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Originally published April 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 17, 2008 at 3:49 PM

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The Five Stages of Grief | Denial: Is this end of our Sonics?

It's hard to believe that after seven years of arguments, promises and increasingly bitter rhetoric, the Sonics may play their final game in Seattle on Sunday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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After 41 years and all that has been shared between a city that embraced the Sonics as lovingly as a first child, can this really be the end for Seattle's oldest major professional sports franchise? So much about this week is cast in a shadow of ambiguity.

When the Sonics walk off the KeyArena floor after Sunday's game against Dallas, will it truly be the final home game for the franchise?

In many ways, this goodbye doesn't feel like it will be permanent. Fans are in denial because of the unknown variables and possible outcomes in what has been a seven-year saga over arena improvements, public responsibility and corporate welfare.

"We could walk out that door [Sunday] and never come back again," guard Earl Watson said. "That's how ridiculous all of this is."

Or we could very well be at this point next year or in 2010, saying our farewells all over again.

Emotions are mixed as the countdown begins.

There's a bitter sadness for fans not just in the Puget Sound region, but across the globe who watched the 1967-68 expansion team grow up and win an NBA championship in 1979 and nearly do so again in '96.

There's a rush of excitement over the budding talents of rookies Kevin Durant and Jeff Green.

And there's the nervous anticipation because a trial scheduled to start June 16 might finally bring some resolution.

"It's like a conscious decision whether I listen to that tiny voice in your head that says, 'OK, they're gone,' or do you listen to your heart, which hopes for a miracle," said longtime Sonics fan Chris "Yuggi" Jones. "I'm listening to my heart."

The late Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross might suggest that many fans are suffering from denial, which is the first of five psychological stages in coping with a traumatic loss.

In her landmark 1969 book, "On Death and Dying," she writes: "After the initial shock has worn off, the next stage is usually one of classic denial, where they pretend that the news has not been given. They effectively close their eyes to any evidence and pretend that nothing has happened."

Maybe we've been in denial from the very beginning, when coffee mogul Howard Schultz led a group of 57 local investors who bought the team in 2001.

He was a savior back then. He said he purchased the team for $200 million from Barry Ackerley because he didn't want it to fall into the hands of out-of-town owners. He called the Sonics a "public trust" that he shared with the community. He guaranteed a return to prominence on the court.

"One of the things I learned in this game is that results are measured in the short term. I said publicly that to rebuild the team it was going to take a five-year plan. I think five years for most fans, especially sportswriters, is an anathema." — Howard Schultz, Oct. 12, 2003.

Promises were made and promises broken. The Sonics never reached the dizzying heights of the Lenny Wilkens-led teams of the late 1970s or George Karl's teams in the '90s that compiled six straight seasons of at least 55 wins. Under Schultz, the Sonics managed only one playoff series victory and hemorrhaged money.

Schultz became bitter and disenchanted with a losing battle against city officials and state lawmakers for KeyArena improvements. The rhetoric had gotten nasty, and arguments over public subsidies for sports franchises became personal.

"On an economic basis, near zero. On a cultural basis, close to zero. We would still have two sports, and plenty of cities our size don't have three." — Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, Sports Illustrated, February 2006, when asked about the significance of the Sonics' moving.

Looking back, it's clear that Schultz had made up his mind to sell the team early in 2006. Before a Feb. 1 game against Golden State, he called a hurriedly assembled news conference and berated Licata. He also issued his first build-us-a-new-arena-or-I'm-selling threat, but Schultz knew he didn't have the support in Olympia or in Seattle for a taxpayer-financed, $200 million KeyArena expansion.

He talked about an April 5 meeting with team owners. Meanwhile, team president Wally Walker was reportedly having clandestine meetings in San Jose, Calif., with city leaders about a possible move.

"We have no alternative. This is not a philanthropic venture. We're not trying to make money, we just want to stop losing [money]." — Howard Schultz, Feb. 5, 2006

No one seemed to take Schultz seriously. Perhaps, we'd heard it too many times before from Seahawks owner Ken Behring and Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan. They also threatened to leave before their teams eventually received millions in public assistance to build luxurious downtown stadiums.

After two failed attempts in Olympia, Schultz abruptly sold the Sonics and Storm to Oklahoma City investors. At the time of the sale, Schultz's group was $81 million in debt. The $350 million sale gave them a $69 million profit on their original investment.

Enter Clay Bennett, the self-proclaimed "proud Okie," and cue the scary soundtrack.

The Sonics tried to dress up the July 2006 news conference inside the Furtado Center. They tied green and yellow balloons to basketball shoes and decorated the stage, where Schultz sat next to Bennett with the '79 NBA championship trophy and the Storm's 2004 WNBA championship trophy.

Schultz said, "This is a good day for the Sonics," but every time Bennett spoke, he turned supporters into skeptics.

"We're committing to 12 months to receive assurances in the form of a formal agreement, a binding agreement relative to a successor facility or [renovations] to the current facility that meets current and future NBA standards. And an accompanying lease that would allow the team to have a vibrant financial future. We think that working within a deadline helps everyone understand where we are." — Clay Bennett, July 18, 2006.

Seven months into the 12-month reprieve, the Sonics were shot down for a third time in Olympia. Bennett's $500 million arena plan for Renton gained little traction with state lawmakers, and he began dismantling the team.

Wilkens was released as chairman. Assistant coaches Jack Sikma and Detlef Schrempf, Sonics legends and vocal proponents of the team staying in Seattle, were not retained. And the Sonics traded away their best players, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, for draft picks and role players.

The strategy seemed like a recipe for disaster, but maybe that was the intent all along.

"We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle. ... We know it's a little more difficult financially here in Oklahoma City, but we think it's great for the community and if we could break even we'd be thrilled."

— Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon, The (Oklahoma City) Journal Record, Aug. 13, 2007.

NBA commissioner David Stern and a relocation committee have given Bennett their blessing, and the league's 29 owners are expected to overwhelmingly approve his relocation application at next week's Board of Governors meeting in New York.

The only thing preventing Seattle's professional basketball team from loading up the trucks and moving to the Sooner state is a lawsuit that's expected to be settled in late June.

In the meantime, we are left with a handful of games in an utterly disappointing season in which the Sonics have fallen to historic lows. In the previous 41 years, the offseason provided solace and sprouted seeds of optimism.

This time, however, the decisions to select a point guard in the draft or sign a center in free agency are secondary to the prevailing question on the minds of Sonics fans everywhere: Will the team play in Seattle next season and beyond?

"I don't know," deputy mayor Tim Ceis said. "No one knows for certain."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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