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Originally published June 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 17, 2008 at 9:32 AM

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On the hot seat: Sonics' attorney trips up Nickels

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels stumbled under tough questioning Monday by an attorney for Sonics owner Clay Bennett, with the mayor's efforts...

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Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels stumbled under tough questioning Monday by an attorney for Sonics owner Clay Bennett, with the mayor's efforts to deny or evade questions at times contradicted by his earlier videotaped testimony.

Nickels took the stand for more than two hours as the first witness for the city in the high-profile federal trial over whether the Sonics can break their KeyArena lease before it expires in September 2010. Bennett, who wants to pay a cash buyout of the lease so he can move the team to Oklahoma City, is expected to testify today.

Wearing his customary dark suit with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket, Bennett sat stoically at the defense table. A handful of Sonics fans jeered "liar" and "thief" as he walked into the courthouse.

During opening statements, the city's lead attorney, Paul Lawrence, called Bennett and his partners "sophisticated businessmen" who agreed to abide by the KeyArena lease when they bought the team two years ago. Any financial losses by the Sonics, Lawrence contended, were "self-inflicted" because Bennett unloaded the team's best players and led the team to its worst-ever record.

The Sonics' lead attorney, Brad Keller, focused extensively on KeyArena's inadequacies during his opening statement, noting the arena has been a money loser for both the Sonics and the city for years. "This marriage is broken and it has been broken for over five years. We say it's time to stop."

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman, who will determine the outcome of the six-day trial, scolded attorneys for Seattle several times Monday for interrupting witnesses and ruled in favor of Sonics' lawyers on two objections, including one that barred the city from introducing a 1995 video of NBA Commissioner David Stern praising KeyArena.

Most of the day was consumed by Nickels' testimony. Under friendly questioning by Jeffrey Johnson, an attorney for the city, Nickels said it was "very important" to the city to keep the Sonics as the prime tenant at KeyArena, that "anything can happen" if the team plays there for two more seasons.

But Nickels appeared obstinate and evasive at times during a lengthy cross-examination by Keller.

The mayor tried repeatedly — with little success — to dance around certain questions, such as whether KeyArena had become "economically dysfunctional" for both the Sonics and the city.

Keller pressed Nickels to admit his role in what the team has called a "Machiavellian plan" to use the lease lawsuit to "bleed" Bennett into selling the Sonics to local businessmen led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

To make his point, Keller displayed a newly revealed July 24, 2007, e-mail from former Sonics President Wally Walker to wireless billionaire John Stanton, a member of the Ballmer group, in which Walker described his strategy for fighting Bennett's plans to take the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

"Make it too expensive and too litigious for him," Walker wrote. Describing a meeting with a top Nickels aide, he added: "I get the impression that they were in total agreement and that they (administration) understand the value of buying more time."

"Have you been working to try to make a sale to the Ballmer group happen?" Keller asked Nickels.

Nickels denied it: "I support that, but working toward it? No."

Keller then played a clip of Nickels' April 2 deposition in which Nickels was asked virtually the same question and responded, "Yes."

During earlier questioning by Johnson, Nickels said he has remained firm about holding the Sonics to their lease, in part, because of the civic pride and other intangible benefits they bring to the city. He recalled watching the massive parade through downtown Seattle when the team won the NBA championship in 1979.

But under cross-examination, Nickels acknowledged that he'd attended just two Sonics games in the past 10 years.

Keller asked: "Are you going to feel pride and exuberance if the only reason they are here is because of a court order?"

Nickels conceded: "It will be muted."

Former Seattle Center Director Virginia Anderson was considerably more poised during her testimony Monday afternoon. She even swatted down a late question from Sonics lawyer Paul Taylor, saying a document he cited did not prove much about whether the Sonics could be financially viable at KeyArena.

Anderson, who negotiated the 15-year KeyArena lease for the city, said she believed it could be profitable if the Sonics played better. "I suspect that if the Sonics were to go to the championship, they would fill the building and it [the lease] would work."

Anderson noted that the city and the team had agreed to "share the risk" of the 1994 renovation of the Seattle Coliseum, which cost more than $100 million, by splitting revenue from Sonics games to pay off the arena's debt.

Taylor asked Anderson whether that deal contemplated the subsequent construction of Safeco and Qwest fields, which created competition for luxury suites and hurt KeyArena's bottom line.

Anderson said neither the city nor the Sonics knew the Kingdome would be imploded and the new stadiums built. She described the professional-sports business as "cyclical" and said that while the Sonics may be in a "trough" now, the team can eventually work its way out of it.

Also testifying for the city Monday was former KeyArena manager Jyo Singh, who rejected the Sonics' contention that the city and team would be unable to work together if the team were forced to play two more years at the arena.

Singh said the city had spent at least $5.5 million improving the arena in recent years at the Sonics' request — creating a new family room for players' families and new clubs for high-end ticket holders.

That relationship would remain "fully cooperative" if the Sonics stay, said Singh, who is expected to wrap up his testimony this morning.

Staff reporter Percy Allen contributed to this report.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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