Sonics owner puts the ball in NBA's hands
Seattle Times staff reporter
Clay Bennett delivered the news Friday that many Sonics fans had expected since he bought the team last year, announcing he was seeking NBA permission to move the franchise to Oklahoma City.
He also told his hometown newspaper he would begin working with officials there on a lease and other arrangements.
Bennett's relocation request -- which doesn't include the Storm -- does not mean the Sonics will abandon Seattle immediately, or even quickly. That timeline will depend on the outcome of Bennett's legal battle with the city of Seattle over the Sonics' KeyArena lease.
If Bennett gets a quick victory in the ongoing federal lawsuit, the Sonics could leave after this season. If not, Bennett would have to wait until the lease expires in 2010, unless the city agrees to an early buyout.
Bennett, in a written statement, said he was disappointed that he failed to secure the new arena that he has said for 15 months was a requirement for keeping the Sonics in the Seattle area. He cited the Legislature's rejection this spring of taxpayer funding for a proposed $500 million Renton arena.
"Even though our proposal for a new state-of-the-art multipurpose facility to be built in Renton was thoughtfully developed by a world-class team, was financially reasonable and was realistically attainable, we were unable to persuade the Washington Legislature to vote on our bill," Bennett said. "We now understand and respect that there is very limited public support for such a public investment."
Seattle officials blasted Bennett's announcement, which came one day after the team's home opener at which the announced sellout crowd broke into a chant of "Save our Sonics."
City Attorney Tom Carr called Bennett's action "a transparent attempt to alienate the Seattle fan base," noting that the deadline for relocation requests for next season is not until March 1.
"Making this move now continues the current ownership's insulting behavior toward the Sonics' dedicated fans and the citizens of the city of Seattle," Carr said in a written statement.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels vowed in a statement to "do everything in my power to enforce our lease and keep the Sonics and Storm where they belong -- in Seattle through 2010 and beyond."
What happens next
Bennett's request will be reviewed by a panel of at least five NBA team owners appointed by NBA Commissioner David Stern.
That panel will have 120 days to review Bennett's application before making a recommendation to the NBA Board of Governors, made up of team owners. A majority of the board would have to approve any relocation.
In 1994, the NBA blocked the Minnesota Timberwolves from moving to New Orleans by refusing to approve the sale of the team to a New Orleans-based ownership group.
But the Sonics' situation is different. The league last year approved the sale of the team to Bennett and his group of Oklahoma City businessmen who had talked for years about securing a franchise for their hometown. And Stern has said Seattle's KeyArena is not an acceptable NBA facility for the future.
The league has approved other franchise moves in recent years, allowing the Grizzlies to leave Vancouver for Memphis and the Hornets to leave Charlotte for New Orleans.
Even if the Sonics depart, Bennett indicated Friday the Storm could remain in Seattle. He said team owners "appreciate the deep local interest and support for the Storm and have begun to evaluate a future course of action for the team."
What he told hometown
Bennett made his announcement Friday in a written statement and was not available for interviews with Seattle media.
In an interview with The Oklahoman, the hometown newspaper owned by his wife's family, Bennett said he was not interested in selling the Sonics and Storm despite news this week of a group of prospective Seattle-area buyers.
"The teams are not for sale, and the parties don't need to spend their time and energy working on that process," Bennett said.
Dennis Daugs, a former minority owner of the Sonics and Storm under Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz's ownership group, said he represents a local group that would like to buy the teams back and keep them playing at Seattle Center.
Daugs said in a statement Friday he was not surprised by Bennett's announcement.
"Our door is always open to talk with Mr. Bennett or the NBA about purchasing the teams. We want to make it clear to the community and the loyal fans that there is a viable alternative to moving the teams -- local ownership," Daugs said.
Bennett said team owners will begin working with Oklahoma City officials on lease and other arrangements for a possible relocation. The team would likely play at the Ford Center, which hosted the hurricane-displaced New Orleans Hornets the past two seasons.
Still, Bennett left the door slightly ajar for an arena deal in the Seattle area in his interview with The Oklahoman.
"If very soon there was a leadership-driven, tangible, binding proposal relative to the development of a modern building and we were able to negotiate acceptable lease terms in that building, we will fully evaluate that," Bennett said.
He added that he was "generally aware" of one arena concept that Seattle-area leaders are working on, but said it would require significant taxpayer investment and "we're not involved in it at all."
Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis refused to comment on what arena concepts may be under consideration, but he said Nickels "continues to believe there is an arena solution at Seattle Center and we would like to work with the league and Mr. Bennett on that."
Advice for fans
Ceis urged Sonics fans to continue to attend Sonics games to deny Bennett any chance to argue that the team has no support here.
"I do believe it is important that the fans not let him alienate them. If fans walk away, it proves his point in court," Ceis said.
But Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, an ardent opponent of taxpayer subsidies for professional sports, said the Sonics' fate was decided a year ago when the team was sold.
Licata said he didn't think there was much more the city could do to appease Bennett.
"I think we've already made our best offers, and he's refused to consider them," Licata said.
Staff reporter Percy Allen and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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