Sam Presti looked even more boyish than usual. The 30-year-old Presti had been Seattle’s general manager for less than a month when the fork-in-the-road 2007 draft approached. The warm memories of the Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp SuperSonics teams had long since dissipated in Seattle. Presti was at the helm of a rudderless franchise, with an aging superstar, a free-agent All-Star who would command a mega-deal, a valuable pick in an intriguing draft, and little else. There was more certainty about the rumors that the team would be moved to Oklahoma City than there was about the future of the roster. Presti had made a quick reputation for himself in the league, working his way up through San Antonio’s front office. Clayton Bennett, the head of the team’s new ownership group and a former principal owner of the Spurs, brought Presti onboard. “But that is not why [Presti] got the job,” Bennett told the Associated Press. “He got the job because of who he is, how he does things … He is thoughtful. He is methodical. He is measured.”
Seattle owned the second pick in a draft that many predicted featured two franchise-altering players in Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Portland, of course, took Oden. News broke before Seattle’s selection that the organization had traded Ray Allen, the purest of shooters, whose rhythmic line-drive jumper rarely kissed the rim. A crowd of nearly 2,000 ticket holders had convened at Seattle Center for a draft party, many donning Allen jerseys. He had been hope in the dark days. Now, the organization would truly be starting over. Many of the assembled fans were in shock when Allen was dealt. They booed the trade, only to rally moments later and applaud the selection of Durant, bright-eyed and dressed in a Longhorns burnt-orange shirt and tie. “To make the decision to move a player — and a person — like Ray Allen was tremendously difficult,” Presti told reporters. “Boston really pursued this. What started as a smaller conversation became fulfilled. Their pursuit was impeccable.”
Bennett was right. Presti was thoughtful, rational, and methodical. Today, the thought that he could be swayed by another franchise’s dogged pursuit seems laughable. Seattle also sent a pick that turned into Glen Davis in the deal for the rights to fifth pick Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, and Delonte West.
Rashard Lewis, Allen’s running mate in Seattle, watched news of the deal break on ESPN. They had paired to bring Seattle its last, fleeting glimpse of quality basketball during the 2004-05 season. But head coach Nate McMillan left the subsequent year, and everything crumbled afterward. “It was like a parade of losers after Nate,” said Steve Kelley, a longtime columnist for the Seattle Times. Lewis was the free agent. He had wanted to return to Seattle. It’s where he got started — the franchise had given him his first shot when team after team bypassed him in the first round. The city transformed him from an overgrown high school kid into an NBA star. But Allen’s imminent departure meant a future that Lewis wanted no part of.
“That was home,” Lewis said. “That was my second home. But then when I’m watching the draft, I see Ray Allen gets traded to the Boston Celtics. That opened my eyes up. Wow. Maybe this team is starting all the way over.”
Presti engineered the deal with the future in mind. But even he had little idea just how much the trade would shape the NBA landscape. Allen teamed with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to win an NBA title in Boston. Lewis signed a whopping $118 million deal in Orlando, where he helped the Magic to a Finals appearance against the Lakers. Seattle, meanwhile, sank deeper into the basement of the Western Conference. The team inherited a likable, rising star in Durant, but a culture of negativity seeped in. “The dumbing down of the Sonics had already begun,” said Kevin Calabro, the longtime broadcast voice of the team. “The gutting of the Sonics, the trades … the [lack] of the media exposure to the players, fans not knowing who these guys were, not identifying with them. The rhetoric then began about the need for a new building from new ownership. It unraveled quickly.”
When it rocked, few arenas swayed like the intimate KeyArena. In the late ’90s, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and head coach George Karl combined to field one of the era’s best teams. With a swarming and suffocating defense and a rim-rattling, high-paced offense, the team eventually challenged the Bulls in the ’96 Finals. But everything falls apart. Kemp, disgruntled over a contract the team gave to alleged “Shaq stopper” Jim McIlvaine, forced a trade to Cleveland before the 1997-98 season. Karl fled for Milwaukee a year later. Payton hung on for years, an ambassador and a remnant of those golden years. But at 34, and in the final year of his contract, the Glove was traded to Milwaukee in 2003 in a multiplayer deal centered on Ray Allen. The exchange reunited Payton with Karl and ended his nearly 13 years with the organization. An era had come to a close. “It was a real controversial deal in Seattle,” said Rick Sund, the team’s general manager. “Keep in mind, I didn’t have this history with Gary because I had been there maybe a year or two. But Gary was starting a little bit of a decline, as players do when they get older. Ray was starting his prime, so I thought it made sense for both clubs.”
