It was a heady display of self-interest, in which Starbucks founder Howard Schultz severely misjudged both public opinion and his own civic responsibility.
I am speaking, of course, about the time Schultz sold the beloved Seattle SuperSonics basketball team to a group of cagey Oklahoma businessmen who moved the franchise to Oklahoma City two years later. On Monday, as Schultz soaked in attention with the announcement he may run for president as an independent candidate, the most-read local story in the Seattle Times was a scoop from his upcoming book about his 2006 decision to sell the Sonics.
In the book, and in an interview with the Times, Schultz offers a categorical mea culpa. Selling the team, he writes, “is one of the biggest regrets of my professional life. … It’s a public wound I cannot heal. For that I will forever be deeply sorry.”
Why did Schultz decide to sell the team? One answer is that he got bored with it. The other is that he felt spurned by the city and state’s refusal to give him public money for the construction of a new stadium. So Schultz did what professional sports owners have done before and since: He followed through on his threats to get rid of the team.
Now, plutocrats who move beloved local sports franchises after failing to extract taxpayer money to build more luxury boxes are a dime a dozen. We even get to watch one of them at work on Sunday: Stan Kroenke, who pulled the Rams out of St. Louis, leaving the city and state with a $144 million bill because local pols wouldn’t replace his 21-year-old stadium.* (Or at least, with one up to his standards—in Los Angeles, the team will share with the Chargers what might be the most expensive stadium ever built.) Local sentiment toward such people might be best summed up by the Brooklyn sports writer Pete Hamill, who once observed that the worst men to have ever lived were Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley. (O’Malley moved the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958.)
In Schultz’s case, this meant unloading the Sonics for $350 million (nearly twice what he’d reportedly paid five years earlier) to the Oklahoma buyers, under the transparently inane pretense that the Oklahomans might keep the team in Seattle for a long time. They did not. Schultz’s move here was a bit unusual: Most owners take the team and leave the city. He did the opposite.
In interviews about his presidential aspirations, the former CEO didn’t want to give details about his vision for government, beyond the platitudes you would expect from a man who tried to solve America’s race problem on a coffee cup. Schultz will be reading from his book at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on Thursday, where you can bet he will be asked—as he is often confronted in public—about the departure of the Sonics. In his book, Schultz says he has learned from the debacle. But what? That billionaires as a class contribute too little to the public good to justify their low rates of taxation? So far, that does not seem to be it:
Local sports teams, in the end, are thought of as public institutions no matter how many times a footloose billionaire makes it clear they’re not. If Schultz wants redemption, rather than deliver America to a second term of Donald Trump, he might look for real public institutions that could use his idling business sense and overflowing civic enthusiasm. How about the debt-ridden buildings of the New York City Housing Authority, one of the world’s great social safety nets? It’s a crisis that seems better suited for Schultz than politics or basketball—after all, he grew up there.
Correction, Jan. 28, 2019: This post originally misstated the amount of stadium debt the Rams left behind in St. Louis. It was $144 million, not $144.