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Originally published Monday, April 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Last game of season in KeyArena is a win for Sonics

It was a game framed by chants. With 30 seconds remaining in the opening quarter, the 16,272 fans who had gathered for what could be the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sonics time line

Dec. 20, 1966: The NBA awards Seattle its franchise.

February 2006: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who bought the team in 2001 and called it a "public trust," threatens to move the Sonics if taxpayers don't provide $200 million to expand KeyArena.

July 2006: Schultz sells the Sonics to an Oklahoma City investment group led by Clay Bennett for $350 million.

April 16, 2007: Bennett offers $100 million toward a new $500 million arena in Renton. But state legislators reject the deal. September 2007: The City of Seattle files a lawsuit in King County Superior Court in an attempt to force the Sonics to continue playing at KeyArena through 2010.

Aug. 13, 2007: Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon tells an Oklahoma City publication, "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle." McClendon is later fined $250,000 for his comments.

Mar. 4, 2008: Oklahoma City residents approve a sales tax to raise $120 million in Ford Center improvements and construction of an off-site practice facility.

April 18, 2008: The NBA Board of Governors will vote on Bennett's request to move the team.

June 16, 2008: Trial regarding the Sonics' KeyArena lease agreement is to begin.

The Associated Press

It was a game framed by chants.

With 30 seconds remaining in the opening quarter, the 16,272 fans who had gathered for what could be the final Sonics game in Seattle began to express their emotion regarding the possible move to Oklahoma City.

"Clay Bennett sucks!" they roared in unison as guard Earl Watson attempted free throws.

The atmosphere gave Watson's heart an extra thump.

By the time fans finished the game with an extended "Save our Sonics" cheer, the team had collected a 99-95 win over Dallas and enough memories to keep them warm.

"The crowd was amazing," said Watson, who orchestrated the win with 21 points and 10 assists. "That's the crowd I remember when I was here my rookie year."

Back then, in 2001, the Sonics were supposed to be returning to their roots under then-owner Howard Schultz, the Starbucks chief executive who dearly loved basketball. Schultz changed the logo and colors back to true green and gold and unveiled a return to the 1967-68 Sonics logo with the blazing S.

Watson was ecstatic to be drafted by the team.

Watson remembered when he first watched his idol Gary Payton play. Watson was in the Key's upper bowl seats with his UCLA team to watch the Sonics play Vancouver. It was Watson's first NBA game; his hometown Kansas City Kings had left before he had a chance to catch a live matchup.

"I could hear Gary Payton all the way up there talking so much trash — and I look up to Gary Payton," Watson said, laughing at the memory. "I was like a kid at Disneyland."

Watson returned via trade in February 2006 to experience a different Schultz and Sonics organization. Frustrated by not being able to secure funding for renovations to KeyArena, Schultz and his group sold the team to out-of-town investors. The $350 million price tag Bennett and his group paid ended up being about a $69 million profit for Schultz and Co.

Schultz sold the team on the promise that it would remain in Seattle. Yet e-mails have revealed that Bennett's ownership did not intend to keep the team here. Since the July 2006 sale, the players and basketball community have ridden an emotional roller-coaster that culminated in what could have been the last Sonics home game in KeyArena.

"There's definitely a different feel because of the potential," Watson said. "Only way we can show our appreciation to the fans is by playing hard and going out and giving them something to cheer. They've been great all year, even with everything that's going on outside of basketball. That's been amazing.

"But what makes it a unique situation is that it is something that neither the fan or the player can control."

The fans chanted several times throughout the game, sprinkling in a standing ovation for Payton when he entered the building in the second quarter.

There probably would have been more chanting, but fans chose to savor the game instead. The Sonics' fourth-quarter push tied the game at 88 with 6:57 remaining.

KeyArena erupted when rookie Kevin Durant hit a 16-foot jumper to give the Sonics a 96-95 lead and the cheers reached a fever pitch when Durant made a driving layin with 14.3 remaining.

"It brought me back," said Sonic Luke Ridnour, a native Washingtonian.

The Sonics have one game left in the season, on Wednesday at Golden State. And players and fans wait to see what will happen to the team.

The wait has forced Seattleite Jason Terry, who graduated from Franklin High, to send Dallas owner Mark Cuban on a mission for him — to bring Terry a KeyArena memento.

"We'll see what he comes up with," Terry said. "As a fan growing up and still being deeply rooted in the community, it's disheartening to hear all of those things [about the possible relocation]. To realize it may be a reality is going to be tough."

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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