Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love
Crossposted from The Nation
The 2012 NBA finals presents more than a match-up of two young, exciting, athletic teams. They present a rooting litmus test. In one corner, we have the Miami Heat, a team scorned for being built around a hastily assembled group of free-agent all-stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the great LeBron James. No player in NBA history has been scrutinized, picked apart and even despised quite like James. The three-time MVP’s unforgivable crime, now two years old, was neither a felony nor misdemeanor nor even a bad attitude. It was his awkwardly managed departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers and “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” He also earns arrows of anger for his alleged inability to step up his game when the game is on the line. In addition, his patchwork Miami team in the eyes of many is as plastic, superficial and empty as the city they call home.
In the other corner, we have the Oklahoma City Thunder, a small market franchise beloved by the sports media and fans for “doing it the right way.” They drafted beautifully and evolved organically toward greatness. They are also led by Kevin Durant, the NBA’s most endearing superstar. The “Durantula” is only 23 but already has three scoring titles, and he absolutely lusts for the big moment. He also, unlike LeBron, signed a long-term contract to stay in a small market because he wanted to take the team that drafted him to a title.
With such seemingly opposite teams and stars, the media are already writing the 2012 finals script of “good vs. evil.” It’s an easy, by-the-numbers narrative. It’s also bizarro world bullshit. This is one case where good is evil and the evil in question resides in shadows where fans choose not to look
I would argue that how we choose to see the Heat and Thunder is a litmus test. It’s a litmus test that reveals how the sports radio obsession with villainizing twenty-first-century athletes blinds us to the swelling number of villains who inhabit the owner’s box. And in Oklahoma City, we have the kinds of sports owners whose villainy should never be forgotten.
Strip away the drama and the Heat are called “evil” because their star players exercised free agency and—agree or disagree with their decision—took control of their own careers. The Thunder are praised for doing it the “right way,” but no franchise is more caked in original sin than the team from Oklahoma City. Their owners, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, with an assist from NBA Commissioner David Stern, stole their team with the naked audacity of Frank and Jesse James from the people of Seattle.
For non-NBA fans, as recently as 2008 the OKC Thunder were the Seattle Supersonics, a team of great tradition, flare and fan support. They were Slick Watts’s headband, Jack Sikma’s perm and Gary Payton’s scowl. They were a beloved team in a basketball town. Then the people of Seattle committed an unpardonable offense in the eyes of David Stern. They loved their team but refused to pay for a new taxpayer funded $300 million arena. Seattle’s citizens voted down referendums, organized meetings and held rallies with the goal of keeping the team housed in a perfectly good building called the KeyArena. Despite a whirlwind of threats, the people of Seattle wouldn’t budge, so Stern made an example of them. Along with Supersonics team owner and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz—who could have paid for his own new arena with latte profits alone—Stern recruited two Oklahoma City–based billionaires, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, to buy the team and manipulate their forcible extraction from Seattle to OKC.
Stern is a political liberal who has sat on the board of the NAACP. Bennett and McLendon are big Republican moneymen whose hobby is funding anti-gay referendums. Yet these three men are united in their addiction to our tax dollars. In Oklahoma City, where rivers of corporate welfare awaited an NBA franchise, Stern, Bennett and McClendon had found their Shangri-La.
Bennett, Stern and McClendon lied repeatedly that they would make every effort to keep the team in Seattle, McClendon however gave the game away in 2007, when he said to the Oklahoma City Journal Record, “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here…. We started to look around and at that time the Sonics were going through some ownership challenges in Seattle. So Clay, very artfully and skillfully, put himself in the middle of those discussions and to the great amazement and surprise to everyone in Seattle, some rednecks from Oklahoma, which we’ve been called, made off with the team.”
While Bennett said all the right things about keeping the Sonics in Seattle, a team executive dinner on September 9, 2006, tells you all you need to know about the man and his motives. On that fine evening, the Sonics management, all held over from the previous ownership regime, all Pacific Northwesters, gathered in Oklahoma to meet the new boss. Bennett made sure they were sent to a top restaurant, and picked up the bill. As the Seattle execs sat down, four plates of a deep fried appetizer were put on the table. After filling their mouths with the crispy goodness, one asked the waitress what this curious dish with a nutty flavor actually was. It was lamb testicles. Bennett laughed at their discomfort and the message was clear: the Sonics could eat his balls. (See Sonicsgate.com for a full accounting of this theft.)
If the Thunder win the 2012 title, the Clay Bennett/David Stern approach will be lionized throughout pro sports. The theft of the Sonics will be justified and cities involved in stadium negotiations will be threatened with being “the next Seattle” if they don’t acquiesce to the whims of the sporting 1 percent. A championship for the Thunder would be a victory for holding up cities for public money. It would be a victory for ripping out the hearts of loyal sports towns. It would be a victory for greed, collusion and a corporate crime that remains unprosecuted.
Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon don’t deserve anyone’s cheers. I don’t just want the Thunder to lose. I want LeBron James to make them wish they’d never left the Emerald City. That is why no matter how much you dislike the ill-fitting “Dream Team” in South Beach, or swoon at the sight of Kevin Durant, anyone who cares about the relationship of teams to their cities and decries the way pro sports is used as an instrument of corporate looting should know who to root for and whom to root against. Without equivocation, all true NBA fans, in the name of Slick Watts, should sound three words this championship season: “Let’s go Heat.”
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