As the Bee recently covered, the NBA very rarely blocks teams looking to move cities. There is only one example in modern history, when the NBA blocked the Timberwolves proposed move to New Orleans in 1994. What’s more, the decision appears to be based more on financial problems with the new ownership group, rather than the two cities.
But today, the NBA appears set to declare that a personal grudge and a bit of money does not speak louder than a loyal fan base and motivated host city. The relocation committee recommended the NBA deny the Hansen group’s bid to move the Kings to Seattle to replace their recently departed Supersonics.
While the NBA rejecting a move initiated by a quality ownership group is unprecedented, it is perhaps more significant that no city as large as Seattle has ever lost a team and not seen it replaced.
All told, eleven reasonably large American cities have lost teams over the history of the NBA. With Seattle still without a team, seven of the eleven have now replaced. Precedent suggests that there is a very good chance they would get a new team in the future, perhaps quite quickly.
The circumstances of the NBA’s cities that lost teams vary dramatically. Some were relics of a different era, when the economics of the league allowed for much smaller cities to compete with larger ones. Others were opportunistic owners, eager to profit from a new market.
The Atlanta Hawks originally flew their flag in Milwaukee, but hit the road following four losing seasons in 1955. The Bucks filled the hole in their sausage-slowed hearts in 1969.
Chicago was the original home to the Wizards franchise, first named the Packers. Shocking but true, Bears fans once rooted for the Packers – and then the Zephyrs. They moved to Baltimore as the Bullets in 1964, before settling nearby in Washington DC in 1974. The Bulls were formed in Chicago in 1967.
The Golden State Warriors, before settling in the Bay Area, made their home in Philadelphia, where they proudly sported one of the more racist logos I’ve seen. They were replaced by the 76ers in 1964. Philadelphia even got back their star center Wilt Chamberlain later that season and won the championship the next year.
New Orleans lost the Jazz in 1979 after failing to make it work in the Superdome. Surprising many, the team kept their New Orleans inspired name, purely out of spite, thus inspiring countless jokes about jazz in Salt Lake City. The Hornets moved from Charlotte in in 2003.
On that note, Charlotte lost the Hornets in 2002 but was only without a team briefly after being awarded the expansion Bobcats in 2005.
The Rockets took off from San Diego in 1971. Their ship came in later that decade when the Clippers moved from Buffalo in 1979. The Clippers then moved up the coast to Los Angeles in 1985. They managed to lose a lot of games in all three cities.
The Lakers left “The Land of a Thousand Lakes”, despite winning five championships and only failing to make the playoffs once in twelve years. They headed west to the dust bowl that is Los Angeles in 1960. The Timberwolves were the slowest replacement to come to town to date, when they were founded through expansion in 1990.
At the same time, several cities have lost their team and never had it replaced. Many of these are smaller cities in the rust belt. Upstate New York (Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo) lost three teams, none of which were ever replaced. Fort Wayne, IN was the original home to the Pistons.
Our own Kings’ history offer less optimism, having passed through Cincinnati and Kansas City, cities of similar size to Sacramento, neither of which have received a new team. St. Louis, another similar sized city was also the home to the Hawks before they finally settled in Atlanta. Vancouver also lost the Grizzlies, but they are in Canada, so the precedent may not be valid.
With expansion seeming unlikely for the foreseeable future, we are playing a zero-sum game. For Seattle to gain a team, another city has to lose. Ethics aside, there are few obvious candidates. New Orleans seemed likely to become the second city to be left twice, but the new ownership group has given every indication that they are committed to the city. I have heard that the Charlotte ownership group is on shaky grounds, but they play in a modern arena that was built with taxpayer funds and has been open less than 8 years, so new owners would almost definitely be local.
The Bucks may be the best target, with an older arena (built in 1988, but with recent improvements), typically poor attendance, a smaller market and, most importantly, an owner willing to sell, they have several strikes against them. If Hansen’s Seattle group looks to acquire the Bucks, they may not be alone. Kansas City, Pittsburgh and, of course, Anaheim — all of which have quality arenas in place — would be tough competition. I do not see any other likely movers in the next few years, so any city that does not get the Bucks may have a long wait.
Fortunately, that is likely the situation Sacramento would have found itself in, had the Kings departed. Most cities that lost them have gotten teams back, but smaller cities, like Sacramento, have often had a long wait. Seattle may have to wait a couple more years, but their wait will likely end quickly. A fate Sacramento likely would not have shared.
Mayor Johnson overcame two strong precedents to keep the Kings. Whatever we may believe about the value of an NBA franchise or the wisdom of a large public subsidy, the Mayor was relentless and effective in his fight for the team. Here’s hoping history proves his cause right.
* For the purpose of this article, I ignore short distance moves, such as the Warriors hopping back and forth across the Bay, the Nets moving around the New York/New Jersey area and the Bullets/Wizards moving from Baltimore to Washington D.C.