Sonics' excitement tempered by departure talk
SEATTLE -- Here, Oct. 31 looms with a mixture of hope and dread. The Sonics open the season against the Denver Nuggets, as Kevin Durant makes his NBA debut that night. It's also the deadline imposed by ownership for the Sonics to secure a new arena in Seattle or face relocation.
That doesn't leave a lot of time for commissioning environmental impact reports, drawing architectural renderings or staging bake sales to scrounge up half a billion dollars. Cupcakes might be the only solution now, after a proposal to extend the "visitor tax" that paid for Safeco and Qwest fields died.
Ever since the Oklahoma City-based ownership group headed by Clay Bennett bought the Sonics for $350 million last October, it's been presumed that their intention was to move them to the city that became a surprise NBA hit when it was host to the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina. And now they seem ready to get to the Sooner State sooner rather than later.
They filed an arbitration demand requesting a release from the final two years of their lease at luxury suite-deficient KeyArena, which would allow them to move after the upcoming season if they receive approval from a majority of NBA owners.
The arbitration demand reads as if it were written by Lawyerz With Attitude. It calls the relationship between the team and the city "forced and dysfunctional," and accuses city leaders of "bellicose, truculent and economically irresponsible rhetoric." It says the team lost $17 million for the 2007 fiscal year. It declares, "The reality is that even if the City were right -- even if it could force specific performance -- it simply delays the Sonics' departure by two years and hurts the City. No amount of grandstanding can change these essential facts."
Most damaging of all, it calls out the fans, claiming "a majority of the public has accepted the team's imminent departure. The sentiment among many is 'who cares?'"
The 2,300 people who packed the Seattle Pacific University gym to watch an open practice care, for starters. They were in place promptly for the 6 p.m. start, even if all that did was give them a chance to watch the players stretch. They cheered the introduction of the players. And they bubbled with hope that their first look at Durant wouldn't quickly give way to the last.
"I can't fathom the NBA allowing Seattle to lose its team," said Lance Bergren, a season-ticket holder. "And I don't see it happening. Somehow, someway, we're going to solve this issue and we're staying in Seattle."
Maybe they're na´ve. Or maybe they're astute historians who remembered when baseball's Mariners appeared headed to Florida or the NFLs Seahawks were packed for Anaheim, but now they're both in beautiful stadiums just south of downtown.
They're counting on David Stern to come riding to the rescue, even if his comments over the summer gave no indication he was ready to saddle up. Stern likes victories. He doesn't want to take up fights he can't win, and right now the prospects of getting the Washington state legislature to clear some $500 million for a new arena seem about as bleak as the Cavs' chances against the Spurs in the Finals.
If the public sector can't provide the funds, the fans are banking on common sense.
"There is interest here, there's money here, there's a fan base," said Eli Normoyle, whose seats are in the second row. "We have generations of Sonic fans. You go to Oklahoma City, they have five bad years in a row, who's going to go?"
Seattle fans didn't completely abandon the Sonics last year despite a record of 31-51. Attendance stayed around 16,000 a game last season -- almost 95 percent of the small arena's capacity.
This year, not even the threat of imminent departure can drive people away from watching Durant's rookie season.
"You have a chance to date a beautiful woman -- and the chance is she's going to break your heart -- you don't not do that, right?" said Ernie Ankrim, who took a chance on love by signing up for season tickets this year.
If you like young talent, this team is seductive. There's Durant, the 6-9 forward with the smooth shooting stroke and quick spin moves. There's fellow rookie Jeff Green, the versatile forward obtained in the trade that sent Ray Allen to Boston.
There's a veteran big man in Kurt Thomas, whose $8 million salary the Sonics took on in return for a couple of first-round draft picks from Phoenix. Wally Szczerbiak can provide outside shooting and the Sonics even expect production from a bulked-up Robert Swift, who appears to have spent almost as much time in the weight room as he did the tattoo parlor this summer.
Like the new group of Trail Blazers, the Sonics feel the fans will embrace this team. They're emphasizing Durant but not featuring him exclusively; the billboards around town will show him with other players. That's fine with Durant, who says, "I don't call myself the face of the organization. We play together."
Meanwhile, general manager Sam Presti loves relaying the story he heard from the Team USA practices this summer: When Mike Krzyzewski gave the players a day off, the coaches came to the gym for meetings and discovered three players working on their shooting. They were Kobe Bryant, Green and Durant.
Another tale of work ethic and team camaraderie. When strength and conditioning coach Dwight Daub came to Washington D.C. -- the home area for Durant and Green -- Durant got lost on the way to Georgetown University. Daub offered to meet with him later. Durant insisted on coming in; Daub had traveled far enough already in coming to D.C., and Durant wanted to work with his teammate.
Too bad the city and the Sonics aren't so harmonious. The city is suing the Sonics to enforce the Key Arena lease. Right now they can't even agree on a venue for their fight, with the Sonics pushing their arbitration request from county court to federal court. Meanwhile, Brian Robinson, the founder of Save Our Sonics and Storm (Seattle's WNBA team) believes the best hope is to stall any move through litigation to buy time for an arena alternative to materialize.
A lawsuit filed by season-ticket holders claims the Sonics defrauded buyers by guaranteeing no price increases in the subsequent two years for those who buy season tickets for 2007-2008. The suit claims that was "unfair or deceptive" because the owners did not plan on being in Seattle beyond next season.
Robinson thinks the lawsuit will bring truths to light because they will be able to depose members of the Sonic ownership group and question them under oath.
"We expect the litigation to go our way," Robinson said. "At that point we've got to start demanding that all parties sit down again. Is [Bennett] willing to go through a three-year smear campaign?"
Bennett did not return messages left through his spokesman.
It appears that everything is stacked against Seattle: out-of-town owners who wouldn't care about the local repercussions of leaving; a tax-weary public; indifferent politicians; and a commissioner who hasn't rallied to their side.
The one thing working for them is modern history. Only two NBA teams have moved in the past 22 years: the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans and the Grizzlies from Vancouver to Memphis. Not even the almighty NFL, with five franchises shifts during that time span, can boast that level of stability.
Against my better judgment -- outside the majority of evidence, perhaps -- I want to share the optimism of the fans in Seattle. Maybe it's because the week I spent there during the 1996 NBA Finals was one of the best experiences of my career, and I'll never forget the fans driving around the city honking their horns throughout the night after the Sonics won Game 5 to send the series back to Chicago.
With so much conjecture about the team, it can be easy to forget about the individual players. They're stuck in the middle, wanting to play basketball, out of the loop as far as the franchise's status, but besieged by questions about it wherever they go.
"As far as uncertainty here, we're trying not to get into that," Durant said. "We're playing basketball, we're working hard, we're trying to have a good season. If I had control over it, I would stay. It's out of my hands."
If only this could be about basketball. You'd want to secure good seats for the long term, too. Not only do they have the young talent on hand, but the Sonics hold five first-round picks in the next three drafts.
And they can enter this season in stealth mode, perhaps sneaking victories from unsuspecting opponents and acquiring booster shots to their confidence.
"Honestly, a lot of teams are not going to respect us, because we're so young and we're not really a proven group yet," Watson said. "A lot of teams are going to take us for granted. We're going to work hard, and whether they respect us or not, we're trying to win games.
"February, we're going to have a real sense of what this team is."
Now all they need is a sense of where this team will be.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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