Howard Schultz ‘Sold Out’ Seattle

Starbucks guru's disastrous Supersonics ownership has many questioning his 2020 hopes

Howard Schultz
Howard Schultz / Getty Images

The 2020 aspirations of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz will be faced with skepticism in Seattle, where his ownership of the Supersonics ended with him becoming the "spineless" "despised" "villain," who "backstabbed" his adoptive hometown.

"We're going to return this team back to the NBA elite," Schultz promised shortly after purchasing the team. "And you're going to remember, when the Seattle Supersonics win the NBA championship. I promise you!"

There is no longer a professional basketball team in Seattle. The team was sold to an Oklahoma City-based group for $350 million in 2006, and left the city two years later, ending a 41-year legacy and opening up wounds in the city's sports fan base that have yet to heal.

Many place the blame on Schultz, whose ownership included no championships, but banned hip-hop music and criticizing the dress and "attitude" of his players while pining for the days of the 1950s, as images of "crew-cut white players" teaching fundamentals of shooting played at the KeyArena.

"The Sonics were more closely woven into the Seattle and Washington state community than any of the other pro sports teams," said Adam Brown, producer of Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team, a documentary on the franchise and its demise.

"It was the perfect storm of corporate greed and political ineptitude that ripped the team away," Brown said.

Schultz became the principal owner of the Sonics in 2001, after he and 58 other investors purchased the team for $200 million. After his lofty promises never came to fruition, Schultz sold the team just five years later for $350 million, but claimed losses of $60 million.

Schultz himself has said owning the team was a "nightmare." What was supposed to be the "fulfillment of a lifelong dream," he said, became "an unequivocal mistake, on every level."

The saga has left Seattle sports fans bitter, even 10 years later.

"Howard Schultz, 2020?" asked Danny Westneat, a Seattle Times columnist. "We in Seattle know he'd be a lamb to the slaughter."

"The Starbucks leader has many strengths, but Seattle can testify that politics isn't one of them," Westneat wrote last year. "That's the part where his weakness cost us a city legacy, the Sonics."

Local sports broadcaster Mike Gastineau mused on Twitter which country Schultz would "ultimately sell America to when things get tough."

Things got tough pretty quickly. Frank Hughes, another Washington-based sportswriter, noted Schultz got bored with owning the team after a year.

Hughes wrote in 2006 Schultz was "an entrepreneur whose romantic attention was focused exclusively on his basketball team for about a year."

"Then things didn't quite go the way he envisioned, he got bored and discouraged, and he decided that he wanted out (regardless of the impact on people's lives)," Hughes wrote.

Schultz claimed he was unaware the Oklahoma City buyers intended to move the team to Oklahoma City.

"Even if you couldn't care less about basketball, buried in these bitter memories are crucial and legitimate questions about any Schultz foray into politics," according to Westneat. "One is: Why did he sell away our team, really? Schultz claimed later in a lawsuit that he was hoodwinked—that he genuinely thought the Oklahomans would keep the Sonics in Seattle. If that's true, the question then is: Do we really want a president who can be rolled so easily?"

Westneat points out when the sale was finalized the Seattle Times declared, "Schultz sold out Seattle for $350 million."

"So even newspaper columnists could plainly see what was going on!" Westneat said. "It's hardly comfort that the latte lord supposedly couldn't."

Schultz's tenure was filled with "angry" courtside antics when things were not going his way.

"He sat at mid-court, when the team was going well, oh yeah, he was up there, and he was pumping his fist," said Steve Kelley, the retired sportswriter for the Seattle Times. "When they were going bad he would slink further and further down in his seat and pout. And he was right across from the players. They saw all that."

"I wasn't really worried about Schultz, over there pouting or crying or whatever he wanted to do," said Gary Payton, the Sonics franchise player who was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2003.

Payton said former owner Barry Ackerly ran the Sonics "like a family," while Schultz "ran it like a business."

