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A Shot to the Gut of Seattle Fans

It's official. The City of Seattle has settled its case with the Seattle Supersonics.

The Sonics have been released from their lease, and will be on their way Oklahoma City, in exchange for $45 million in immediate payments to the city. In addition, $30 million more will be paid by the Sonics owners in five years if KeyArena is renovated, and the NBA does not have another team approved for Seattle.

The NBA was part of the negotiations, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said in a press conference that the League has agreed that a renovated KeyArena could be a good home for NBA basketball, and that the League is prepared to work with Steve Ballmer and other local owners who are ready to purchase a team if one becomes available.

There could be more legal wrangling to come. Howard Schultz was apparently not part of the settlement. But, by and large, most Seattle fans who have e-mailed me feel this is the end of the line, until the Grizzlies or some other team can save the day.

The name of the Sonics, and the team's logo and history will stay in Seattle, according to the mayor.

I have heard from many Sonic fans, and they are mourning. (Look at this.) The struggle is over -- which does make things simpler. But, for Seattle fans, much worse.

Seattle fans are speaking in terms that are normally used to describe death. Wakes have been planned. I just had an instant message from someone who said there were tears on his keyboard.

Whether nor not you feel like that about it, this is one of the darkest days in Seattle sports history.

Any sports fan can feel for those guys, right? I mean, even if you live in Oklahoma City, and are dying to get your own NBA team, you have to tip your cap at least a little to the Sonic fans, who did nothing wrong here.

Right?

Not exactly.

Not if you're Berry Tramel, rabble-rousing columnist of the Oklahoman (a paper owned by Clay Bennett's in-laws). Tramel urges Oklahomans to enjoy the Sonics without the slightest shred of guilt.

Don't let anyone spoil your celebration. Don't let anyone make you feel guilty.

Because here's what major-league ball teams do.

They move. Always have, always will.

Of the 122 major-league franchises in the four historic team sports, 40 have relocated, a total of 52 times. And if you discount the 24 expansion teams that have sprouted since 1992, it's 38 relocations in 98 franchises.

There is no divine right to keeping a franchise. A team is not intellectual property, no matter how attached a populace grows. Sports are big business. They've always been big business, in this century and the previous century and even the century before that. ...

If the NFL can leave Greater Los Angeles, where's the calamity in the NBA leaving Seattle?

The Seattle crowd likes to warn Oklahoma City that if Clay Bennett can put the screws to Seattle, he will do the same thing to his hometown.

Maybe. Maybe not. Frankly, I'm not all that interested in a history lesson from a city that built a new palace for the Seahawks and a new palace for the Mariners and then wants to start lecturing other cities, warning them about the dangers of giving into disgruntled franchise owners.

I think that's just muddy thinking. It was always a mistake to see this as a city vs. city thing.

As if the people of Oklahoma City or the people of Seattle have some issues with each other.

That's not it at all.

It was never, in my mind, an Oklahoma City vs. Seattle thing.

It's an owner vs. fans thing.

Sports operate in a bizarre realm. The fans, who are the paying customers, provide the revenue, passion, and love that make any league worthwhile. But those same fans who are such an essential part of the franchise have no legal standing at all. They have no signed agreements. The team has no obligation to them at all.

So fans are, legally, vulnerable. And although everyone acknowledges they are central to the enterprise, they can be trampled by owners, who pay for the right to do what they would like with a team.

I'm from the school of thought that says just because you have the tiger by the tail doesn't mean you must yank. I'm for respecting the people involved, even if you can get away with hurting them. That's character.

Instead we have something that's something like the worst marriage ever, back in the days before women had rights at all. Both partners play key roles, but one can lie, cheat, hit, and all the rest of it, while the other can only be stoic.

In that dreadfully over-dire analogy (apologies), Tramel is arguing that husbands beat their wives all the time, and there's no need to feel bad about that.

There is a convincing case to be made that franchises move, and life goes on. But there is not a convincing case to be made that it is not lamentable.

In most cases, I believe a business is really nothing more than the people who work on behalf of that business. But in the case of a local NBA team, it's more than that. It's also a region's lone outpost for the best of basketball. Anyone who loves the sport is prone to following the NBA.

That's what the NBA is entrusted with protecting. And that's what the NBA did not, in my estimation, protect in this case.

It's a testament to the power of the sport that fans who have been scorned by one owner will later embrace another. That's the phenomenon that underpins Tramel's argument. He's right, the earth keeps spinning.

But that doesn't make it any less reprehensible to mislead the public in a cheap manner to separate a team from its devoted fans, while pledging the opposite. Even if the fans are legally powerless, it is certainly correct to honor their meaningful role and to treat them with dignity.

Now you have your team, Oklahoma City, enjoy them. Make the best of it. It's not your fault, basketball-loving people of Oklahoma, that your owner and his powerful friends were sneaky.

But you certainly might think about being a little sympathetic towards the people in Seattle who would be without a team.