Upcoming vote unlikely to settle Sonics' relocation saga
SEATTLE -- The supposedly obsolete arena is dark. After enduring billionaire power plays, broken promises and the team's worst season ever, Seattle is on the brink of losing its first big-time sports franchise.
On Friday, NBA owners are set to approve the SuperSonics' move to Oklahoma City. The last two votes on moves -- the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans and the Grizzlies from Vancouver to Memphis -- passed by a combined vote of 59-1.
"I just want to know if we're going to leave or stay," rookie superstar Kevin Durant said Thursday as he cleaned out his locker after a dismal 20-62 season.
Sorry, Kevin. Friday's approval won't quite decide whether 41 years of NBA history in the city is over.
"I'm not so worried about the board of governors' vote, really," Seattle mayor Greg Nickels said Thursday. "We expect they are going to approve it ... convincingly. We're really focused on litigation."
Yes, this two-year saga will likely be settled in court. Or with Sonics owner and Oklahoma City tycoon Clay Bennett writing a huge check to avoid the courts, a windfall Seattle might not be able to refuse.
The city has already rejected Bennett's offer of $26 million to settle the lease agreement, which runs through 2010.
Nickels laughed and declined to directly answer three different questions on whether there is a price at which Seattle would agree to let Bennett take the Sonics to Oklahoma.
"We intend to have the Sonics be a part of our community for a long, long time" is all the mayor, who stood on the downtown sidewalks for the Sonics' parade after they won the NBA title in 1979, would say.
Seattle's best hope to at least delay the Sonics' flight to Oklahoma City is a three-pronged legal fight against Bennett and his partners:
• A trial, set to begin June 16, in which the city is trying to force the team to play out its KeyArena lease.
• A class-action lawsuit brought by season ticket-holders who say they were duped into buying tickets under the premise the Sonics wouldn't leave.
• Former team owner Howard Schultz's new plans to sue to get the team back.
The Smooth-talking Starbucks chairman -- widely considered the villain in this civic drama -- is citing new evidence indicating Bennett's group lied while promising to make a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle.
The federal judge hearing the city's lawsuit forced the team to give Seattle's lawyers damning e-mails between Bennett and his partners. The messages display their eagerness to move the team to Oklahoma City almost as soon as they bought it.
Even so, Schultz's lawsuit has provoked the same bitter laughter among Seattlites that greeted news of the sale, which he pitched then as a wake-up call to local officials.
"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 in 2006.
Frustrated by state and local officials' unwillingness to foot the bill to renovate KeyArena, Schultz sold the team to Bennett for a profit of $69 million in 2006. Bennett, Schultz argued, had better leverage to negotiate for a new arena because he had his eager hometown with a six-year-old building waiting if he failed.
Instead, Bennett focused on relocating the Sonics to his hometown after his proposal for a new arena in the suburbs, which he bragged would be the most expensive arena ever built, died in the Legislature. Then lawmakers spurned Microsoft CEO Steve's Ballmer's 11th-hour offer of big bucks.
Bennett has defended his efforts to keep the team in Seattle. He cites his many trips here, the consultants he hired and the money he spent toward finding the Sonics a new home.
Last spring he proposed a $500 million palace in the suburb of Renton. He asked the state of Washington to authorize King County tax dollars to pay for $278 million of the building. Bennett offered $100 million.
But the Oklahoman stepped into a political climate tired of public handouts for sports stadiums after tax money was used to build Safeco Field for baseball's Mariners and Qwest Field for the NFL's Seahawks. Since those two landmarks rose at the south end of the city's skyline, the Washington Legislature has said no, no and no again.
No last year to a NASCAR track. No this year to the University of Washington's plan for a huge update of Husky Stadium for football. And no last month to an 11th-hour plan led by Ballmer to expand KeyArena, the league's smallest venue.
Ballmer, a basketball fan, was willing to put up some of his Microsoft millions for a $300 million KeyArena expansion that would have used far less tax money -- $75 million to $150 million -- than Bennett's arena.
Six weeks ago, Oklahoma City voters didn't hesitate to approve a sales tax extension to fund $121.6 million in improvements to a downtown arena and build a practice facility. Then Thursday, the Oklahoma House approved a tax incentive package designed to help lure the Sonics that was swiftly signed into law by Gov. Brad Henry.
Meanwhile, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are asking the NBA to delay its decision amid the groundswell of nostalgia, sadness and anger in Seattle.
"We've had NBA basketball for 41 years," Mayor Nickels said. "This team means something to us."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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