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Directed by

Jason Reid

 Sonicsgate (2009) Poster

Review by Todd Plucknett

Posted - 10/21/09


This is a documentary that is extremely close to my heart. It is the story of the tragic series of events that ripped my beloved SuperSonics away from Seattle. It is eye-opening and shows the web of lies, deception, and failure of legislature that allowed it to happen. It is a thrilling film, and it is probably the most important sports film in decades.

The film starts off giving a background of the team. The team was formed in 1967. A little over a decade later, led by Freddy Brown, Lenny Wilkens, and others, the team had appeared in two NBA finals, having won one. Suddenly, the team was at the top of the association, giving Seattle its first and only professional sports championship. Decades later, following a series of bad relationships and misunderstandings in the prime of two of Seattle’s best athletes and the worst years in franchise history, owner Howard Shultz (of Starbuck’s fame) sold the team to Clayton Bennett, a businessman from Oklahoma City living off the fortune of his wife. Apparently, he thought that Bennett would do his best to keep the team in Seattle, when all of us fans already knew that it was doomed. From the start, his intention was to get pro basketball in Oklahoma City, so he lied. And that was enough.

What this film really did for me was show me the whole story. I knew of Clay before he became owner. I just didn’t know how deep this conspiracy ran. “It was a very well-ran manipulation,” said Save Our Sonics founder Brian Robinson. Looking back on those interviews and press conferences, it is amazing to see how much of a charade it comes off as. Like many fans, I was naïve and thought it would all work out in the end. But seeing the looks on those Oklahoma City bastard’s faces, the determination to break the hearts of everyone in Seattle for their own personal gain, I knew that we never stood a chance. Good work, Howard.

The film quality is very good. It is edited as well as any documentary in years. It has a Michael Moore style of flair, but better than anything he has done. This is because it is totally genuine. There are no staged interviews or anything. The interviews are with the people that matter, including Bennett’s attorney, Seattle’s attorney, Sonics executives, famous fans, and NBA players who grew up here. The best interview is with famed author Sherman Alexie. His story and connection with the team is the most intriguing part of the film. He was a season ticket holder for over a decade, and he speaks his mind. Every word he said is how I felt. It renewed that fire in my heart and frustration on how the whole thing went down.

I am not going to give all the details, mainly because that is a major part of the pleasure of watching the film. Its surprises and shock value are immense. There are a few things worth mentioning, though. One interviewee stated that he thought Jim McIlvaine’s contract was the reason why the Sonics left. I laughed, but there is something to that. That was the start of the domino effect that took Shawn Kemp away, that made Gary Payton want out, that tarnished the relationship with the head coach George Karl, and that forced Shultz to unload the team. I never thought about that before. And there is a bit that suggests a very deep relationship between Clay and Stern. I always knew they were gay for each other.

In the end, this is a fabulous documentary. These kinds of films are always best when they are personal subjects. You can tell that the filmmakers really cared. It does give the other side of the story too, in the interview with Clay’s attorney. You can tell that he didn’t even believe what he was saying. And all Clay gets is a slap on the wrist, a team in his home city, the team’s 41 year history, and the good side of Stern, which we all know that there is no good side of him. Stern and Clay are probably two of the most vicious villains in film in a long time, and enemy numbers one and two in the eyes of Seattleites. This is not meant to just be watched by Seattle fans, however. It is a widely appealing story of what can happen to any franchise in any sport if your government does not care or if the money stream is lacking. If a franchise like the Sonics can get stripped away, then that can happen to anyone. Now I know what it must have been like in Baltimore, in Kansas City, in Cleveland, etc. A quote near the end of the film by Alexie stated very emotionally that “for us to get another team, it would have to break the hearts of people like me.” That is exactly how I have always felt. But I doubt that it would ever leave such a trail of conspiracy and bitterness like Clay and Stern did in Seattle. But then again, we are talking about the NBA…


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