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Tuesday, June 17, 2008 - Page updated at 12:10 PM

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Bennett takes stand in Sonics trial

SuperSonics owner Clayton Bennett testified Tuesday that he knew when he bought the team that it was losing money at KeyArena, but thought "perhaps we could turn that around."

AP Sports Writer and Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE —

SuperSonics owner Clayton Bennett testified Tuesday that he knew when he bought the team that it was losing money at KeyArena, but thought "perhaps we could turn that around."

Under questioning from city of Seattle lawyer Paul Lawrence, Bennett said he was a "reasonably sophisticated" investor and diligently researched the team's finances before his Professional Basketball Club bought it for $350 million in 2006.

Bennett is trying to move the team - Seattle's oldest professional sports franchise - to his hometown of Oklahoma City, two years before the KeyArena lease expires. The city is asking a federal judge to force the Sonics to honor their lease.

Bennett characterized the team's financial losses as "significant and ever-growing, but they would not significantly alter" his family's lifestyle. He said he understood the Sonics likely would keep losing money as long as they played at KeyArena - the NBA's smallest venue - but said he hoped a new arena deal would revive local interest in the team.

"We thought perhaps we could turn that around in the past year if in fact we had an arena development in process," he said.

Lawrence asked if he understood at the time that the team might not get a deal for a new arena.

"Didn't understand it well enough," Bennett quipped.

The team says it could lose $65 million if forced to keep playing at KeyArena for the next two seasons, but could make more than $18 million if allowed to play in Oklahoma. The team characterizes the situation as a standard landlord-tenant dispute, and says it should be allowed to break the lease while paying the city no more than $10 million in lost rent.

The city argues the new owners were aware of the risks when they purchased the Sonics and that they should not now be able to claim financial hardship to break the lease. The city agreed in the mid-1990s to spend $84 million renovating the arena only because the team agreed to stay for 15 years, Seattle's lawyers said.

Typically, courts are reluctant to force parties to fulfill contract obligations against their will. Instead, they require monetary damages to make the injured party whole.

But the Sonics lease specifically states that either side can force the other to fulfill its obligations. In questioning Bennett, the city's attorney sought to establish he fully understood that when the Professional Basketball Club took over the lease.

"Is there any provision in the lease that allows you to leave the lease early under any circumstances?" Lawrence asked.

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"No, not that I'm aware of," Bennett said.

Bennett did testify that his ownership group intended to "honor our obligations" under the lease when it bought the team, but qualified that by saying he interpreted that to mean "whatever it took" - suggesting that paying the city to break the lease could be considered honoring it.

Lawrence hammered Bennett on whether he made a "good-faith effort" to keep the team in Seattle, as he promised in a signed agreement when he purchased the team. The lawyer suggested in his questioning that the team's demand for a $500 million new arena for basketball and hockey, presented late in the 2007 legislative session, was so unrealistic as to be designed to fail.

In one e-mail shown during the questioning, Bennett wrote that the team's financial contribution to any new arena would be "negligible," but he answered Lawrence by saying the Sonics agreed to pay $100 million out of future revenue from the building, such as admissions surcharges. The proposal for the new arena got nowhere in Olympia.

Lawrence also asked Bennett about his e-mail to fellow owners stating he was a "man possessed" to move the team to Oklahoma, to which one wrote back, "That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here next year."

Bennett insisted he meant that he was a "man possessed" to keep the team in Seattle, and that his fellow owners misunderstood his e-mail.

In the e-mail, "I'm reiterating my committment to the process to stay in Seattle," Bennett said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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