Allen was proven, with his best days ahead of him. He was 27 and his monastic dedication to practice and ritual had already become legend. His habits made him a perennial All-Star. “I was slightly disappointed, because at the time, [Bucks teammate] Tim Thomas was on the trading block,” Allen recalled. “So everybody was talking about how he was the hot name most guys were talking about teams were trying to land and I was supposedly untouchable. I was disappointed that I was being traded because I had to change everything that I had to do, uprooting my whole life. But at the same time, I was excited because I had always loved Seattle. It was a new change for me and I needed change — Seattle was something that I was very much looking forward to.”
Rashard Lewis was an impressionable 23-year-old at the time. “[Payton] was a franchise player that pretty much took them to the Finals with George Karl, a big name in the city,” Lewis said. “When I saw him get traded, I said, ‘Wow, I really know the NBA is a business. You can be here one day and be traded the next.’ That’s what I thought when I saw the expression on his face when he found out he was traded.” Still, Lewis knew Allen’s pedigree. “He could shoot the hell out of the ball more than anything,” Lewis said. “From watching him play when he was at Connecticut, and when he was with Milwaukee with him, Sam Cassell, Glenn Robinson. They battled Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals. I definitely remember Ray for that — but a lot of people remember him as Jesus Shuttlesworth from making that movie.”
While Lewis knew all about Allen, Allen knew little about his new young teammate. “I knew that he had gotten drafted out of high school,” Allen said. “He was pretty quiet. I knew he could shoot the ball. And that was pretty much it.” But Lewis had a memorable NBA arrival, for the wrong reason.
A Houston native, Rashard Lewis had planned on attending the University of Houston, where he would team up with his childhood friends. But the university fired Alvin Brooks in 1998, scuttling plans for Lewis to attend the school with Brooks’s son, Alvin III, and others. At the same time, NBA scouts began attending his games at Alief Elsik High School. With his mother, Juanita Brown, he mulled jumping straight to the NBA. When he told her that he had decided to declare for the NBA, a jolt shot through her body. Still, her son had always been humble and dedicated. She had faith that he could make it.
Mother and son attended the 1998 draft in Vancouver, where their hometown Rockets possessed three first-round picks. David Stern stepped to the podium and read name after name. Houston used its picks on Michael Dickerson (14), Bryce Drew (16), and Mirsad Turkcan (18). Lewis was heartbroken. Then more names came, none his. An embarrassed Lewis was the last remaining prospect in the NBA’s green room. As the first round ended, he sat slump-shouldered, distraught. Brown watched her son. She knew he wanted to stay in Houston, but she hoped he would be drafted elsewhere. He needed a fresh start, a place to become his own man, she thought. But as the draft continued, she just wanted a team, any team, to take him and end the agony. She looked at her son’s face and knew they shared the same frustration and pain from not knowing. Lewis had always been quiet. He talked when he was ready to talk. Otherwise, there was no use in initiating the conversation. At one point, Lewis rose and left the green room. He silently sobbed in the bathroom.
The Sonics finally ended the anguish by selecting Lewis 32nd overall, the third pick of the second round. “Well, mom, I’m going to have to make the team,” Lewis said he told her. “First round is different from the second round — nothing is guaranteed.”
Dwane Casey, then a Seattle assistant, remembers the disappointment he saw in both Lewis and Brown when they arrived in Seattle the following day. Casey told Lewis that it doesn’t matter where a player is drafted, that some of the league’s best had slipped past the first round, while some of the worst had gone first overall. What mattered is what he did from that point on. “Every time I walked outside, it was raining,” Lewis said. “I was a teenager at the time, on a team with a bunch of grown men and I’m trying to not step on any toes and just stay out of their way and come in and do my job.”
The lockout helped Lewis. The delay allowed him to play in pickup games with the team’s veterans. He still remembers a wakeup call he got from Payton when he arrived a few minutes late to a game. The driver had gotten lost. Payton berated him, telling the rookie that he had to be a professional and a professional meant having no excuses. Payton, incidentally, figured into the moment when Casey realized Lewis would develop into a quality NBA player. “He didn’t say two words to anybody,” Casey said. “He was really quiet and introverted at the time. But I’ll never forget, he picked Gary Payton’s pocket in a scrimmage one day and he goes down and Gary tries to block the shot and, I mean, he dunks all over Gary, and then he yells. You know how you stand up and scream after you dunk on somebody? That day is when we knew he had arrived and I knew he was going to be special.”
