There are 30 professional basketball teams in the NBA. There are more than 30 cities that deserve to house an NBA franchise. This is a reality; inequity exists in sport, just as it does in any other facet of life. It's very possible that soon, the city of Sacramento will no longer have a basketball team, and that the cities of Seattle and Oklahoma City both will. There is nothing objectively fair in this.
But we as human beings have this unfortunate need to understand why things are, even when there's no good reason why. This causes us to hunt for ways to compare, to contrast, to justify. We create demons to battle against, because it's far more comforting to live in a world with evil than in a world with nothing.
Five years ago, the city of Seattle was provided a public funeral, their thirty years of history mourned. Now, the opposite is true. Tom Ziller of SB Nation wrote: "And now, the city that lost its team because of its own obstinance is prepared to take a team from the city that did its job." This sentence is a massive simplification, but that’s not meant to be criticism. Simplification is necessary to describe an event and a process so grand and complicated. It's necessary to attach any meaning to the absurd.
As a Seattleite, Ziller's statement produces a natural disquiet in me. But what troubles me most is that it makes me realize how little I understand it, and how easily it feels like it should be understood. Sports cause us to personify cities; they give us traits and character. They are, perhaps, one of the few things that continue to do so in our increasingly homogenous world. We speak of sports teams by their first name: "Chicago drafted Derrick Rose." "New York doesn't mind paying the luxury tax." Everybody performs this strange, reverse synecdoche.
But this, too, is absurd. What is a city? Is it a conscious thing? Does it rest on the mayor's desk, the nameplate long since changed after the Clay Bennett debacle? Is it the lawmakers in Olympia, sixty miles south, who failed to finance their half of the plan that was meant to save the Sonics? Is it in the spirit of the fan base, ultimately powerless and underfoot while the titans of commerce wrestled in the streets?
There is loss, and so there must be blame. Five years ago, blame came easy, through the machinations and manipulations of Clay Bennett, and the poor e-mail decisions of Aubrey McClendon. This time, the issue is murkier. Chris Hansen is nothing if not transparent; he's made no saccharine overtures to the people of Sacramento. There have been no politics, no “good faith” arena negotiations. If he is to blame, then the system that allows him to act so unapologetically is to blame.
But it's hard to blame a system, especially when that system is capitalism. Regardless of how much we hate what we find when you look inside its processes, we have to pull our punches to some degree. We owe a lot to it, like it or not. The issues grow bigger and more complicated the further we go.
Did the city of Seattle deserve to lose its team, and does the city of Sacramento deserve to lose theirs? It's an unanswerable question, because cities don’t deserve anything. They're brick and concrete. The people deserve basketball, but they're outside the equation. After all, I doubt there are many who blame the fans of Oklahoma City for welcoming the team delivered to them. But if we're talking solely about business, there's no question of deserving, no moral declarations to be made. We can't expect the invisible hand to care. That's the deal we made with it.
Thankfully, we don't live by capitalism alone. We can agree as a society to make rules that supersede money. But agreeing is hard, as we noticed with the Hall of Fame last week, and it takes a lot of time and disciplined discourse. That discourse won't come in time to save the Kings, just as it didn't save the Sonics. Maybe if we work hard it'll save the next team. But it has to start now, long before the hand makes another fist.
If the choice were mine, I would graciously refuse the Kings, refuse basketball. I’d wait for the expansion team that will never appear in the sport as we now know it. I want no part in the system that trades the feelings of fans for the riches of a few wealthy men. I want no part of the hypocrisy inherent in taking something to replace what was taken from me.
But the choice isn't mine, and so I have to accept that hypocrisy whether I like it or not. Doing so doesn't mean I have to fix the entire problem myself; basketball, much as I enjoy it, is a very small part of my life in the best of times. I am not a city in myself. But it does mean I have to abandon my enmity for Clay Bennett, distasteful as I find him. I have to stop blaming or defending. I have to stop absorbing the virtues of my professional teams into some bizarre sense of my own civic or personal pride.
I have to accept the absurdity of it all. Maybe I should go re-read Candide.