Cracking Open The Sonics’ Treasure Chest
Correction: audio for this story differs from its original broadcast, which incorrectly identified Nate McMillan as a member of the Sonics championship team from 1979. We have also clarified the story to indicate that the two conference trophies in MOHAI's warehouse are not the only two won by the Sonics.
When the owners of the Seattle Sonics moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008, basketball fans in Seattle were crushed. But they got one consolation prize: The team’s owners agreed to leave behind the Sonics’ cache of memorabilia.
The collection, gathered over the 41 years of Seattle SuperSonics' history, included hundreds of items: retired jerseys, pennants, banners, photographs and the team’s 1978-79 World Championship trophy.
Almost five years later, most of those items still sit in boxes, tucked away in a giant warehouse in South Seattle.
The Sonics’ collection still technically belongs to Clay Bennett and the owners of the Oklahoma City Thunder. But a legal settlement requires that it be held at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle until the city secures a new NBA team.
“We are the stewards of these wonderful treasures,” explained Leonard Garfield, executive director of MOHAI. “We wanted to make sure they stayed in town, and we were honored to be chosen as a place where they would be safeguarded.”
Unwrapping The Sonics' History
Most of the Sonics’ collection is packed away in boxes and stored in floor-to-ceiling metal shelves at MOHAI’s storage facility in South Seattle. The Professional Basketball Club, LLC, owners of the Oklahoma City Thunder, gave KUOW permission to view and photograph its contents.
On the upper shelves, huge banners that once hung from the rafters at the Kingdome and Key Arena are now neatly folded and wrapped in plastic.
Kristin Halunen, MOHAI’s registrar, removed plastic wrapping from a large yellow and green banner that reads, “1978-79 NBA WORLD CHAMPIONS, SEATTLE SUPERSONICS.”
The Sonics’ Western Conference championship trophies from 1978 and 1979 sit tucked away in the corner of a bottom shelf, surrounded by boxes of framed team photographs.
The collection contains the original six jerseys retired by the team, including No. 19 Lenny Wilkens, No. 43 Jack Sikma, and No. 32 Fred Brown.
In addition to hundreds of photographs, videotapes, and jerseys, the collection also includes an odd assortment of souvenirs, such as a Slick Watts Russian nesting doll, a set of championship lapel pins, and a Brent Barry bobblehead.
Why Is It Still Here?
The Sonics’ memorabilia remains in Seattle because of a lawsuit.
In 2007, when Clay Bennett and the new owners of the Sonics announced they intended to move the team to Oklahoma City, the city of Seattle filed suit in an attempt to enforce the team's lease with city-owned Key Arena.
At the end of the trial, on July 2, 2008, the two parties announced a settlement. The team was allowed to break its Key Arena lease and leave Seattle upon payment of $45 million to the city.
As part of the settlement, the team agreed not to use the Sonics’ name or colors in Oklahoma City, and to leave all of the team’s memorabilia in Seattle in the care of the MOHAI.
If a new NBA team were to come to Seattle, the owners agreed to transfer the Sonics’ name, intellectual property and memorabilia free of charge.
Arena investor Chris Hansen has said if he secures a new team, he intends to revive the Sonics’ name, colors, and legacy. That would have to be approved by the NBA. Neither Hansen's representatives nor the owners of the Oklahoma City Thunder nor the spokesman for the NBA would comment for this story.
The Championship Trophy
Right now, the only items from the collection on public display are the gold-plated 1978-79 championship trophy and a championship pennant from the same season. They both occupy a single display case at MOHAI's new South Lake Union museum.
If a new NBA team comes to Seattle, MOHAI plans to break out more of the Sonics’ collection to share with the public, according to MOHAI executive director Leonard Garfield.
“If a basketball team returns to Seattle, we will be celebrating that in a big way,” said Garfield. “We are the home of all the great memorabilia of the Sonics. We are going to bring it out of the vault, out of the warehouse, so that everybody can enjoy it.”