Seattle continued to flounder, but Lewis grew stronger and more confident each year. The lockout-shortened season preserved his body — he played in just 20 games his rookie season, but in all 82 the next. “From day one, when he went up for a shot, it was always a soft, controlled finish,” said Bob Weiss, a Seattle assistant when Lewis broke into the league. “But you could never call any plays for him early on. Then he’d begin to score and he got to the point where he was scoring fairly well, but if you called something for him, then he’d never score. And then, of course, he got over that and became a strong, go-to guy for the Sonics.”
In 2000, the SuperSonics replaced Paul Westphal, George Karl’s successor, with Nate McMillan. McMillan had come to embody the Sonics during his playing days almost as much as Payton. He was a pass-first guard who spent all 12 of his NBA seasons in Seattle. McMillan retired from playing in 1998, but remained with the team as an assistant. He was Mr. Sonic, and although a playoff win eluded him, he began to lay the framework for a brighter future by the time Allen arrived.
They spoke one day on the team bus.
By then, Rashard Lewis had seen enough of Ray Allen’s routine to be curious. “Every shot was game speed, game conditions,” Weiss said. “I never just saw [Allen] dribble over casually and take a shot. Everything was always working on improving the quickness and the accuracy.”
Lewis wanted to know how to develop a routine for himself. “I could tell he watched and he was still trying to figure out who he was and what he was going to be in this league,” Allen said. “Everything I did was very routine and very ritualistic when it came to playing basketball. What time I got to the practice facility. What time I got to the arena before games. … I think having a routine is important for everybody, starting off with children, because you’re trying to build habits in your life and you want positivity. You want people to do things for you. You want greatness. Consistency is all about greatness.”
Lewis was living a dream — flush with cash, freedom, and free time, and loaded with talent. He had a big career in front of him, but he knew he had to manage it. Allen remembers how Lewis approached learning how to sustain the dream.
“Look, I want to make the type of money that you make, a guy at your level, the type of money that you guys make,” Allen recalls Lewis telling him. “I want to be on that level.” As always, Allen preached dedication. “Soon enough, I would get to an arena at a certain time before games and Rashard would be right behind me, maybe 15-20 minutes, and he started building his habits, his routines,” Allen said. “You could just see him putting it into effect, because he changed. He stopped going out as much.”
Allen had the same effect on much of the young team. “At home, I used to meet him at the arena three and a half, four hours early before the game to get shots up,” said Antonio Daniels, a guard who joined Seattle in 2003. “Attitude reflects leadership. He basically showed what you need to do to be successful. He was the first one in the arena every day. Even when I tried to beat him, I couldn’t.”
“We would make a huddle around him and listen to everything he had to say about how you take care of yourself off the court, as well as being prepared on the court,” Lewis said. “He was our storyteller.”
When Allen preached, Lewis listened. What Allen did, Lewis copied. Allen cycled throughout the city on his bike, building the muscles in his legs. Lewis purchased a bike and took it to Houston in the offseason to do the same. Allen had a boat that he occasionally took around Mercer Island. Lewis bought one and did the same. Their families met and merged. Juanita became close with Flo, Ray’s mother. The families vacationed together. The mothers routinely talked on the phone during halftimes, discussing how their sons were faring and critiquing their games.
After an embarrassing 30-point blowout loss to the Clippers to open the 2004-05 season, the Sonics started the campaign at a point of crisis. The roster was loaded with lame ducks. McMillan’s contract was expiring. Sund’s contract was expiring. “The trainer was a free agent,” Daniels said. “Everybody was a free agent.”
“There were so many reasons for us to fail as a team, especially with the NBA being such an egotistical business,” Daniels continued. “So it’s almost like you have 11 free agents, everybody’s going to be out for themselves. McMillan called a team meeting and banned anyone from talking about free agency, himself included, during the season. Nobody mentioned their contract throughout the rest of the season and everybody began to play for each other and everything slowly but surely started to fall into place.” The Sonics reeled off nine straight wins after the drubbing by the Clippers.
“Nate and I had talked about it before the season started: ‘This team is in a position to make a move and this is a nice common denominator for everybody,’” Sund said. “So it wasn’t one of those issues where people were talking about free agency and what were you going to do and what have you, because Nate was a free agent at the end of the year, so it was kind of a common denominator with the whole club.”
