Schultz to sue to get Sonics back as OK City makes move

Updated: April 15, 2008, 10:17 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

The proposed move of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City drew ire and support on Tuesday.

The former owner of the team revealed that he plans to sue the current owners to get the team back, arguing they breached a condition of the sale to make a "good-faith effort" to keep Seattle's oldest pro sports franchise from leaving town.

That move comes as the Oklahoma Senate approved a tax incentive package to help lure the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

The Senate passed the measure 27-21 Tuesday -- a day after the House approved the measure. It now goes back to the House because the Senate stripped the bill of House amendments.

Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, who sold the Sonics to an Oklahoma City-based group led by Clay Bennett, will not seek monetary damages in his lawsuit but wants the team back, according to his attorney, Richard Yarmuth.

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"It's not money damage. It's to have the team returned," Yarmuth said, according to The Seattle Times. "The theory of the suit is that when the team was sold, the Basketball Club of Seattle, our team here, relied on promises made by Clay Bennett and his ownership that they desired to keep the team in Seattle and intended to make a good-faith effort to accomplish that."

The team's ownership group has sought NBA approval to move the team to Oklahoma City for next season. The city has taken the team to court to enforce its lease at Key Arena, which runs through September 2010.

The lawsuit, expected to be filed in the next two weeks, comes after the city obtained and made public e-mails among members of the current Sonics ownership group, in which they are seen privately discussing a move to Oklahoma City at the same time they were publicly pledging to continue "good-faith" efforts to remain in Seattle.

In a letter to NBA commissioner David Stern and team owners, Washington governor Chris Gregoire said the Sonics' Oklahoma City owners apparently weren't acting in good faith while trying to get a stadium deal in Seattle. She is asking the league to delay its scheduled vote on the move.

After purchasing the team and the WNBA's Seattle Storm from Schultz in July, 2006 for $350 million, Bennett promised to spend one full year after the purchase was approved to seek a viable home for the Sonics in Seattle. The NBA approved the sale of the Sonics in October 2006.

Bennett's trips to Washington state to lobby for a proposed $500 million arena in suburban Renton and his hiring of a Seattle-based lobbyist and architectural firm have no bearing on the lawsuit, Yarmuth told The Times.

"We're talking about fraud at the time the contract was signed," Yarmuth said, according to the newspaper. "It's not merely what activities, good faith or otherwise, were engaged in after the contract was signed so far as lobbying for a new stadium."

Bennett and ownership partners Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward exchanged e-mails in April 2007 in which they discussed whether there was any way to avoid further "lame duck" seasons in Seattle before the team could be relocated.

Bennett responded: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys."

Four months later, after McClendon was quoted by an Oklahoma publication that "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here," Bennett told NBA Stern in an e-mail that the group had not discussed a move to Oklahoma City.

"I haven't studied them but my sense of it was that Clay, as the managing partner and the driving force of the group, was operating in good faith under the agreement that had been made with Howard Schultz," Stern said on a conference call Monday. "His straight and narrow path may not have been shared by all of his partners in their views, but Clay was the one that was making policy for the partnership."

The NBA's owners are expected to vote on the proposed Sonics move Friday. The league's relocation committee has already approved the move.

Oklahoma's tax measure expands Oklahoma's Quality Jobs Program to include the NBA. It would permit the Sonics to receive a rebate of a portion of payroll taxes paid by the team. It places a reimbursement cap on the incentives not to exceed the top income tax rate in Oklahoma, which is currently 5.5 percent.

The measure will also permit the company to receive rebates on the taxable payroll paid by players from opposing teams when they play in the city.

The rebate will be about $4 million a year and $60 million over its 15-year life.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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