When I watched the live stream of David Stern’s press conference from Dallas a few days ago, during which the commissioner made clear Seattle would not receive an NBA franchise any time soon, I couldn’t help but think of State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-Seattle), the events of Feb. 24, 2006, and conclude that Stern is still blinded by rage over his humiliation that day.
Stern, Sonics owner Howard Schultz and other franchise executives deployed to Olympia so that Stern could appear before the Legislature’s House Ways and Means Committee to urge state support for a taxpayer-funded, $200 million expansion/upgrade of KeyArena as a means of keeping the Sonics in Seattle.
From Stern’s perspective, the trip went irretrievably south when Chopp, the crusty Speaker of the House from Seattle’s 43rd District, failed to treat Stern with the respect Stern believed his eminence demanded. After Stern laid out his case for KeyArena expansion, Chopp harrumphed:
“They (the NBA) ought to get their own financial house in order when their payroll is over $50 million for, what is it, 10 players? I think that’s a little ridiculous. They need to get their own financial house in order and if they did, they wouldn’t have to ask for public help.”
Refusing to acknowledge even a dollop of truth in Chopp’s remark, a fuming Stern high-tailed it out of Olympia as fast as his limo could get him up I-5 to Sea-Tac Airport. He has, as his subsequent words and actions demonstrate, nursed an industrial-strength grudge since, not only over Chopp’s criticism, but over Chopp’s refusal to genuflect.
“Stern felt like Chopp treated him and the NBA with disrespect,” one of the members in the Seattle entourage that day told me in October. “Stern was upset that he went all the way to Olympia only to get abused. We tried to tell David that Chopp treats everybody asking for money that way, but David took it personally, and he didn’t like it at all.”
More significantly, in light of events involving Chris Hansen’s failed bid to extract the Kings out of Sacramento and move them to Seattle, Stern never forgot his run-in with the state policy wonk.
Fast forward to Nov. 8, 2007. Nearly two years have elapsed since Stern was felled by the Chopp block in Olympia. The setting is Phoenix, where Stern is holding a news conference following an NBA announcement that the 2009 All-Star Game would be played in the city.
According to The Associated Press account, Stern is asked one or two questions about the Phoenix All-Star Game. Then a reporter requests an update on the Seattle situation, by now this: Clay Bennett has purchased the Sonics from Schultz and announced he will file relocation request to Oklahoma City if he and his ownership group are not provided a new basketball playpen out of public funds.
Says Stern: “If the team moves, there’s not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision. There’s no way the league would ever return to the city.”
Stern, who still has Chopp rattling in his head, goes on to criticize Seattle and the state Legislature for the manner in which they handled the issue of funding a replacement for KeyArena.
Stern repeats an earlier criticism of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council for promoting a measure, Initiative 91, overwhelmingly passed by Seattle voters, that requires pro sports tenants of the city’s facilities such as KeyArena to have leases that return to the city an annual benefit at least at the same rate as a U.S. Treasury bill.
“That merely means,” said Stern, “that there is no way city money would ever be used on an arena project.”
Stern next laments that the Legislature refused to consider continuing for the Sonics a tax that helped fund Seattle’s baseball (Safeco Field) and football (CenturyLink Field) stadiums. Stern labels that action, or lack of action, “hostile.”
“To have the Speaker of the House (Chopp) say, ‘Well, they just spend too much money on salaries anyway, so we need it for other things,’ casts aspersions on the whole league’s operations,” Stern says. “We get the message. Hopefully, maybe cooler heads will prevail.”
Stern had a cool enough head during his Phoenix press conference to balance out his rant with remarks suggesting he still stood in Seattle’s corner.
“I believe things are going to work out,” he says, adding that he hoped “that a white knight that hasn’t existed before, somebody who has a building plan of how to keep the team there, will step forward.
“We’ve had a team in Seattle for over 40 years, it’s been a great city and I think it’s almost tragic that as a matter of timing, that people in power turned against the team at a time which will turn out to have been a time to really go in the other direction.”
A little more than seven months later, Bennett, as part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the city, paid Seattle $45 million to buy out the final two years of its KeyArena lease and relocated the Sonics to Oklahoma City, relegating the Sonics as dead in Stern’s mind as the Waterloo Hawks and Sheboygan Red Skins.
Five years later, Hansen and partner Steve Ballmer came along offering more money than the NBA had seen for one of its franchises, and a downtrodden one at that. Stern listened to Hansen and Ballmer and their plans for a new arena in SoDo, and apparently impressed, had to concede what everyone knew, that “they are the prototypical NBA owners.”