"We were the longest-standing team in Seattle and we let a guy just come in here and take it," Payton said. Payton has called Schultz the "villain" and the reason Seattle no longer has a professional basketball team.

From the beginning, Schultz was critical of his own players, including their "attitude" and style of dress, and ripped the players for not smiling more.

"Attendance is down in all professional sports," Schultz told the New York Times in 2001. "I think some of it is the players and some of it is the owners. The players too often play selfishly and with a disrespect for the fans and their game. Too often, the owners have made the whole experience of going to a game too commercial."

"In basketball, the fan sees players playing who seemed to resent their jobs," he said. "You see it in the bickering, not just with referees but even with their own teammates. They're making millions of dollars a year, but they rarely smile. It's like they hate their jobs. And what are they so unhappy about?"

"The attitude antagonizes the fans," Schultz said.

Schultz told the Seattle Times in 2003 he was unhappy with the "culture" of the NBA.

"Maybe I'm naïve and maybe I'm wrong for saying this, but I felt all along that we would perform better on the court if the culture and the values were at a high level," he said.

Schultz wanted to take the sport back to the 1950s, and it was evident in the changes he made. The 1950s crooner Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" became the team's new signature song.

"In KeyArena during Sonics games, you now hear mellow jazz and classic Isley Brothers hits rather than hip-hop, which was dominant last year," the New York Times reported in 2002. "According to Schultz, fans have to be able either to dance to the song or to know the words."

The Times continued: "A video monitor shows the Sonics' black-and-white ‘Back to Basics' ad campaign: a 1950's Mission Control announcer and crew-cut white players attempt to teach the old-school fundamentals of shooting, passing and dribbling to the Sonics, who ignore the instructions and show their own funky dunks, between-the-legs dribbling and fancy passes."

Schultz only named "the old-style guys" as players he admired.

Schultz wanted to escape to "a prelapsarian Eden, in the 1950's, before there was rap music or sex or money or cable television," the Times wrote. "Schultz has perfect pitch for American mythology: virtually every public gesture he makes appeals to that atavistic part of ourselves that wants to believe in some time in the past when things were simpler, purer."

"Life, once, was good, he seems to be saying," the Times wrote. "How do we get that feeling back?"

Schultz's ill feeling towards the players was mutual.

"Schultz turned into one of those annoying courtside celebrities, à la Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee, who express proprietary exasperation whenever things go wrong," the Entrepreneur reported in 2008. "The players resented his histrionics, along with the attempts of this rich, white coffee guy to cozy up to them."

Schultz was a big champion of changing the NBA dress code into one that banned players from wearing hats and chains, a controversial move by commissioner David Stern in 2005 that several players said was racist.

Allen Iverson was seen as the "primary target" of the dress code at the time. "They’re targeting my generation—the hip-hop generation," Iverson said. Golden State Warriors shooting guard Jason Richardson called the dress code "kind of racist," and said the code "targeted blacks."

"Nobody was cheering harder for the dress code than me, and I give David Stern high marks for that," Schultz said.

Sonics employees were also displeased with Schultz's ownership. Jeremy Repanich's account of his employment with the team reveals how the billionaire coffee mogul's Christmas gift to employees were Starbucks gift cards with $3.50, barely enough to purchase a single cup of coffee.

Schultz told the Times in 2001 his friends thought he was naïve for thinking he could successfully turn around a basketball franchise.

"‘Howard, don't do this,' Schultz has quoted his friends as telling him when he was deciding whether to buy the Sonics," the Times reported. "‘You're naïve… Don't aim too high.' But, goes the inevitable punch line, ‘I want to aim high.'"

He promised championships.

"I've heard him speak to our team and a couple groups, and it's always the same," then-Sonics coach Nate McMillian said at the time. "I find myself in a daze, listening. It's like you're mesmerized."

"And it's true: Schultz has an almost fanatical belief in the power of positive thinking, a messianic eagerness to cast himself as the embodiment of the American dream," the Times reported.

Five years later, "he lost money, and lost interest." Schultz sold the team. Now he is eyeing the White House.