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Originally published April 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 17, 2008 at 3:53 PM

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The Five Stages of Grief | Anger: Sonics fans have their say

The handshake was limp, symbolic to some of his promise to Seattle. The voice was even more timid as Howard Schultz gave a faint...

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The handshake was limp, symbolic to some of his promise to Seattle.

The voice was even more timid as Howard Schultz gave a faint smile before sheepishly telling a reporter, "I'm not talking about the Sonics today, thanks."

Not even to share your feelings about their impending move?

"No, no," he responded.

What about the part you played in this?

"No, thanks," he said before disappearing into a crowd of adoring fans.

Coffee fans, that is.

The Starbucks guru helped launch a new brand of bean on Tuesday at the Pike Place Market store. In his element, Schultz was the star, as people posed with him for pictures and asked for autographs on Starbucks trinkets. Aside from two reporters hounding him, he didn't have to think about his brief venture into professional sports.

"It has been two years, we've moved on," a spokeswoman said sternly.

Sonics fans can't. Especially those who have followed the team since the city was awarded an NBA franchise on Dec. 20, 1966 and now are fighting as new owner Clay Bennett corrals moving trucks to relocate the team to his native Oklahoma.

Schultz, frustrated with his inability to draw support for a $200 million KeyArena expansion, sold the franchise to Bennett in July 2006 for $350 million — a $69 million profit over five years. Bennett, also unable to secure a new arena and intent on relocation, filed last fall to move the team.

As the expected approval from the NBA Board of Governors next week inches closer, the city's basketball community is entering a heightened state of the second stage of dealing with a loss — anger.

And blame is being placed everywhere, from Bennett and Schultz to Gov. Christine Gregoire for inaction.

"Everybody is blaming Clay Bennett when they should be blaming Howard Schultz," said Dr. St. Elmo Newton, an orthopedic surgeon who is No. 84 on the Sonics' season-ticket holder list. "Howard sold the team ... when he had local buyers that wouldn't pay as much. He got rid of our good players [Gary Payton] and now the team is leaving here and I'm going to miss them. I get very depressed because they always lose and I think they'll be gone."

Newton rarely misses a game, beginning his Sonics tradition at the Coliseum and owning his current seat just a few rows behind the Sonics bench for the past 23 years.

But newlyweds Matt and Alison Ehrlichman of Bothell can't bring themselves to KeyArena. They draped themselves in Sonics gear for an impromptu rally organized by the grass-roots group Save Our Sonics on March 8 in Olympia. The intent of the rally was to persuade legislators to grant King County permission to divert $75 million of the funds used to build Safeco Field toward a $300 million plan to renovate KeyArena. That plan was backed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

But no movement was made outside intentions to revisit the issue next session and Ballmer pulled his offer to split the cost from the table.

The Ehrlichmans had red cheeks as they spoke in the halls of the Capitol building.

"I refuse to go to games and give that man any of my money from the very beginning," Matt Ehrlichman said of Bennett. "This was supposed to be a future for our kids. But he lied from the very beginning. He had no intentions of keeping the team here."

In August, that truth was confirmed in an Oklahoma City business journal interview with co-owner Aubrey McClendon, who said, "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle."

The NBA fined McLendon $250,000 for his remarks. The comment also fired up the Save Our Sonics movement.

Founders Brian Robinson and Steve Pyeatt formed the group on July 20, 2006, and have more than 7,500 members who have made numerous calls to the governor's office, NBA commissioner David Stern and their local representatives with the same message: Keep the Sonics in Seattle.

While behind-the-scenes dealings were still in the works, Robinson had to admit that anger is seeping in him, too. He has two young children and the approximate 30 hours a week he spends with Pyeatt strategizing about their next move is cutting into family time.

Last weekend, Robinson said he scolded his 7-year-old-son for biting his nails and told him the importance of not having bad habits. The little boy shot back, "Yeah, but you're always on the phone!"

"Anger is a pretty good word," said Robinson, who tells his children that someone has to save the Sonics. "We've been waiting for people to step up and help us and the city has done so, but on [the] state level, they're doing nothing and the intolerance is infuriating. The anger I feel toward my elected officials is going to affect my voting for years.

"Sports fans, we may not be the most educated group and I've never been this political, but through this process we're all becoming more aware of what goes on down there now. A lot of us are going to have single-issue voting based on this out of retaliation and Olympia should be fearful of our anger."

Players got a whiff of the rage on April 4 when the Sonics lost to Houston. Kevin Durant, the likely NBA rookie of the year, and Jeff Green, the No. 5 overall draft pick, were a combined 3 for 25 from the field in the team's 59th loss of the season.

Outside the players parking lot following the game, fans yelled, "You just collecting a paycheck, Durant?"

"Don't talk to my son that way," the mother of the 19-year-old Durant snapped back.

"The fan support has diminished a little bit," said forward Nick Collison. "That's bound to happen when you have a year like we've had. The losing and there's a lot of people turned off by that [the relocation] for sure, it's obvious. It's a tough thing for the fans to go through."

But Robinson warns that no one he knows is giving up hope.

"It isn't over until they play in Oklahoma City," he said.

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published April 10, 2008, was corrected April 16, 2008. A previous version of this story contained an error. This article wrongly attributed a quote to Sonics owner Aubrey McClendon, saying that he didn't favor the Storm's move to Oklahoma City because he didn't want "those kind of women,' meaning lesbians. There is no record of McClendon saying that. The article relied on an anonymous source and failed to confirm the accuracy of the quote.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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