A little tidbit that was glossed over in last week’s coverage of Gary Payton’s Hall of Fame speech was a brief, yet glowing mention of former Seattle SuperSonics owner Barry Ackerley (and the Ackerley family, in general). The local billboard magnate owned the Sonics for most of Payton’s career, before selling the team to Howard Schultz — a man not of Seattle, but who made his fortune there. In an interview with Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe (Payton played for the Celtics in 2004-05), Payton explained the difference between the two ownership groups:
“When the Ackerleys sold the team it went from being a family team to a business,” said Payton. “The people who took over the team ran their team like a business, like how they made their money, and you can’t do that.
“The Ackerleys ran the team like a family. When we had problems, they would call us in and talk to us. They would call us in and ask us what’s the problem, not try to trade you and tell you, ‘No, you don’t need a contract.’ You see where [Schultz’s style] got us, leading to another owner moving the team. And we knew he would move it to Oklahoma, we knew that. The Schultz group should have known that, too. We were the longest-standing team in Seattle and we let a guy just come in here and take it.”
Payton then addressed the series of questionable moves that led to Schultz bailing on his failed business venture after just five seasons:
“He just messed up our whole [franchise] and people did leave Seattle alone when he owned the team,” said Payton. “That’s why he had to sell it again, because he was struggling. He made a lot of silly moves and the first silly move was getting rid of me.”
“I wasn’t asking for a lot; I never asked for a new contract [before my previous one expired],” Payton said about his final season in Seattle. “All I asked was whether we were going to get an extension [in the offseason] and [Schultz] made it seem like, ‘I don’t care about you no more, you’re nothing.’ So, that’s what happened. He [saw] that wasn’t the right way and the whole franchise went downhill from there.
“It was time to go. I didn’t want to work for this guy. He knew it and I knew it. We don’t have the right people running this squad. Why sit here and be miserable.”
Payton’s comments are probably what scorned Sonics fans wished his Hall of Fame speech had consisted more of, but he instead chose to play nice in front of the dignified audience. However, Washburn is correct in pointing out that the downfall of the Sonics (as their fans know it) can be traced to the $33.6 million contract extension handed out to Jim McIlvaine that effectively ended Shawn Kemp’s Sonics career.*
* A few years ago, Kemp, who lives in the Seattle area and owns a restaurant, actually admitted in a radio interview (I can’t find it, but trust me, I heard it live on 950 KJR during one of his weekly appearances) that he had urged management to sign McIlvaine, but merely as a cheap backup. He was blindsided by the contract they ended up giving him. In the same interview, Kemp said he and McIlvaine remain good friends to this day.