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Originally published April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 17, 2008 at 4:16 PM

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The Five Stages of Grief | Bargaining: Last-ditch efforts to keep Sonics

Now hold on just a minute, Mr. Stern. Do the Sonics really have to leave? Is Seattle that bad? ¶ Sure, KeyArena might look puny now...

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Now hold on just a minute, Mr. Stern. Do the Sonics really have to leave? Is Seattle that bad? Sure, KeyArena might look puny now, but it can grow. The city even hired some NBA-savvy arena experts to prove a proposed $300 million KeyArena expansion would pencil out for the league, no matter what team owner Clay Bennett says. Surely we can work something out.

Welcome to the third stage of grief: bargaining.

Like a terminal patient who belatedly quits smoking and starts eating vegetables, Seattle's politicians and business leaders have been making a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable.

Their efforts have focused on KeyArena, the former Seattle Coliseum that was renovated for more than $100 million 13 years ago.

While the arena's intimate sightlines make it a great place to watch basketball, it lacks the extra goodies the NBA demands these days: snazzy restaurants, wide concourses, parking and other perks aimed at high-end ticket buyers.

Even worse, from a Sonics owner perspective, is the lease that splits the take with the city to pay off the construction debt. That was the deal everyone agreed to in the mid-1990s, and it was supposed to be good through 2010. Instead, the lease — combined with the Sonics' dismal on-court performance — has left the team with the least revenue of any NBA team, according to Forbes magazine's latest annual analysis of NBA team finances.

Former Sonics owner and Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz once called it "probably the worst economic arrangement of any professional sports team in the United States of America."

The city's proposed arena expansion was supposed to fix that. It was first floated back in 2005 and pushed by Schultz's Seattle-based ownership group.

But Schultz's group flubbed its efforts to convince local politicians to pay for the project with taxpayer money. A big part of the problem was that Schultz offered to contribute only $18 million toward the expansion, which was then estimated to cost $220 million.

When Bennett's group bought the team in 2006, he ruled KeyArena out, calling it unacceptable, even with a remodel, though he's never really proved it wouldn't work. He pursued a $500 million Renton arena instead, which legislators predictably rejected.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels dusted off the KeyArena expansion again this year with a new twist: a potential Sonics ownership group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was offering to pay half the cost.

The city paid consultants Stafford Sports and NorthMarq Advisors to produce an analysis showing the KeyArena expansion — along with a new lease that gave the Sonics virtually all the money from the arena — would be "fair and reasonable and contain market-acceptable terms." The consultants added: "It is our opinion that the renovated KeyArena should provide the opportunity for the franchise to remain competitive in the NBA."

The arena expansion would have roughly doubled the size of KeyArena, making it comparable with other NBA facilities, including Oklahoma City's Ford Center.

Seattle Center director Robert Nellams said Sonics representatives have never explained to the city why a larger KeyArena was unacceptable.

"If your belief is that no matter what you do at KeyArena it isn't going to work, you're not interested in numbers," Nellams said.

But hey, all of that talk about KeyArena is moot. After all, our politicians and business leaders haven't been able to get a funding plan together.

There's that little matter of public fury over subsidizing billionaire NBA owners.

Optimists might say Ballmer and Nickels filled the glass three-quarters full on the latest push for a $300 million KeyArena expansion. Ballmer offered to pay $150 million and the city would kick in $75 million.

It's just that Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Legislature want to appoint a task force to study whether to top the glass off with the final $75 million.

A task force. That's just how things are done around here.

So what is Seattle left to bargain with? That KeyArena lease that is supposed to run through September 2010.

While these sort of lease fights are usually resolved with a settlement, Seattle looks determined to make this one nasty and protracted, if the e-mails dredged up in the city's lawsuit are any indication.

And if the city wins? The Sonics could be forced to stay for two more dismal seasons. Then they'd leave anyway, and maybe Seattle could cut a deal for another NBA team.

Still, this lawsuit thing would buy an extra two years.

That just might be just long enough for a task force to recommend something.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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