Sonics best bet to land in Oklahoma City
Though neither franchise can publicly admit its desire, Marc Stein gives Seattle the edge over the Hornets in the race of two teams that desperately want to land in Oklahoma City.
This early in the process, only one thing is clear about the sale of the Seattle SuperSonics:
Oklahoma City, rather suddenly, is an NBA promised land.
That's because little OKC, as of Tuesday, has two teams that desperately want to play there.
Seattle and New Orleans, sadly, might not be able to claim even one team that feels that way.
The Hornets never can admit this publicly, of course, with New Orleans still in the early stages of its complicated, unenviable recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But it's not exactly revealing a league secret to say that the Hornets, selfish as it sounds, would prefer to stay in their new city.
The Sonics, meanwhile, were just purchased by a group whose front man -- Oklahoma City's own Clay Bennett -- repeatedly has stated that his goal is bringing a major-league franchise to OKC. For keeps.
For Oklahomans not to wind up with one of these two teams would require an unlikely combination of events:
1) The Hornets' scheduled return to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season, amid considerable and understandable skepticism that the city will be ready for a full-time commitment to NBA basketball that quickly, has to proceed smoothly.
2) Seattle city officials and/or voters would have to sanction the arena renovations and/or lease amendments that would make it viable for the Sonics to stay in a city where they were the first pro sports franchise back in 1967.
Don't bet on No. 2.
When it comes to No. 1, it doesn't really matter what the Hornets want, even though they'd inevitably insist that their reservations about a New Orleans return stem from the financial troubles the team had there before Katrina. Hornets coach Byron Scott said it in March when the Hornets played their first game back at New Orleans Arena: "I don't think we get to make the decision [to stay or go]. It's the commissioner."
It's commissioner David Stern, who's so determined to re-establish the NBA in the Bayou that he already has awarded the 2008 All-Star Game to New Orleans. Chances are Stern would allow the Hornets to stay in Oklahoma City only if New Orleans' city leaders come to him say they're not ready to take the team back.
In Seattle, by contrast, Stern has complained about the Sonics' working conditions even louder than the Sonics have. On a media conference call before the playoffs began in April, Stern bluntly voiced his frustrations about the Sonics' inability to make progress on a new arena lease or funding for a new building, saying: "They are not interested in having the NBA there."
Critics of outgoing Sonics owner Howard Schultz -- and there are scores -- would say that the Starbucks magnate was never interested in spending what it takes to win in the NBA. The Sonics were essentially a .500 team in Schultz's reign -- going 209-201 with just two playoff appearances in his five full seasons in charge -- and have gained a reputation as a non-player in free agency even when dealing with many of their own free agents.
His reputation will be soiled even further if the Sonics do leave for good, in spite of what his coffee exploits have done for the locals, after Schultz's consortium sold the club for $150 million more than they paid.
Yet Schultz backers counter with the contention that even he couldn't afford to spend, largely because of a revenue-sharing arrangement he inherited with the city that Stern has termed as the most onerous arena lease in the whole league, worse even than Portland's.
I, too, have often questioned Schultz's frugality with the Sonics given his Starbucks riches -- and his attempts to secure a more favorable lease or public funding for a new arena or renovations were met with similar scoffs -- but it has been suggested by impartial observers in Seattle that the Sonics are on a course for bankruptcy without significant changes to their current set up. No matter how wealthy the boss is.
Caught in the middle, of course, are the Sonics' diehards, who stand as the most likely group in the Seattle-Oklahoma City-New Orleans triangle to be left without a team. (The speculation already has started about Paul Allen moving the Trail Blazers from Portland to Seattle, but that might not be any easier than keeping the Sonics.)
I can't imagine that Stern, in spite of all the tough talk, wants to abandon them after a 40-year relationship. He'll undoubtedly be hoping that the arrival of out-of-town ownership in Seattle will convince the local government that the threat of relocation is more real than ever, leading to a deal that can keep the Sonics where they were born and leave the increasingly attractive OKC market open for another team that might need it.
But let's face it.
It's much easier to imagine the new Sonics moving into the raucous Ford Center when the Hornets leave, a building so loud that it's often referred to as the Arco Arena of the Midwest. You suspect Bennett and Co. will like their OKC options better than anything they hear from Seattle between now and August 2007.
The Sonics' lease at KeyArena runs through 2010, but Bennett said Tuesday that his group has the contractual freedom to explore its outside options if a new agreement can't be hatched in a year. The Bennett-led Sonics could try, at that point, to buy their way out of the lease and are bound to find a willing partner or two in the city legislature to avoid a scenario that would surely appeal to no one in Seattle -- playing out two or three seasons as a lame duck.
It's too early, again, to describe any of this as a lock. Bennett, according to league sources, has some Nashville ties, too. You never know. Maybe the Hornets wind up staying in Oklahoma City, if New Orleans isn't ready, and maybe the Sonics head for Tennessee.
The lone certainties at work here are that Bennett was very well regarded in San Antonio during a stint on the Spurs' board of directors in the 1990s and that Oklahoma City, nowhere to be found on anyone's NBA map this time last year, is a certifiable hot spot now.
The Hornets want to stay. The Sonics want to go there. Someone else surely will apply to take over the town if given the chance.
I'm sure the OKC folks don't want to lose the Hornets now. Not with the irresistible Chris Paul coming off a Rookie of the Year season and not with George Shinn spending money (on Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler) like never before.
Yet there are worse fates than having two NBA teams lust over you. I can think of sadder scenarios than Oklahoma City, for so long branded a minor-league town, absorbing Bennett's Sonics and joining forces with a hometown owner who, unlike Shinn, has a sterling reputation.
The sadness is in Seattle.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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