Sacramento, meanwhile, had a mess on its hands: Bad owners in the Maloof family, no new ownership group yet apparent, and no plan for a new arena — unless you count a plan to rob its own parking meters as a plan. Seattle in January presumed that a signed agreement between Hansen/Ballmer and the Maloofs would return the NBA for the 2013-14 season, and the yippees commenced.
Stern wouldn’t have it, not on his watch. No matter what Hansen and Ballmer conjured. Recall his statement in Phoenix Nov. 8, 2007:
“There’s not going to be another team there (Seattle), not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision.”
Because Hansen and Ballmer apparently gave Stern more to envision than perhaps even he thought possible, he gave Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson time to get the city’s act together and assemble an ownership group and an arena plan. He practically coached Sacramento into making a viable counteroffer to Hansen and Ballmer.
Sacramento made multiple changes in its ownership roster, switched arena sites to a downtown location and asked the city council to forgo $258 million in future parking revenue and other city assets to help build a $448 million arena, one that Hansen firmly believes will fail. But it satisfied NBA owners and Stern, who, after the 22-8 vote in Dallas denying relocation, spoke about the “edge going to the incumbent,” and barely spoke at all about an NBA future in Seattle, a league “incumbent” 13 years longer than Sacramento.
Why? Stern doesn’t want a franchise in Seattle. Why? Frank Chopp – or, at least everything Chopp represents about Seattle and state politics, which boils down to a lack of fawning in Stern’s presence and a lack of appreciation for the NBA’s economic model, which wasn’t working in 2006 even if Chopp was a Wenatchee apple grower who never stepped foot in Olympia.
Chopp, who first crawled under the commissioner’s skin Feb. 24, 2006, was still there Feb. 16, 2013, seven years after their head-butt in Olympia.
On the latter date, Stern was in Houston, at the Toyota Center, giving his annual state of the NBA speech prior to the All-Star Game. At that point, signs pointed to the Kings relocating to Seattle.
“This is a good time to be a commissioner and not an owner,” said Stern, talking about the difficulty in choosing between Sacramento and Seattle. But Stern couldn’t resist another shot at Seattle.
“I seem to remember, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that there was a $300 million-plus subsidy for the Mariners, and a $300 million-plus subsidy for the Seahawks,” said Stern. “And there was legislation which precluded that for the Sonics. And (Washington State House) Speaker (Frank) Chopp said we should take the money from our players. Is there anything I’m missing here?”
Yes, he did miss something, but no one called him on it. At the insistence of then-Sonics owner Barry Ackerley and with the approval of Stern, the city council in 1994 authorized $73 million in 20-year bonds to remake the old Coliseum into KeyArena, the debt to be retired by income from new luxury suites. Stern forgot to mention to the national media audience that the NBA was the first of Seattle’s three pro leagues in the 1990s to be supported from the public trough.
Twelve years after the city approved the bonds, Stern was back to ask for another helping of public money for KeyArena. But in 2006, the ask was made at the state level, where Chopp (and other state lawmakers) were presiding over a very different public attitude toward taxation in general and stadium funding in particular after subsidizing the football an baseball stadiums. Chopp’s indignant refusal to dole out public funds in support of Stern’s private empire began the chain of events that have kept Seattle an NBA-free zone.
Stern’s memory of Chopp’s seven-year-old rebuke explains why Hansen wasn’t going to get the Kings if he’d offered $1 billion and thrown in Kate Upton – as long as Sacramento came close with a credible offer. Stern made sure it did.
Stern didn’t throw so much as a bone to Sonics fans during his press conference. It will take new commissioner Adam Silver for Seattle to have any chance at a return to the NBA. It might have been different if Chopp hadn’t swatted the commissioner on the nose Feb. 24, 2006. And it might have been different if Stern decided on a position other than revenge.
Less than five months after his trip to Olympia, Stern OK’d the sale of the Sonics from Schultz to Clay Bennett, who once wrote an email to Stern that said: “David, you know how I feel about our relationship both personally and professionally. You are among a very few, notwithstanding our relative brief actual physical time together that have significantly affected my life. I view you as a role model, as an extraordinarily gifted executive, a deep and compassionate thinker, and a person with a rare and unique charisma that brings out the best in everyone you touch. You are just one of my favorite people on earth.”
Too bad Chopp didn’t know how to speak to an NBA commissioner.