NEW YORK — In a posh Manhattan hotel boardroom surrounded by former colleagues, a few friends and a once-cynical commissioner, Clay Bennett received a rousing ovation from NBA owners who unanimously approved his bid to purchase the Sonics and Storm and welcomed him back into their basketball fraternity.
"Clay was greeted by a round of applause, which is an unusual endorsement in a professional sports league," said commissioner David Stern.
Bennett declined to address arena issues and personnel matters until the $350 million sale becomes final on Oct. 31, when all funds have been transferred between his Professional Basketball Club [PBC] and The Basketball Club of Seattle.
After hearing the vote of overwhelming support from his peers, Bennett sent a text message to his wife Louise and business partners that read: "It's ours."
This isn't his first major purchase. He has bought and sold nearly $1 billion in real estate and built a fortune as an investment capitalist in Oklahoma City.
Even still, acquiring the basketball teams made him pause.
"It's just such a unique business in that there's so many facets," Bennett said. "It's the athletic experience, it's business, it's sales and marketing. It's running a company and relating with a community. All of that on a national platform, and at the end of the day, the NBA is really a global business.
"To be honest, I was concerned about all of the owners having an understanding of our objectives and just accepting us. Clearly the circumstances are unique."
The Times has learned that the PBC assumed $81 million in debt from the former ownership group and will settle the remainder of the $350 million balance with a cash payment of $250 million and $19 million borrowed from the NBA.
According to league documents, the PBC is an Oklahoma City-based consortium that consists of four primary owners, four minority owners and a total of 12 investors.
Bennett, the PBC chairman and controlling owner, joins Aubrey McClendon, Tom Ward and Jeffrey Records, who represents the family-controlled Huntington group, as the four with largest ownership stakes. Each paid $50 million for a 20 percent share. Records' investment is $27.1 million and the families of his sisters Kathryn Ryan and Martha Records each paid $11.45 million.
The minority ownership, which was added 10 days ago, includes William Cameron and Lynda Cameron, who paid $20 million for an 8 percent share. Everett Dobson and Bob Howard invested $10 million each (4 percent), as did husband/wife Domer ("Jay") and Janis Scaramucci.
Not only is Bennett the face of the ownership group, he also has executive decision-making power for basketball and non-basketball issues and serves as chairman for an initial five-year term.
He declined to speak specifically about the ownership structure except to say, "We're just all partners."
According to an NBA source, the league had deep concerns about the financial stability of the new ownership group when Edward Evans, a controlling member with a 20 percent stake, withdrew from it.
Evans had been the lead negotiator in the deal and sat on a podium next to Bennett, former Sonics chairman Howard Schultz and president Wally Walker when the agreement was announced July 18.
Efforts to reach Evans were unsuccessful.
"He advised me that he had another business opportunity that he wanted to pursue," Bennett said. "His contribution to the process was very important and he remains a friend to the group. The deal, as any deal does, evolved in a degree in terms of roles and at the end of the day, this is where we all agreed to be. It's all very positive."
Having been approved by NBA owners, Bennett is seeking approval from Sonics fans and state lawmakers, many of who believe he'll make good on threats to move the team to Oklahoma City unless he finds a suitable replacement for KeyArena.
"I have sort of a sense of optimism," Stern said. "Although Clay and his ownership are based in Oklahoma City, almost from the first day that Clay started looking at Seattle as an investment and as a purchase, he stressed to me the vibrancy of the Seattle market and the revenue streams that could be available there and its jumping-off status to Asia.
"I went from skeptic in a way to getting on line and saying, 'OK, I understand what you see here.' But of course, the larger investment that they're making is going to be dependent on a new building."
If Bennett moves the Sonics, he'll pay a relocation fee, and Stern said Seattle shouldn't expect another franchise unless the city builds an arena.
Bennett chose to remain silent on the arena discussion other than to say that he's committed to the area. He promised to unveil his arena plans within 30 days, but said, "We're more focused on it being done right than setting a date and putting something out there."
He declined to discuss possible negotiations with forward Rashard Lewis, eligible for a two-year, $25 million extension, guard Luke Ridnour, coach Bob Hill and Walker.
Bennett acknowledged that contract talks with Ridnour are at the top of his list because the Sonics must sign him to an extension by Oct. 31 or he becomes a restricted free agent in the offseason.
"We're working with the league and trying to accommodate a decision-making process which would allow us to respond and be involved in that decision," Bennett said.
Even though Bennett, 46, and Stern share a 20-plus year friendship, the new Sonics owner doesn't expect any preferential treatment.
"Clay did call me to say he was about to purchase the Sonics and I said smarter people have done dumber things," Stern joked. "I think that was my quote. I said, 'OK, you're on your own here.' But I couldn't have been happier. I said that's great. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I reached out to two people in Oklahoma City. One was the mayor, the other one was Clay."
Bennett's wife's family, the Gaylords, owned a minority stake in the San Antonio Spurs, and Bennett served on the Board of Governors from 1992-97 as a representative of the Spurs.
During that time, Bennett nurtured friendships with Sacramento owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, Phoenix CEO Jerry Colangelo and Peter Holt, who purchased the Gaylord family's interest in the Spurs.
"Being in that room, surrounded by all of them, it's energizing," Bennett said. "All are very successful, diverse in their fields of work and in their personal experiences, certainly geographically, and with varied levels of experience in the league.
"Some have been in it a long, long time, and some are new. It was an energizing platform, and I feel a part of a sense of wanting to rise to the occasion and wanting to be a contributing member to that. Certainly I'm going to be thoughtful and slow in how I emerge into that group."
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com