Allen and Lewis became a dependable scoring tandem. “Rashard, at that time, he was a matchup nightmare,” Daniels said. “He was 6-10. He could step out and shoot it and then you put a smaller guy on him and post him up. Ray’s Ray, probably the best pure shooter of all time.” Daniels and Luke Ridnour provided stability at point guard. Rookie Nick Collison bolstered the frontcourt, and even Jerome James, for a while, looked like an NBA player.1
The Sonics won the Northwest Division in 2004-05 and bested the Sacramento Kings in five games. Buoyed by James’s surprising play, it was the team’s first postseason series win since Karl had departed. Seattle challenged the Spurs in the conference semifinals despite seldom being at full strength during the series. San Antonio opened with a statement win, 103-81 in Game 1, which Allen left in the second quarter with an ankle sprain. Allen returned in the second game, but San Antonio repeated the result. Seattle pulled off a narrow victory in the third game, but Lewis suffered a toe sprain that forced him to sit out the rest of the series. The teams traded wins the next two games and the lead in Game 6. Tim Duncan banked home a shot with half a second left, giving San Antonio a 98-96 edge.
With the series and their season on the line, Daniels inbounded the ball to Allen, who shot over Duncan’s head from the left corner. The shot caromed off the rim. “I didn’t really see the basket,” Allen said afterward, stifling his tears. “I just tried to get the ball over Tim’s hands. … That’s a shot I’ll probably think about for a long time this summer.”
San Antonio went on to defeat Detroit in seven games to win the NBA championship. The future still seemed bright for Seattle, but it would be a complicated summer. “It was impossible to bring everybody back, and then with the success you have, it allows a number of players and even Nate to have suitors, even me,” Sund said. “So you look at it and say, ‘It’s going to be a difficult summer because we’re going to have to make hard choices.’ … The success we had was great, but the challenges we had in the offseason were difficult.”
It was only one game, but it was everything to a roster on the brink of dissolution.
“[Allen] had a corner jumper in Game 6 that he never misses that he missed. So they lost Game 6 and who knows what would have happened in a Game 7?” Kelley said. “That was the beginning of the end. That jump shot was the last playoff game here and really the last hurrah for the Sonics.”
True to his word, McMillan didn’t discuss his expiring contract throughout Seattle’s surprising run. Then Mr. Sonic left the Sonics, wooed by Portland, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest rival. “It was a shock to me,” Calabro said. “Unfortunately, there were some of us that took it for granted that Nate would come back.”
McMillan’s decision cast a shadow over the franchise. “I think Nate thought that the Sonics weren’t the Sonics anymore,” Kelley said. “They weren’t his Sonics. They weren’t committed like he was and like George Karl was and even through all his faults, the previous owner, Barry Ackerley, was. The franchise, for whatever reason, was run on a shoestring. [New owner] Howard Schultz being the main reason.”
Casey left that same offseason to become Minnesota’s head coach. “It was a double whammy,” Calabro said. “It gutted our coaching staff.”
The Sonics tapped longtime assistant Bob Weiss to replace McMillan at the behest of Allen and Lewis. Weiss had joined Seattle’s coaching staff in 1994, serving under Karl, Westphal, and McMillan. He was a Sonics mainstay.
“He was the antithesis of Nate,” Kelley said. “Bob was something you can’t be anymore. Maybe Gregg Popovich can, but very few coaches in the NBA now can be well-rounded human beings and have lives outside of basketball, but Bob did. Bob didn’t take losses seriously. Every loss that Nate had, he took personally. The postgame press conferences weren’t fun. There was no joking. With Bob Weiss, he practically did magic tricks after losses. It’s like, ‘Coach, don’t you realize what just happened?’ This was a team that needed discipline. It needed leadership and it lost it with Nate and it lost it with Antonio and it didn’t get anything in return.”
Daniels had signed with Washington in the summer of 2005. “That’s what makes it so difficult now in the NBA,” Daniels said. “Guys change teams so much. If it’s not a trade, it’s free agency and so many other things that get in the way of chemistry. That’s why the San Antonio Spurs have stood out for so long, because they do a great job of keeping their core together at all costs.”
Daniels had averaged a career-best 11.2 points for Seattle in 2004-05. “We thought Luke [Ridnour] was ready at the time,” Weiss said. “A.D. wanted a four-year contract and the doctors were saying his knees were kind of iffy that season for us, but he finished most of the games and we thought we were ready to hand that over to someone else. But in retrospect, we were not.”
