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Sunday, February 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham / Times Associate Editor

For basketball fans, Seattle's Key fits fine

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It's sad, really.

You imagine the Mariners playing baseball at Safeco Field for the next 75 years, their venerable ballyard coated with a patina of memories, a West Coast edition of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

But you know it won't happen.

What do we give the place? Twenty-five years?

The Kingdome, built structurally to last a thousand years, barely reached 25 before we blew it up.

Last week, the city of Charlotte voted to spend $230 million to replace its aging arena, the 14-year-old Charlotte Coliseum.

Can you imagine that 14 years ago, looking up at the 22,000 new seats, the folks in Charlotte thought their building would be obsolete at adolescence?

For my needs, there is no better basketball arena in the NBA than KeyArena, a building that eschewed excess for sensibility and intimacy.

It's a basketball building, ahead of its time in that it didn't try to do the multi-purpose thing of the '70s by doubling as a home for hockey.

(It was my opinion at the time, and still is, that Seattle can't afford the corporate and citizen dollars it would take to fund the NHL as well as pro baseball, football and basketball. Seattle already has a fourth major team, the Huskies.)

KeyArena was built without taxpayer money and was able to recycle the superstructure of a notable Seattle landmark to retain the integrity of a neighborhood.

It clearly won a faceoff with Chicago's United Center in the 1996 NBA Finals. It was closer to a city's center, fans were closer to the action on the floor, simply a much better place to watch basketball.

The new Pac-10 men's basketball tournament will be played this year at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, home of the Lakers and Clippers.

The building reminds you of one of those over-designed hotel lobbies, with inside elevators reaching skyward. The interior is rimmed by multiple levels of suites, putting most of the regular seats — not to mention the noise those folks generate — in the rafters.

It is awful.

But I suppose it pays the bills, which is really what we're talking about in new stadiums.

Frankly, I was shocked when Howard Schultz, the new owner of the Sonics, started talking about the inadequacies of KeyArena.

The building is 8 years old.

Schultz made it clear the team will honor the remaining seven years on its lease with the city that runs through 2009. But it is just as clear that he is enamored with some of the new buildings in the league.

"As I travel around and see some of the new arenas, I'm envious of some of the environments that have been created, and let's not forget the revenue opportunities that we can't get in our building," he said. "But we are going to honor the lease, and we'll see what happens."

Whether Schultz wants to admit it, those are scary words.

The $74 million loan the city took out to build KeyArena will be paid off by 2009, the bulk of the money generated by the Sonics. But are we ready to begin the campaign to replace it before it is 10 years old? Ready to find a site, find the money? Come on.

"In the new arenas in Dallas and Indianapolis," said Schultz, "you get an experience for the fans that we can't provide: the size of the concourses, the access to food, the high-tech innovations that enable fans to order items using hand-held devices, even to get instant replays.

"The new scoreboards are better. There become just more ways to generate revenues, which are allowing some teams an advantage in recruiting and signing new players."

These are the same arguments that eventually will be used against Safeco Field. And, really, they have little to do with watching the game.

Admittedly, KeyArena is the third smallest arena in the league, with a capacity of 17,072.

But night in and night out, it is a terrific place to watch a game. Right now, the Sonics rarely need 17,000 seats. As baseball has found out, more seats aren't necessarily better seats.

Baseball has downsized. Do we want to spend $300 million on a new basketball arena to replace one that isn't even old, and in the process add 5,000 seats in which we don't even want to sit?

I hope not.

Blaine Newnham can be reached at 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com.

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