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Originally published December 10, 2009 at 3:01 PM | Page modified May 4, 2010 at 10:16 PM

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Movie review

'Sonicsgate': an illuminating, painful reminder of team's exit from Seattle

A review of "Sonicsgate," an informative but (for Seattle basketball fans) painful documentary about the Sonics' glorious history and sordid departure from Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Sonicsgate,' a documentary directed by Jason Reid. 120 minutes. SIFF Cinema, through Thursday; see Page 17.

Free DVD copies of the film will be distributed.

Just in case the wounds of losing the Sonics to Oklahoma City had begun to heal, along comes "Sonicsgate" to reopen them.

That's not a criticism of the film — a compelling documentary that will be featured this week at SIFF Cinema — just a commentary on its topic, the sad story of the Sonics' glorious history and sordid departure from Seattle.

The first quarter or so of the movie is devoted to the team's 41 years on the court, including the 1979 NBA title, the only championship the city has won in either the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball.

Included are revealing comments from former star Gary Payton, coach George Karl and general manager Wally Walker about the Sonics' late 1990s decline, which set the stage for the team's departure.

The rest of the film is devoted to Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz's decision to sell the team to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett and Bennett's subsequent predictable-to-everyone-but-Schultz heist of the team to Oklahoma City, aided by NBA officials and local government.

No one comes off well. Schultz appears naive about pro sports and either oblivious or duplicitous about Bennett's true intentions. Bennett shows as a liar who smiles only when he can finally announce the team is leaving. Local government is revealed as lacking the courage to do anything besides take the money and run at the end. And the lawyers, especially smug Seattle-based Bennett attorney Brad Keller, come off embodying every bad cliché about their profession.

For die-hard Sonics fans, it's a well-done, but extremely painful, retelling of the events, especially in making it clear the stealing of the team could have been halted at about a dozen different junctures.

Noted author and Sonics enthusiast Sherman Alexie neatly sums up the view fans might have watching it when he says he finally realized he was powerless and that there was "nothing I can do to change any of it."

Casual observers might watch it and decide the whole pro-sports enterprise is so greedy and dirty that it's a wonder anyone would want the NBA to return.

More than just a sports film, however, "Sonicsgate" also reveals some larger truths about government and big business, that ultimately everything comes down to ego, power and money.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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