized the importance of that history to the city of Seattle. This is why the shared history was a condition. It’s why the Sonics’ banners and awards, including the 1979 NBA championship trophy, remain in the city. It’s also why in the last eleven years the Thunder have mostly stayed away from trading on that history.
OKC likes to refer to its team as being established in 2008. Their record and history should now reflect that. We should no longer have to wait for the Sonics to rise again.
It’s time, NBA
This week, Jeff Feld writing for Forbes was the latest to chastise or warn Sonics fans against getting hopes up for a team. These reports and opinions surface every so often, a relatively simple piece of content to write that provides some measure of audience draw. Nothing against Jeff, who believes Seattle should have a team, but the piece regurgitates much of the same talking points often heard when talking relocation or expansion in the NBA.
It’s not that anyone is ignoring or dismissing some merit to these points. Jeff has spent time in an NBA front office, so he speaks with knowledge and awareness. But this also hasn’t existed long in a reality where Seattle will again have a viable venue to host a team. It makes the threat of Seattle more solid, but it also makes the appeal of Seattle more tangible. New oxygen to a flame that we haven’t seen erupt just yet.
But say the reports are stone cold truth. If Seattle’s only going to be used for leverage against teams and other cities to keep them in line, as the NBA continues to let the media report, then it’s high time they officially separate the Sonics and Thunder histories. It’s the least they could do. This “shared” history business is a continuing open wound.