The next season, the Sonics regressed beyond recognition, becoming less super by the moment. Weiss was fired after the team started 13-17, replaced by Bob Hill. Hill salvaged the season with the help of Earl Watson and Chris Wilcox. He summoned Allen into his office after the team finished the season 35-47 and thanked him for continuing to play hard. “You could have easily taken the rest of the season off,” Hill remembers telling Allen. “We weren’t going to the playoffs.”
“But we’re trying to create a foundation for the following year and I have to be a part of that,” Allen responded, according to Hill.
“That’s Ray right there,” Hill said. “That explains him. He wasn’t going to take any time off. He had bone spurs in his ankle. He could have sat out. I don’t think anyone would have criticized him for it.”
Hill also met with Lewis, whom he had noticed would often pull down a rebound, take two or three steps upcourt, and pick up his dribble. He put Lewis through a series of dribbling drills over the next two days. “You can dribble,” Hill told Lewis. “You’re just afraid to dribble under pressure and have the confidence to do it.” Lewis promised that he would work extensively on ballhandling over the summer and Hill vowed to use him in more pick-and-rolls the following season. “His second year was outstanding,” Hill said. “I think it probably helped him get the contract he got.”
Nearly everything else about the organization was in disarray. Schultz, the Starbucks tycoon, threatened to sell or move the team when its lease with KeyArena expired in 2010. NBA commissioner David Stern called the aging arena the league’s worst. It was cozy, but lacked the bells and whistles of newer arenas across the league. Schultz sought money from the state Legislature for improvements after MLB and the NFL had recently landed state-of-the art sporting venues. The Legislature dismissed the request and the City Council questioned why Schultz would front just $18 million of his own money into a proposed $220 million renovation plan.
Bennett headed an ownership group from Oklahoma City that purchased the Sonics for $350 million in 2006, stating he intended to keep the franchise in Seattle. Schultz had bought the franchise just five years earlier for $200 million.
“You have to understand the environment that we were all working in there was difficult, because there were constant rumors that the team was going to be sold and then the fans got concerned and then once it was sold, there were constant rumors that it was going to be moved,” Hill said. “So, that put a lot more pressure inside the team on both [Allen and Lewis].”
Seattle plummeted to 31-51 in 2006-07. Allen and Lewis both missed large chunks of the season with injuries. “Ray drifted a little bit after that and Ray got kind of caught up,” Kelley said. “There were some trade rumors and there were some concerns about his knee and could he play anymore and I think he started playing for himself a lot more than he had the year before.” The team had also spent years whiffing on draft picks, notably still trying to find that quality big man that had mostly eluded them ever since McIlvaine’s signing and Kemp’s departure. Players like Robert Swift, Johan Petro, and Mouhamed Sene were little more than projects unprepared for the NBA.
“The team just wasn’t that good and the team’s bench was [full of] 19-year-olds,” Hill said. “Robert Swift and Johan Petro and Mickael Gelabale and Mouhamed Sene and the whole crew. We felt the bench would get good enough, but at that time, they played like 19-year-olds. That put more pressure on Ray and Rashard to carry the load night in and night out.”
A young team on the rise had been destroyed in just two years. “It was very sustainable,” Allen said. “The problem was that we had an organization that didn’t want to sustain it. We could have won for a few years and bridged the gap to the Kevin Durant years. We’re talking about free agency when we left that year. They traded me [and they had] the number-two pick. They didn’t re-sign Rashard. They didn’t re-sign Jerome James. They didn’t re-sign Antonio Daniels. They dismantled [the team] because they didn’t expect the success that we had. They didn’t build on top of it. They just kind of let it crumble and then they ended up selling the team.”
Soon after, Bennett hired Presti as his general manager, who quickly made a far-reaching move that would alter the NBA’s superstar constellation.
Ray Allen called Rashard Lewis when he heard the trade rumors. “He was trying to decide where he was going to sign,” Allen said. “I told him, ‘You might not want to consider signing back because they’re trading me and this is going to be a whole new team and they’re going to rebuild.’ We talked. He had to make a decision, but I was just letting him know that it wasn’t going to be me that he was going to see on his side.”
Allen was now firmly on Boston’s side. He took the trade in stride, the same way he had with the deal that brought him to Seattle in the first place. “Those situations always work themselves out and wherever we are, that’s where we’re ultimately supposed to be,” Allen said. “When I get thrust out of one situation to the next, I just make the best of it and try to figure out how I can make the best out of it. Again, you get traded, you have to change. We had to move across the country, but we were back on the East Coast and we were excited about that.” Allen teamed with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, restoring Boston’s glory. The Celtics won their 17th championship in 2008.
