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Originally published June 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 9, 2008 at 5:37 PM

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The "man possessed" sticks to his claims

Sonics owner Clay Bennett admitted on the witness stand Tuesday he'd been repeatedly warned before he bought the Sonics two years ago that...

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Sonics owner Clay Bennett admitted on the witness stand Tuesday he'd been repeatedly warned before he bought the Sonics two years ago that the team risked massive losses for the foreseeable future at KeyArena.

But Bennett said he always believed he'd get local politicians to approve a new arena, and stuck to his claim that he'd been "a man possessed" to keep the team in the Seattle area, despite e-mails in which his fellow owners talked enthusiastically about moving the team to Oklahoma City.

Taking the stand during the second day of the six-day federal trial over the KeyArena lease, Bennett was grilled about consultant reports and public documents laying out KeyArena's shortcomings for an NBA team, such as its size and a lack of restaurants — deficiencies Bennett now cites as a reason for breaking the lease before it expires in 2010.

Those reports warned the Sonics were losing more than $20 million a year and said there was no guarantee the team would be able to negotiate an early termination of the lease.

"You knew all that at the time you signed the lease, didn't you?" asked Paul Lawrence, the city's lead attorney.

"I never envisioned sitting here today," Bennett said, but conceded: "We knew there would be risks, yes."

Bennett's testimony contained no major revelations — and was somewhat upstaged Tuesday afternoon by a Sonics' attorney's ferocious assault on the credibility of an expert witness called by the city.

Andrew Zimbalist, a renowned sports economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, testified that the Sonics create intangible benefits for Seattle — such as civic pride — that are impossible to quantify and could not be replaced by a cash payment to the city.

That's a crucial element of Seattle's argument that the team should be forced to play out the final two seasons of the KeyArena lease instead of paying cash to leave.

But Sonics' attorney Paul Taylor effectively put Zimbalist on his heels, alleging during a relentless cross-examination that Zimbalist had lifted whole sections of his expert report for the city from a 2005 report he'd done for the city of Anaheim, Calif.

Taylor forced a visibly embarrassed Zimbalist to read portions of the Seattle and Anaheim reports side by side.

"If you find the change, tell us," Taylor said.

"I don't see any changes, looking at it quickly," Zimbalist responded.

Taylor: "Well, don't rush. If you think there is a change, we're entitled to know about it."

Zimbalist: "I don't see any changes."

Zimbalist said those sections were drawn from standard language he uses in lectures and expert reports. He said he put more than 20 hours of work into his report for Seattle and stood by its conclusions.

Taylor mocked Zimbalist's conclusions, noting that in Anaheim, he'd assigned a cash value of $7.5 million to intangible benefits of the Angels baseball team, while saying in Seattle the cash value of the Sonics' intangible benefits could not be calculated. Taylor also cited a case in Kentucky in which Zimbalist's testimony was rejected by a judge who derided him as a "hired gun."

Taylor also baited the flustered Zimbalist into suggesting that attendance at a church could not create the same sort of intangible benefits he was talking about because "you pay for it" as a "consumer good."

"My church is free, Mr. Zimbalist," Taylor retorted.

The late-afternoon barrage gave Seattle's attorneys almost no time to respond before court adjourned for the day.

Greg Narver, one of the city's attorneys, frantically tried to repair the damage as time ran out — noting that the Sonics had tried to hire Zimbalist as their own witness.

Narver approached Zimbalist after the hearing: "I did what I could in one minute. I'm sorry," he said.

Zimbalist was scheduled to get on a plane Tuesday evening and is not expected back in court.

Bennett's testimony occupied most of the day and will resume this morning. He remained mostly calm during his interrogation by Lawrence, who hammered at the now-famous e-mails exchanged last year among Bennett and co-owners Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward.

On April 17, 2007, Ward e-mailed Bennett: "Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?"

Bennett replied he was a "man possessed" and would "do everything we can."

Ward responded: "That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year."

McClendon agreed: "Me too, thanks Clay!"

On the witness stand, Bennett repeated his earlier contention that despite his partners' clear references to Oklahoma City, his own response was about Seattle.

Lawrence then walked Bennett through other evidence in the case, which showed that almost immediately after that e-mail exchange, he called NBA executive Joel Litvin to talk about moving the Sonics to Oklahoma for the 2007-08 season.

"So the man possessed to stay in Seattle, first thing he does is call the NBA and says, 'How can we move to Oklahoma City next season?' " Lawrence said.

After that, Bennett contacted Oklahoma City officials to reserve dates at the Ford Center arena for the team. He also met with Brad Keller, the Seattle attorney heading Bennett's defense team in the KeyArena lease trial.

Bennett agreed with Lawrence that he never contacted Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels about the possibility of renegotiating the KeyArena lease or working on a renovation.

"We had no interest in KeyArena," Bennett said, noting he'd tried to make that clear from the start. "I don't think he [Nickels] called me either."

Instead, Bennett concentrated on a $500 million arena in Renton — a proposal rejected by state lawmakers who balked at the price and the fact that Bennett was vague about how much cash team owners would contribute up front.

Lawrence kept on Bennett about the Renton arena efforts, citing a January 2007 e-mail. In that e-mail, Jim Kneeland, Bennett's chief local political adviser, said he'd met with Gov. Christine Gregoire, who warned that his proposal faced an uphill battle.

Without a substantial up-front contribution from Bennett and his partners, the plan "would never survive the Legislature and would be ridiculed in the media," Kneeland wrote, summarizing the governor's concerns.

Bennett insisted he and his partners did offer to cover $100 million of the cost — but mostly from advertising and other cash generated by the arena, rather than the up-front cash offered by the owners of the Mariners and Seahawks when they pushed stadium plans.

Lawrence cited e-mails from Bennett in which he characterized the Sonics' owners contribution to the arena as "negligible" and "nominal."

During friendlier questioning by his attorney, Keller, Bennett detailed the efforts — including hiring several prominent consultants and advisers — he undertook to try to get the Renton arena approved.

Despite the failure of the previous local owners to get a KeyArena renovation, Bennett said "we thought we could be successful" because "we inherently had that leverage" of a threat to move the team out of Washington state."

Said Bennett, "we wanted to get it done."

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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