Sonics president Walker to step down after team's sale

Updated: October 27, 2006, 2:16 AM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- Wally Walker is hosting a party Friday to thank Seattle SuperSonics' employees who worked for the Basketball Club of Seattle.

It'll serve as Walker's farewell party too.

Walker, the Seattle SuperSonics' team president, announced Thursday that he will resign when the franchise's sale to the Professional Basketball Club LLC is completed on Tuesday. Walker has served as team president and CEO since 2001.

"I've enjoyed more than 19 years with the Sonics organization in a variety of roles and the last 12-plus years as a minority owner. I'm humbled by the opportunities and experiences I've had with the Sonics, and I'm very proud of this organization," Walker said in a statement issued by the team.

Walker was a minority owner and member of the Basketball Club of Seattle LLC, the previous owners of the Sonics. That ownership group was headed by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz.

But Walker's departure has been speculated since the sale of the Sonics to the new group headed by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett. In his statement, Walker said he decided last spring that the 2006-07 season -- the last year of his contract -- would be his final season as Sonics' president. The ownership change precipitated an earlier departure.

Walker seemed to understand his situation on the day the Sonics were sold.

"I'll help. Or I'll go away, if that helps," Walker said then, calling the Sonics more than an investment and his "heart and soul."

On Thursday night, as the Sonics wound up their preseason with an overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors in Spokane, Walker was on hand.

"I wish this group of players and coaches the best, and new ownership, too," he said after the game.

"You've got a new ownership," he added. "It makes no sense to have a vestige of the previous ownership."

Sonics' fans have called for Walker's departure at various times during his tenure with the organization. It comes as the team's future in the Pacific Northwest is in flux.

The sale of the Sonics and the WNBA Storm to Bennett's group was approved by the NBA Board of Governors on Tuesday. Bennett has stated the future of the franchise in Seattle will depend on the group's ability to develop a replacement for the current KeyArena. Bennett's preference is to develop a new arena complex, either in Seattle or one of the surrounding suburbs.

"It is critical, for the sake of this community, that the teams remain here," Walker said.

As a player, Walker spent five seasons with the Sonics' from 1977-1982 and was part of their NBA championship team in 1979. He returned in 1994 as general manager and was promoted to president and CEO in 2001.

Walker's time as GM was highlighted by three Pacific Division titles and in 1996 the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals since winning its only title.

But Walker was also highly criticized by fans for personnel moves, infamously highlighted by a seven-year, $35 million contract given to center Jim McIlvaine in July 1996, just a month after the Sonics' reached the NBA Finals.

McIlvaine was a bust, averaging 3.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in two seasons with the Sonics before being traded.

Walker was also disparaged after the firing of George Karl following the 1998 season; Karl was the most successful coach in franchise history. Highly popular coach Nate McMillan also left Seattle after winning a division title in 2005.

During seasons of struggle, fans would display "Trade Wally" signs in the stands at KeyArena.

"Wally's passion for the game and love for the Sonics and Storm were his guideposts for all decision," Schultz said.

In recent years, Walker spent the majority of his time trying to develop a funding package and new lease for the Sonics at KeyArena. When deals couldn't be struck with the city of Seattle or the state Legislature, Walker and Schultz sold the franchise to Bennett's group on July 18 for $350 million.

"We will always consider him part of the family, and know he will share in what we believe will be a great future for the organization," Bennett said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press