At the same time, Lewis had finally matched Allen’s earning power. The Orlando Magic landed him in a sign-and-trade deal for $118 million over six years. Many around the league derided the contract. All Lewis could do was shrug. “If my agent calls and tells me he has an awesome deal on the table, am I supposed to turn it down and say I want less?” he said. “It’s like if somebody comes up to you and offers you $50 in the right hand and $100 in the left hand for free. What are you going to do? You’re going to take the $100. You’re not going to settle for the $50. Why settle for the $50 when you can get more?”
Lewis was the final puzzle piece on Orlando’s roster under Stan Van Gundy, giving the team shooters who could stretch the floor and grant Dwight Howard operating room inside. Meanwhile, Lewis rejoiced at Allen’s championship, as much as an Eastern Conference rival could.
Allen’s Celtics and Lewis’s Magic met one year later, in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals. Boston could not overcome the absence of an injured Garnett, and Orlando took the hard-fought series in seven games. Lewis and Allen both played splendidly on opposite sides. “I was extremely happy for him because he had success and I knew where he had come from and he was playing well for his team,” Allen said.
Said Lewis: “Not only was it fun to beat the Boston Celtics, but to beat Ray Allen, to top him, to try to get a championship ring, to go to the Finals. He’d been there. He’s done it before. But I felt like it was my time.” The Magic went on to defeat LeBron James’s Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals before succumbing to the Lakers.
For a while, it seemed like that would be Lewis’s last shot at a championship. He drew a 10-game suspension to start the 2009-10 season after testing positive for an elevated testosterone level, a result of ingesting the supplement DHEA. Lewis said he took the supplement to combat fatigue without checking with the team or trainers. “I went to a supplement store and took some vitamins that basically had a bad substance in them,” Lewis told the Boston Globe in 2009.
“He was upset about it because he felt that it was an honest mistake that he made, but he knew the rules were the rules,” his mother, Juanita, said. “So he just dealt with it and learned a lesson from it.”
As Allen and Lewis rose to prominence, Presti gutted Seattle’s roster. Durant had his choice of shots and took plenty of them. He would capture Rookie of the Year honors in 2008, but Seattle slumped to a 20-62 record under new coach P.J. Carlesimo. Apathy set in. Allen had been a recognizable face. So had Lewis. Who was there now? Francisco Elson?
In November 2007, Bennett announced his intention to move the franchise to Oklahoma City and void the final two years of the team’s lease with KeyArena. He said his group had lost $17 million in its first season owning the franchise. Bennett had proposed a new arena in the suburb of Renton for $300 million, funded with public money. Everyone, the state Legislature included, viewed it as a laughable nonstarter.
Bennett said he had kept good faith in trying to keep the team in Seattle, but had reached an insurmountable hurdle. Seattle fans believed he never intended to keep the team there, suspicion backed by emails, secured by city lawyers, between Bennett and his co-owners. The NBA fined Sonics minority partner Aubrey McClendon $250,000 in August 2007 for telling Oklahoma City’s Journal Record, “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle. We hoped to come here. We know it’s a little more difficult financially here in Oklahoma City, but we think it’s great for the community and if we could break even we’d be thrilled.”
In April 2008, owners voted 28-2 in favor of the move. Dallas owner Mark Cuban and Portland owner Paul Allen were the only ones to vote against relocation. “I would say to the fans of Seattle, we very much appreciate your support,” Stern said. “We think you have a great city. We think King County is great and we think that Washington is great and we are very sad that the absence of a first‑class facility, or even a funded, voted-upon plan for one, wasn’t able to be put together by whoever’s responsibility it is, collectively for this day now to occur.”
Bennett followed Stern’s press conference with one of his own. “Well, I’m very happy about it,” he said. “I’m very happy about it. But I must say that I have mixed emotions. I view this on one end as certainly, number one, as challenging a personal experience and a business experience as I’ve ever been a part of, very complex, very complicated, very dynamic, ever changing, and on one hand I feel personal disappointment relative to my inability to affect the building of the building, in that I was convinced we could get it done. But then we had to move on. It’s a business.”
Ray Allen called his old running mate Rashard Lewis.
It was the summer of 2012 and Allen had decided to go all-in on another championship, splintering the Celtics, disappointing Garnett, and signing with the Miami Heat. Lewis was also a free agent. His career was slowly devolving. The Magic had traded him to Washington for Gilbert Arenas, who then traded Lewis to New Orleans before that team bought out his contract.
Allen knew that Lewis had a couple of suitors.
