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Originally published April 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 27, 2007 at 12:02 PM

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Sonics

Owner floats idea of Las Vegas Sonics

Forget Oklahoma. How about the Las Vegas Sonics? Sonics owner Clay Bennett told a group of Seattle business and civic leaders this week...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Forget Oklahoma. How about the Las Vegas Sonics?

Sonics owner Clay Bennett told a group of Seattle business and civic leaders this week that Las Vegas, rather than his hometown of Oklahoma City, would be a likely destination if the team winds up leaving Washington state.

Bennett made the comments at a Wednesday board meeting of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Sonics spokesman Jim Kneeland confirmed Bennett's comments Thursday, and said that while no firm plans are in place, the team is "looking really hard right now" at Las Vegas in the wake of the Legislature's rejection of public funding for a proposed $500 million Renton arena.

"He [Bennett] said, 'I'd still like to get a deal done here, but we're at a point where we have to start looking at other options,' " Kneeland said.

It's not clear whether the NBA will allow a team in the nation's gambling capital.

Bennett's latest statements appear to contradict the widespread public perception that his plan all along has been to move the Sonics and Storm to Oklahoma City.

As a business proposition, Bennett has repeatedly said he'd rather keep the teams in the Seattle area, which is a much larger and wealthier market.

If money, rather than hometown pride, is the deciding factor, Las Vegas' glitzy casinos and millions of tourists could trump Oklahoma City as Plan B.

"What I heard him say was that if he ended up having to move the team, Vegas would likely be a more attractive market than Oklahoma City," said Steve Leahy, chief executive of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who attended the convention bureau meeting.

Seattle City Councilwoman Jan Drago, who was also there, said "it was about money — they can't make a return on their investment in Oklahoma ... he really expected to end up in Vegas."

Regardless of Bennett's wishes, plenty of obstacles could block a Las Vegas move.

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Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and other city leaders have been pushing for an NBA franchise, but the NBA has been cautious about associating the sport closely with gambling. Last week, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced he'd appoint a committee of team owners to study the issue.

The NBA's All-Star Game was held in Las Vegas for the first time this year. But for an NBA franchise to relocate full-time to the city, a new arena might be needed to replace the Thomas and Mack Center, which was built in 1983.

Other cities might also compete for the Sonics. Kansas City, for example, recently built a new arena in an effort to lure an NBA team.

The Sonics and Storm have a lease at Seattle's KeyArena until 2010, but Bennett recently has suggested he may try to negotiate a way out of that deal after next season. He has set an Oct. 31 deadline for getting an arena deal in Washington state.

Bennett told the convention board he'll remain open to new ideas, but indicated he's been frustrated by the lack of local political support. He also ruled out plans by previous owners to simply expand KeyArena.

"I think he feels they made their best-faith effort," Kneeland said. "If anything is going to be done now, the community is going to have to come up with something, not him."

Don Welsh, president of the convention bureau, called Wednesday's meeting with Bennett a "healthy exchange" and said business leaders hold out hope for a deal that could keep the Sonics and Storm here.

"I hope we as a community exhaust every political and private opportunity to keep them in the region as long as it makes viable economic sense," Welsh said.

But there has been no sign that political leaders will step in to save the Sonics and Storm with a taxpayer-funded arena. Gov. Christine Gregoire has said she will not call the Legislature into special session on the issue.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, speaking this week to The Seattle Times editorial board, remained unsympathetic.

"They already have a place to play. It's nice. There are no potholes in the court there. Every player has health care. They all had the opportunity to go to college. Let's get real here. If they want to do it, we're not stopping them. They can pay for it themselves," said Chopp, D-Seattle.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report. Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

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