‘Sonicsgate’ tells how the fans got hosed

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, December 11, 2009 12:01am
  • Life

Every time a sports team gets wrenched away from a city, we get another lesson in cold, hard reality. As fans of the Seattle SuperSonics recently experienced.

To be a sports fan is to participate in a collective illusion that the team somehow belongs to “us” because we pay money for tickets, invest time watching games on TV and participate in a community feeling surrounding the team.

All of that gets rudely broken by the realities of billionaire owners, corporate interests and political chess-playing — the stuff that, when you’re a sports fan, you sort of choose to ignore. At least when the team is winning.

“Sonicsgate” is a locally made documentary that dredges up these cold realities; it’s a chronicle of the departure of the Sonics, Seattle’s first major-league pro sports franchise.

The film is a fan’s lament, which means it goes on far too long (at 120 minutes) and spends too much time ticking through past glories. The true subject doesn’t kick in until a half-hour into the film.

That subject is how Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz sold the team in 2006 to an ownership group from Oklahoma City, and how that bargain resulted in the Sonics becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder in time for the 2008 season.

The saga has a lot of villains and not very many heroes. Director Jason Reid corrals a long roster of observers to chime in, including former Sonics Gary Payton, Sam Perkins and Brent Barry.

But there would be no Frank Capra outcome for the little guys, in this case. Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, the leader of the ownership group, would prevail, which is a little like Old Man Potter taking over the town at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Bennett emerges as a calculating slimebag with a politician’s gift for concealing his actual motives — and there are plenty of real politicians around, too, including Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

Reid keeps returning to author Sherman Alexie, who brings himself to tears in describing what it means to have a team stolen away. Alexie rightly notes that for many young men, following sports is almost the only emotional language they’re allowed to share, one reason for the passion on display in the film.

Since I can remember exactly where I was the night the Sonics won the championship in 1979, I’m the kind of person who appreciates this movie for having collected the story into one place. “Sonicsgate” won’t bring the team back, but it provides some catharsis.

“Sonicsgate” 1/2

This documentary account of the way the Seattle Sonics were unceremoniously wrenched from the city by a carpetbagging ownership group from Oklahoma City is overlong, but it does lay out a lousy saga of how billionaires and corporate interests are controlling sports. Lots of talking heads, including former Sonics, tell the sad tale.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter

Showing: SIFF Cinema

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