“I heard you were talking to Miami?” Allen said he told Lewis. “What are you going to do?”
“I want to win a championship,” Lewis said. He mentioned a couple of the interested teams and that his agent had promised Atlanta that he would visit.
“Our wives know each other,” Allen responded. “Our kids. Your mom knows my mom. There’s a lot that could happen for us. Not only on the court, but off the court. I’d love to reconnect, like in Seattle.
“Rashard, let me explain something to you,” Allen continued. “If you go to Atlanta, that’s going to force Miami to then bring somebody else in to look at them. ’Cause you may go to Atlanta and then what if this other guy comes in and he says, ‘Yeah, if I come in, I’m signing today’? Then you’re going to be on the outside looking in. You don’t want to lose out on this opportunity. You’ve got to tell your agent that ‘I’m signing with Miami and that’s where I’m going to be.’”
“I called my agent right after that and [canceled] the [Atlanta] visit,” Lewis said. “I told him I want to be in Miami.”
But Allen and Lewis had to adjust after their reunion. Allen, ever the stickler for routine, had to come off the bench and averaged career lows in points, rebounds, assists, and playing time in his first season with the Heat. But he evolved, as he had before. He typically closed games for Miami, creating space for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to slice through the lane. The transition proved more difficult for Lewis, who averaged only 14.4 minutes in 55 regular-season games.
“I would have to go home and swallow my pride every night and wake up every morning, come back to the gym excited with a happy face because of the fact I’m playing with Hall of Fame players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Ray Allen2,” Lewis said. “Not only that, we were winning. You don’t want to be a cancer on the team if the chemistry is going well. I had to make sure not to be selfish individually.”
Lewis ultimately came to accept his role with the mind-set of staying prepared.
“He hasn’t had a tough time,” Allen said. “He’s adjusting very well. He’s not getting the playing time he’s used to, but he’s still out there. He enjoys what he’s doing. He hasn’t had a tough time at all. It’s just a matter of whether you see him on the floor or not.”
Last season, Lewis watched solemnly as the Heat teetered on the verge of losing Game 6 and the Finals to San Antonio.
“It felt like the clock was just ticking and you see the people come out with the rope,” Lewis said. “They roped the court off because they’re getting ready to set up for the San Antonio Spurs to win an NBA championship. I’m just standing on the sidelines with my hands on my head like, This can’t be happening right now. There’s no way this can be happening. Almost in shock, like my dream is about to be shattered right in front of me — it seemed like everything was going against us, everything was going the Spurs’ way.
“But somehow, we got a couple of offensive rebounds and the biggest shot obviously of the night was when Ray hit that 3-pointer — it felt like just a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, like we had new life and we had another chance.”
Miami cemented its second consecutive championship with another thrilling victory over San Antonio in Game 7. Rashard Lewis was a champion.
“I was all over the court,” Lewis said. “I ripped my pants off on the sideline. I was running around. A lot of people don’t understand that playing in the NBA, the toughest thing is to win an NBA championship. I was in the NBA 15 years. I’d been in the playoffs. I’d been in the Finals. But it took me 15 years to finally win one.”
Let’s play the What If? game.
Imagine for a second that Presti never made the deal that sent Allen to Boston. Would Durant be Durant without having been thrown into the fire so quickly? Would Boston have won another championship? Would the Magic have made that Finals appearance? Would Dwight Howard still be in Orlando? Would Allen and Lewis have been able to reconvene in Miami?
There is another alternate reality to consider. With Allen still around, Lewis may have re-signed with Seattle. A core of prime-years Allen and Lewis and a rookie Durant would have been an intriguing experiment. Three long, lean shooters, matched together. “I did think about it when I was playing in Orlando,” Lewis said. “Not the first year, but when they moved to Oklahoma, I started thinking what it would have been like. You got Kevin Durant. Ray Allen as a shooting guard that’ll open it up for him. I could play 3 or 4. Then they drafted [Russell] Westbrook the following year. Maybe it could have been a lot of fun times. We’d probably struggle the first year, but things could have turned around pretty quick. All you can say is, ‘What if?’”
Would a better Sonics team have created more of an outcry over the pending departure, a voice loud enough to prompt definitive local action? “Honestly, I never thought about that,” Daniels said. “That’s a very good question. We would have been very successful, but I don’t know what would have come of that success. I don’t know if that would have forced their hand a little bit.”
