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Originally published Sunday, June 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Brewer

Sonics owners, city brace for brawl

They didn't really want to fight, not like this. The city and the Oklahoma Raiders seem like two blustery schoolboys who smack-talked their...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Trial begins Monday

The city of Seattle wants the Sonics to play at KeyArena the next two seasons. The Sonics' owners want to take their team to Oklahoma City instead. The federal trial that decides whether the Sonics will be held to their lease begins Monday in Seattle. Times staff reporters Jim Brunner and Percy Allen will file dispatches throughout each day from the trial at seattletimes.com, along with complete coverage in the newspaper.

They didn't really want to fight, not like this. The city and the Oklahoma Raiders seem like two blustery schoolboys who smack-talked their way here. They divorced themselves from amicable discussions. They ran out of empty threats. And the situation escalated so much that they have no other choice.

They have to fight now.

Dukes up. Cover the little ones' eyes. Call the paramedics now.

On Monday, a brawl worthy of Don King promotion and Larry Merchant commentary will commence, a nasty, brutal tussle that figures to leave both sides looking inhuman and incompetent.

To the victor goes the right to house the Sonics. If the city wins, Seattle's oldest pro sports franchise sticks around for at least two more years. If the Raiders win, they'll have the team in Oklahoma before sunup.

The court contains a gavel instead of a basketball now. This is the most contentious relocation attempt since Art Modell moved the old Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson really should've based "There Will Be Blood" on this scrum. It's as unpredictable and unhealthy as it gets.

"I feel a lot of uncertainty," Save Our Sonics co-founder Brian Robinson said. "I never really thought the NBA would let this go to trial. I don't think the league thought the city would balk at a cash settlement. Now, everybody is in uncharted waters. I don't know what to expect at this point."

The popular conclusion is that the city is likely to win, but Robinson counters, "What does likely to win mean? Eighty percent? Well, that means there's a one in five chance you lose."

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman will listen to arguments over six days and settle this dispute over the KeyArena lease. It's all up to one person's opinion. If you can read her mind or judge all the evidence before it's even presented, then you should be doing more in life than following the Sonics, that's for sure.

The rest of us are left to ponder every possible scenario and wince as every low blow is thrown during this trial. To make matters more stressful, the bloodshed will be spread over a couple of weeks.

"You get a hint from the depositions that it's going to be rough," said Robinson, who expects 500 people at a Save Our Sonics rally Monday on the courthouse lawn. "I think it'll be honest, and the truth might be ugly."

That goes for both the city and the Sonics owners. Both will emerge from this with scars. The bungles of our city leaders will be explained clearly. The indiscretions of the goofiest owners in professional sports will be exposed with even greater detail. And like any good fight, the spectators will make things even more complicated.

It's unfortunate that a solution must be so hostile. Perhaps if Howard Schultz hadn't been so quick to sell the Sonics, we wouldn't be here. Perhaps if the Raiders had been genuine in their attempt to find funding for a new arena, we wouldn't be here. Perhaps if the city or state had dealt with the Raiders with more tact, we wouldn't be here.

Instead, everyone failed at diplomacy. There was no way that an arena plan could be squeezed into a year, and the Raiders knew it. They thought fleecing Seattle would be much easier. The city thought the Raiders weren't this formidable a foe.

For months, they stared each other down. For months, they stood nose to nose. For months, they pushed and shoved. Now, they have to fight.

If Clay Bennett and his Raiders win, it sends a terrible message. It says that pro sports have no benefits to cities, that they're toys that owners trick the public into supporting. Then, when the new owner decides his toy can make money elsewhere, he's allowed to disregard a 41-year relationship and hijack another city as long as it funds his most extravagant desires.

Yes, many owners operate with similar selfishness and greed. But most of them respect the bond between a city and a team, and the identity that benefits each. If that weren't the case, teams would be named after their owners instead of their cities.

Good thing we don't have to follow the Paul Allen Seahawks or the Hiroshi Yamauchi Mariners. Sadly, however, we've been dealing with the Clay Bennett Sonics for two seasons. It's been 113 losses' worth of pain, including more public-relations follies than the Bush administration, all with the threat of departure looming overhead.

No, Bennett shouldn't get off easily.

"The city has an obligation to do what's right regardless of the sum of money," Robinson said, explaining why he supports the city's decision not to negotiate a lease buyout. "Clay Bennett has had unethical dealings. He's lied to the mayor and other elected officials. This guy is trying to steal our team.

"There's no number we should take for the Space Needle. There's no number we should take for the waterfront. There's no number we should take for the Sonics. It's just not for sale."

So, here comes the fight. Prepare to be shocked. Prepare to scream.

This bizarre battle is about to turn ruthless.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. For more columns and the Extra Points blog, visit seattletimes.com/sports

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports. Also check out Jerry's Extra Points blog, where he talks with readers about his columns.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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