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Originally published Friday, April 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Sonics

Sonics e-mail hints at NBA's concern over breach of promise

A top NBA executive last year worried that Sonics owners may have breached their "good faith" promise to work on an arena deal in Seattle...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A top NBA executive last year worried that Sonics owners may have breached their "good faith" promise to work on an arena deal in Seattle, according to an August 2007 e-mail disclosed Thursday as part of Seattle's lawsuit against the team.

Continuing what NBA Commissioner David Stern has called a "scorched earth" strategy, lawyers for Seattle revealed dozens of additional Sonics e-mails and other documents as part of a motion filed Thursday in federal court in New York City.

Lawyers for the NBA and Seattle are scheduled to square off Monday in a New York courtroom over whether the city has the right to obtain sensitive NBA documents and depose Stern as part of the lawsuit, which seeks to hold the Sonics to the final two years of the team's KeyArena lease.

In its motion, the city cited a new round of e-mails calling into question whether Sonics owners lived up to a contractual agreement — made when they bought the team in 2006 — to use "good faith best efforts" to keep the team in the Seattle area.

At one point, even NBA executives appeared to have called the Sonics' efforts into question.

Principal team owner Clay Bennett warned co-owner Aubrey McClendon in an Aug. 13, 2007, e-mail that NBA executive Joel Litvin was "looking into certain documents we signed at closing that may have been breached."

That followed McClendon's now-famous comment to an Oklahoma newspaper that "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here."

McClendon was fined $250,000 by the NBA for his remark, but the league ultimately ruled that Bennett's group had lived up to its good-faith promise and exhausted all his options in Seattle. Last week, the league approved Bennett's request to move the team to Oklahoma City.

NBA spokesman Tim Frank said the league would not comment on the latest court filings.

League attorneys have asked a judge to quash Seattle's latest request.

"There can be no doubt that the sole purpose of the deposition is to harass the NBA and its commissioner," NBA attorneys wrote in a motion filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Seattle's latest filing also cites several other internal Sonics e-mails in which Bennett pushed Oklahoma City as a viable new home for the Sonics as early as last April and complained about local politicians and media. Among the new disclosures:

• Bennett, like Litvin, worried that McClendon's comments could land the owners in legal trouble. In an Aug. 13, 2007, e-mail to McClendon, Bennett wrote: "Yes sir, we get killed on this one. I don't mind the PR ugliness (pretty used to it), but I am concerned from a legal standpoint that your statement could perhaps undermine our basic premise of 'good faith best efforts'... "

That's a reference to the language in the contract Bennett's group signed with former owner Howard Schultz promising to make "good faith best efforts" through Oct. 31, 2007, on a Seattle-area arena deal. Earlier this week, Schultz filed his own lawsuit, accusing Bennett's group of fraud and seeking to void the 2006 sale of the Sonics to the Oklahoma group.

• Sonics owners began trying to persuade NBA executives to approve an Oklahoma City relocation as early as last April, when it became clear the Washington Legislature would not approve a $500 million Renton arena.

Bennett e-mailed Litvin on April 23, 2007, saying a decision to leave Seattle was "not made in haste but in the context of now years of failing economics" and no prospects for a new arena. While Oklahoma City "is certainly a much smaller media market, this ownership group provides a unique relationship" with the city's business, media and political leaders and "can deliver a viable business operation and commitment to competitive teams," Bennett told Litvin, president of the NBA's league and basketball operations.

• In a July 2007 e-mail to fellow team owners, Bennett still left open the possibility of a Seattle-area arena deal, saying he was issuing a "last call to action to Seattle and Washington." Noting his good-faith promise to Schultz, Bennett said "we believe our efforts in the Legislature this past session satisfied the good faith condition" and that the owners' overall actions would persuade the NBA "we are exhausting every avenue in Seattle."

• Bennett displayed frustration with politicians. In an e-mail last April to Stern and Litvin, Bennett groused that he "wouldn't trust [Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis] as far as I could throw him." He added that the political leadership in Washington state "has never valued the threat of moving to Oklahoma City. They don't even know where it is."

• Bennett vented in other e-mails about the Seattle media. In an e-mail to McClendon and other co-owners last July, Bennett reacted to a column by Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley: "All of these guys are against us. Seattle has the most inept and difficult sports media of any major market. That was the view of the league before we arrived and I now completely agree."

Bennett added: "They still don't get the deal ... Ultimately it is not up to us to build them a building — it is up to the leadership and the broad public to build a building."

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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