Jason Reid directed Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team, a 2009 documentary chronicling the history of the franchise and its relocation. The Allen-Lewis years represent his last good memories of the team. “It wasn’t lack of fan support [that caused the team’s move],” Reid said. “Of course when your team is 20-62 and you trade Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis away, attendance is going to wane a little bit, but that was at the end when we had an owner who was trying to move the team. We supported our team for over 40 years, had some of the most passionate, loudest fans in all of basketball. It wasn’t the fans that didn’t cheer enough or didn’t show up to enough games. It was the NBA who allowed Clay Bennett to come in, lie to the citizens of Seattle, move the team away.”
In retrospect, Presti appears to have made the right decision, methodically and meticulously. He traded well, drafted skillfully, and built today’s Thunder, a championship contender, around Durant.
There are few, if any NBA cities with more passionate, devoted fans than Oklahoma City. It deserves a pro basketball team. But at the expense of Seattle? Fans were conflicted over Sacramento’s near relocation to Seattle last year, aware of the pain in losing a civic unifier. NBA owners ultimately voted 22-8 against Chris Hansen’s plan to relocate the Kings. “It was a wrenching decision for several of the owners,” then deputy NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.
“I think ultimately the discussion was that it was not about a contest between the two cities, it was about whether or not Sacramento could continue to support an NBA franchise. And there were several expressions of support for Seattle, for the potential of returning to Seattle.”
Steve Ballmer’s agreement to buy the Clippers also provides Seattle with another substantial hurdle in returning the NBA to the city. Ballmer and Hansen had aggressively tried to land a team in Seattle in failed efforts to purchase and relocate the Kings, Timberwolves, and Bucks. But Ballmer has said he has no plans of moving the Clippers from Los Angeles.
Daniels thinks not having a team in Seattle is a travesty. “It’s crazy. A great city, great fans. I understand there are obviously so many other demographics that are involved with money and the stadium, the arena and all these other things, but still. That is a fantastic sports city and they have a great history as well.”
Many people, like the Thunder’s Nick Collison (the longest-tenured player to have played in both Seattle and Oklahoma City), Dwane Casey (now Toronto’s coach), and Rick Sund, still call Seattle home. “That’s something that will always be in the back of my mind,” Casey said. “Seattle is not a good but a great basketball city.”
Some people, Allen said, are still confused. Some say he never should have left the team. “I have to remind them that I was traded,” he said. “And then a lot of them are still upset that the team is not there. One thing that I tried to do when I was there before I even knew that I was going to get traded, I always tried to warn them, ‘This team is your team. You have to fight for the team.’ A lot of people were disgruntled with the ownership at the time and so they didn’t want to fight for the team and they were OK with the team leaving because you’re so upset with the way ownership was doing business. But I told them, ‘OK, if you guys don’t fight for it, you won’t have a team, period.’”
When Lewis was a teenager making his way into the NBA in Seattle, a crop of younger Seattle-area players came up behind him: Nate Robinson, Martell Webster, Isaiah Thomas, Spencer Hawes, Marvin Williams, Aaron Brooks, and many, many others. “It’s such a sports town,” Lewis said. “Not only basketball, but football, baseball. They really support their professional athletes, and playing in KeyArena is something that I will never forget. They most definitely deserve a basketball team if not today, tomorrow. I know a lot of people say New York is the basketball mecca, but to me, it’s Seattle.”
For now, Lewis has spent another season perpetually staying ready. Mike Miller did the same last season and ended up preserving Miami’s season with his 3-point shooting. Juanita Brown called her son early in the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana. Lewis is the same quiet son, speaking only when he wants to. But she had to know. Was he hurt? Why was he not playing? Lewis insisted he was fine.
“Well, you better stay ready,” Brown advised. “They’re going to need you against Indiana. They’re going to need you on defense.”
“I’m ready,” Lewis replied. “That’s one thing I do. All of us guys that aren’t playing. We’re staying ready.”
Sure enough, Lewis drew surprise starts in the Indiana series when Chris Andersen went out with a thigh injury. The 34-year-old Lewis nailed six 3-pointers in Miami’s Game 5 loss to Indiana, keeping the Heat in the game as LeBron James battled foul trouble. In the Game 6 clincher, Lewis added another 13 points and three 3-pointers. The 38-year-old Allen was his steady and reliable self. He punished Indiana for 16 points in the third game of the series.
“We all have to be prepared for that moment, because at the end of the game, the only thing that matters is winning a championship,” Lewis said. “It’s not about guys getting minutes or scoring 20 points or getting playing time. To me, it’s about if you’ve got to make one 3-pointer to win that championship, we need you to make that one 3-pointer. Whatever it takes.”