Sonics, Storm sold to group from Oklahoma City

Updated: July 19, 2006, 3:08 AM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- A group from Oklahoma City has agreed to buy the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics and the WNBA's Seattle Storm.

The new owners have set a 12-month deadline to reach a new arena deal with Seattle officials -- something the teams' previous owners didn't accomplish in two years. After that, the new owners gain the option to move the team to Oklahoma.

Stein's take
 Marc Stein
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.


To read the rest of Marc Stein's column, click here.

Until then, Seattle, come support your teams!

That's the conflicting message Northwest basketball fans took away from Tuesday's announcement that the Basketball Club of Seattle, headed by Starbucks Corp. chairman Howard Schultz, will sell the teams for $350 million to the Professional Basketball Club LLC, headed by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett.

"This isn't how we wanted to go out," Schultz said of the decision to sell the city's oldest major league professional sports franchise -- which began play in 1967 -- to an out-of-towner.

He said he turned down higher offers from potential buyers that he felt would move the team immediately. Some earlier offers were known to have been from San Jose, Calif., and Kansas City, Mo.

Bennett is the president of Oklahoma City investment firm Dorchester Capital. He was key to temporarily moving the New Orleans Hornets to his city following Hurricane Katrina. He told a Tuesday afternoon news conference at his new team's training facility that whether the Sonics remain in Seattle beyond 2007 would depend on whether the team can reach an agreement with the city to replace or renovate KeyArena.

The arena was remodeled in 1994-95 and the Sonics have a lease until 2010 with the city. The team and NBA commissioner David Stern both have said that lease is the league's most unfavorable to a team and must be changed -- or better yet, a new place must be built with a new lease -- for the teams to remain viable in the region.

"It is not our intention to move or relocate the teams -- as long, of course, as we are able to negotiate a successor venue to the current basketball arena and arrangements to ensure the Sonics and Storm can succeed," Bennett said.

His crewcut hair and square, jutted jaw conveyed a bottom-line persona.

So did his words -- but only when he was pressed on what would happen if he and his partners, who have no known Washington ties, can't reach an agreement in 12 months with local politicians.

"If we weren't able to find a successor facility and relative lease by then, we have the option contractually to ... evaluate our position," Bennett said, pausing to choose his final words carefully.

To many Seattle fans, that already reads: Oklahoma SiloSonics and Oklahoma Dust Storm.

In February, upon the formation of his investor group in Oklahoma City, Bennett declared: "The bottom line is, we want a team for this market."

Seattle resident Aaron Morris, 18, stood a few yards away from the Sonics' facility as Bennett spoke. Morris said he attends a few Sonics games a year when he can afford it and watches the games on television.

He was holding a homemade, cardboard sign that read: "39 years ... out the window??"

Friend Ben Conway, also 18 and from Seattle, was standing next to him wearing a green, Sonics Shawn Kemp throwback jersey with a white T-shirt pulled over his face and head -- he said to represent the gravity of the day.

Conway's sign: "Don't sell my childhood to OK City."

A seemingly dejected Schultz said he came to realize he had to sell the team in the last 30 days. But he used the words "in Seattle" at least a dozen times while discussing the team's long-term future under Bennett.

When asked what he would tell a Seattle kid who loves the Sonics, Schultz said: "I told my children, and children of those I know, that I did this obviously with concern and trepidation. But I believe strongly this new group has a commitment to staying, provided elected officials meet him halfway.

"I do not believe the team is moving."

Even Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, speaking from his city, joined the cautious chorus.

"I think it's presumptuous to assume that Clay Bennett and his ownership group won't own that Seattle team for a long, long time in Seattle or somewhere else. It's presumptuous to assume they're going to move that franchise to Oklahoma City," Cornett said. "I understand that people are going to say that seems to be a likely scenario, but that's just speculation."

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels pledged to work with Bennett.

"We're going to try and work with Mr. Bennett and his group," Nickels said. "I think they're going to see Seattle is a great place to do business. And hopefully their team will do well on the court and the combination of those will allow us to have an extension of the lease beyond 2010.

"We have been providing very specific offers to the Sonics. We think it's an important part of our community. Those are still on the table."

And Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement, "I am encouraged that the new owners want to stay in the state. I have worked with Mayor Nickels and the City Council and hoped that the teams would stay in Key Arena because I have been concerned about the long-term viability of the Seattle Center."

Schultz said city and state officials should realize now that the Sonics really may leave Seattle.

"If the city didn't believe we'd potentially move the team, we obviously have a group now that does have an out," Schultz said. "But that's not what [the new owners] want to do."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press