Sunday, November 11, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

Revamped KeyArena, NBA owners could help save the Sonics

Special to The Seattle Times

Here's a chance to save the Sonics.

The only thing that can stop Clay Bennett from eventually moving the team to Oklahoma City and vacating one of the NBA's best cities is the NBA itself.

And the only way to get the league's owners involved on Seattle's behalf is to provide the Sonics with a viable NBA arena.

Forget commissioner David Stern.

With the league looking worldwide, what owner of an NBA team in his right mind would want Oklahoma City in the league, and not Seattle, the gateway to the Pacific Rim?

The league owners must see Bennett for the opportunist he is. You know, get a sweetheart deal in Seattle or, if not, do what you wanted to do in the first place: return home to Oklahoma as the conquering hero.

I believe now that Bennett has sabotaged this season, hoping for the kinds of results we are getting.

Rookie Jeff Green is a nice player, but he is no Ray Allen.

As part of the Allen-for-Green trade, the Sonics are left paying $12 million a year for Wally Szczerbiak when they could have had Rashard Lewis for that much, if only Bennett had offered him a deal.

Maybe the long-range future for the team is bright with Green and Kevin Durant, but a future where?

Unfortunately, Bennett isn't obligated to offer the team for sale to a local owner before he moves it, as the Mariners and Seahawks were. Bennett is holding the cards, but the way to take them from him is to come up with a home for the Sonics that the NBA — the owners of the other teams — thinks is acceptable.

And not necessarily the one Bennett has consistently demanded, and in Renton of all places.

An arena the taxpayers think is acceptable doesn't need to cost $500 million, or even half that. It could be financed on the extension of an existing tax.

The City of Seattle has more than one fish to fry here. Besides keeping the Sonics, it has to face up to the future of Seattle Center, its dynamic urban park that won't be as dynamic if KeyArena sits idle.

If this sounds like the warming up of an old story, it is. Although this time around, and confronted with the real possibility that the team is history here, the past sounds better than the present.

Remember the plan. Spend $220 million to redo KeyArena, giving it the room to reap the revenues other NBA arenas do, keeping the Sonics in Seattle and the Seattle Center off the tax rolls.

A special mayor's committee recommended as much a few years ago, saying without the Sonics and an improved KeyArena, Seattle Center's future was bleak.

The proposal didn't get anywhere. It seemed at the time that all we were doing was giving owner Howard Schultz more money than he already had.

Now it is about saving a franchise and a city's urban face.

Schultz is the first bad guy here. Tired of political apathy, he simply didn't have the staying power the Mariners owners, for example, did, losing millions before Safeco Field became a reality. Despite those around him who said no to the deal, Schultz took the money — Bennett overpaid for the Sonics — and ran.

Shame on him. Stewardship, my sneakers.

Bennett, of course, is no less self-serving.

Surely saving the Sonics needs some political muscle. The easiest way, I think, is to tie it to the future of Seattle Center.

I still like KeyArena.

Unlike the Kingdome — which no one seemed to like — KeyArena offers some of the best viewing in the NBA. I like the fact that it is in Seattle. That it is intimate. That it has the character of the Seattle Coliseum — the Sonics' first home — as well as the location.

Why might the plan to nearly double the floor space of KeyArena work this time when it didn't before?

The makeup of the Seattle City Council has changed. The upcoming additions of Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess could help.

With transit issues fading for a while, saving the Sonics should be worth some politician's passion and a few votes. A civic hero could emerge here.

Enlarging KeyArena is about doing what hadn't been done when the building was built in 1994, about more concourse area, fancier eating areas, increased parking for season-ticket holders, and better infrastructure for holding major concerts.

The Sonics don't need a lot more seats, they just need better ones. A third of their arena income is from the 500 seats nearest the floor.

Before Bennett, the Sonics proposed as a way of paying for the remodel of KeyArena that the same tax that paid for a majority of Safeco Field and Qwest Field — a county tax on restaurant meals and rental cars — be extended.

Not added or increased. Just extended.

Why couldn't we do that if it would mean that Seattle Center remains vibrant and largely self-sufficient, that the NBA stays in Seattle, and that Clay Bennett is forced by NBA owners to own up to his original commitment to the city.

Make it so hard for him that he'll have to stay. Or sell.

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Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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