Judge blocks Sonics from taking arena dispute to arbitration

SEATTLE -- The Seattle SuperSonics may not try to escape
their lease at KeyArena through arbitration, a federal judge said
Monday. Judge Ricardo S. Martinez called the team's interpretation
of the contract "as errant as a typical Shaquille O'Neal free

The decision was a victory for the city and means officials may
continue to seek a court order forcing the Sonics to play the next
three seasons at the NBA's smallest venue.

"The Sonics have made clear they're attempting to leave after
this coming season," Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said. "The
city wants an order from the judge saying they cannot escape the
terms of their lease."

New Sonics chairman Clay Bennett failed to win public funding
this year to build a new arena. Last month, he issued a demand for
arbitration, hoping to buy out the remainder of the lease unless a
deal on a new facility could be reached by the end of this month.

In response, the city sued, trying to force the Sonics to honor
the terms of a deal reached in the mid-1990s: In exchange for $74
million in renovations to the old Seattle Coliseum, the team agreed
to play all of its home games there through Sept. 30, 2010.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said the ruling "goes a long way to
ensuring Seattle taxpayers will get what they paid for when they
rebuilt KeyArena."

The motions that landed on Martinez's desk in U.S. District
Court concerned whether the dispute between the parties should
proceed through arbitration or a lawsuit.

The arguments focused on competing sections of the lease
agreement, but Martinez ruled that the controlling section is
Article 2, the one saying that disputes are to be settled through
arbitration unless they pertain to certain subjects, including the
length of the lease.

He rejected arguments from the team that the contract's terms
barred the city from going to court, and that under the language of
another section -- Article 26 -- the team should simply be held in
default and forced to pay the remaining rent if it stops playing at
KeyArena, which has a capacity of 17,072.

The team's "attempt to side-step Article 2 and shoot for
Article 26 is as errant as a typical Shaquille O'Neal free throw,"
the judge wrote.

O'Neal, the star center for the Miami Heat, shot 42.2 percent
from the free throw line last season.

"The Sonics ownership is pleased that there has been a prompt
decision," Bradley S. Keller, a lawyer for the team, said in a
statement. "It's important to note that the decision addresses the
forum in which the dispute will be decided, not the merits of the

Bennett's Oklahoma City-based ownership group bought the Sonics
and the WNBA's Seattle Storm for $350 million last year, and has
insisted that the Sonics need a new, $500 million stadium.

Among the complaints are that KeyArena is the smallest venue in
the league and that under the lease agreement the Sonics must turn
over too much of their revenue to the city. NBA commissioner David
Stern has called the lease the worst for any team in the league.

The Sonics began playing in Seattle in 1967 and won the city's
only men's professional sports title in 1979; the Storm won the
WNBA title in 2004.