The current configuration of the National Basketball Association features the lengthiest history of franchise relocations out of all the major North American sports leagues.
With all the talk about how Seattle can once again play host to an NBA franchise, the city and fandom is often painted unfairly as vulturous and craven. Fans of the late SuperSonics raised hell about the league neglecting a team with 41 years of history, and a pointed documentary has held the banner high for that cause during the nearly 7 years since the franchise left town. That anyone in Seattle would consider relocation of another city's team is seen as nakedly hypocritical by many outside the PNW.
Frankly, it is.
Quite honestly, most of us don't like it.
We bleat the clarion call of league expansion as our way back in and will continue to fervently do so. Many fans of other teams would champion that right along with us. Sadly, the unfortunate reality of the business of sports and the modern NBA is that relocation is seen by those in and out of Seattle as the only means to have a team again, reinforced at nearly every turn by the league.
Yet, it's not just the NBA of the last few years. This is a way of doing business for the league that stretches back decades.
Many around the country burn Green and Gold fans in effigy when team sales arise and even the hint is made of investor Chris Hansen exploring such opportunities. The funny thing is that more than half of the current NBA is built on teams that moved to their present cities from another city, and in some cases more than one move has taken place.
There are but 14 teams out of the existing 30 franchises that have never made a significant move out of their markets since they were founded:
- Boston Celtics (since 1946)
- Chicago Bulls (since 1966)
- Cleveland Cavaliers (since 1970)
- Dallas Mavericks (since 1980)
- Denver Nuggets (since 1967 in the ABA; formerly the Denver Larks and Denver Rockets)
- Indiana Pacers (since 1967 in the ABA)
- Miami Heat (since 1988)
- Milwaukee Bucks (since 1968)
- Minnesota Timberwolves (since 1989)
- New York Knicks (since 1946)
- Orlando Magic (since 1989)
- Phoenix Suns (since 1968)
- Portland Trail Blazers (since 1970)
- Toronto Raptors (since 1995)
If you're being generous, you could count the Brooklyn Nets amongst that group. Beginning life in 1967 as the ABA's New Jersey Americans in Teaneck, New Jersey, they've since bounced between the Garden State and the Empire State. Their farthest moves were to Commack on Long Island, NY, and Piscatawny Township, NJ, about 50 miles and 45 miles from Teaneck, respectively. They've generally stayed within the New York City metropolitan area for the life of the team, though they have moved seven times.
In comparison, the current NFL is made up of 21 out of 32 franchises that have stayed in their markets. Major League Baseball has 21 of 30 teams, while the NHL has 23 of 30 teams. Major League Soccer has an astounding 19 of 20 clubs that take the pitch in 2015 that are in their founding markets (to be fair, MLS is only 20 years old).
Former commissioner David Stern oversaw 6 relocations during his 30-year tenure, the last of which was the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008. (Feel free to additionally count the Nets move to Brooklyn in there, if you want.)
This is all to say that, for as much guff as Sonics fans take over potential moves, relocation has frequently been standard operating procedure for the NBA.
It's quite possible Chris Hansen never made any inquiries into the sale of the Atlanta Hawks. If he's doing his job, though, he will continue to pursue a team as sales become available. It's proper due diligence for a prospective owner, as well as operating in good faith with the proposed arena deal with the City of Seattle and King County.
More important, he has to do it because this is the game that exists. That's no justification or rationale, simply acknowledgement of the reality. Right or wrong, unfair or not, it's the game we are forced to play if we want a team.
"The thing is, if we get a team, it’s going to be somebody else’s team. It's not going to be a new franchise ... To get a team, we're gonna, I’m gonna have to break the hearts of people just like me, who will then have to go in front of cameras to talk about their pain like this. And that's the only way we're going to get a team."
Sherman Alexie, author
Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team
Of course, the ultimate irony is that, no doubt because of the dark mark of the Sonics being pulled from Seattle, the NBA has now taken a firm stance of relocation as a last measure. They want to avoid it at all costs, and whether genuine or out of concern for their public image, the NBA will now give any community with a team every opportunity to keep that team before pulling the movement trigger. It's the absolute right way to approach it.
But it's a very decided change from their history.