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Originally published February 17, 2012 at 8:01 AM | Page modified February 17, 2012 at 8:02 AM

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NBA owners approve Sonics' move, but legal fight continues in Seattle

The Sonics are leaving Seattle. The only question remaining is when: this year or 2010? NBA owners gave Sonics Chairman Clay Bennett their...

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NEW YORK — The Sonics are leaving Seattle.

The only question remaining is when: this year or 2010?

NBA owners gave Sonics Chairman Clay Bennett their overwhelming approval in a 28-2 vote at Friday's Board of Governors meeting, with Portland owner Paul Allen joining Dallas' Mark Cuban as the only dissenters.

Seattle's team will move to Oklahoma City for the start of the next season, pending the resolution of a federal lawsuit by the city of Seattle that aims to keep the Sonics here at least until their KeyArena lease expires in 2010.

"I'm thrilled for Oklahoma City much more than I am for me," said Bennett, whose Oklahoma City-based ownership group must pay a $30 million relocation fee. "I'm thrilled for the people of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma and Tulsa and the leadership of our cities and state that ... did basically everything they could do."

The news elicited cheers from Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, who said: "The vote further confirms that Oklahoma is in the big leagues and can compete with anyone," and jeers from Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who pledged to continue a fight to keep the Sonics.

"I want to be very clear that the vote by the NBA Board of Governors does not change our efforts to keep the Sonics home here at KeyArena," Nickels said. "The city will be in court in June to hold the current owners to the agreement that they made."

Nickels said he hopes to keep the team in Seattle long enough to re-engage a group of potential local buyers led by Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer and resurrect a $300 million KeyArena renovation plan that fell apart last week.

But NBA Commissioner David Stern made it clear it's too late to keep the Sonics in Seattle.

"Whatever happens with Key, now or in the future, is not going to happen with respect to the team that is currently located there," Stern said. "That team has now been approved by the Board of Governors to move to Oklahoma City."

The commissioner said the Sonics will lose $30 million each season they remain in Seattle and encouraged Seattle city leaders and the team to reach a financial settlement before the start of the trial, set for June 16.

"Right now, there's no speedy resolution on the horizon," Stern said. "There's a contested trial, a pretty hot atmosphere."

The city declined a $26.5 million buyout offer from Bennett in February, and the acrimony between the sides has escalated since.

Asked what else he might offer the city, Bennett said he wants a reasonable settlement.

"Step one is I am hopeful we can re-establish communication and some sort of platform to have a meaningful, principled conversation," Bennett said. "We are certainly nowhere near that today."

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer said local officials should accept that the team is destined to leave. He said officials should stop demonizing Bennett and focus on negotiating a deal with the NBA to keep the Sonics name and get a franchise in the future.

"If our goal is to have an NBA franchise here, we've got to get the various groups together and create a common agenda and focus," said von Reichbauer. "Right now there are so many people willing to throw hand grenades into the room, that we're losing."

Stern intimated that a contentious legal battle between the city and Bennett — as well as a "scorched-earth policy" from former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who is the lead litigator in the city's case — might adversely affect Seattle's chances of getting another NBA team in the near future.

"I think that Sen. Gorton and the mayor are determined to exact whatever pound of flesh is possible here, and they will, and then the team will leave at the end of whatever period of time the court says it is required to stay for, and that will be it, period," Stern said.

Nickels countered: "By keeping the team here for the next two years, it opens doors. We know that. Maybe Seattle knows that better than any other city in America. We had the Pilots, we had challenges with the Mariners. We had challenges with the Seahawks. We know that the longer that team is here, the better our chances of having a long-term future with the team in our city."

Whether the franchise would leave Seattle with the Sonics' nickname, logo and team colors is also yet to be decided, but Bennett made it clear he did not covet them.

"Certainly, I think at the end of the day, I believe the name should probably stay," Bennett said. "But it needs to be part of a broader discussion.

"I ... like the notion of creating our new Oklahoma name or new Oklahoma City name in colors and marks. I think that's a really exciting opportunity."

Bennett began the day with seven votes from the owners' relocation committee, and ended it with 21 more from the rest of the ownership group. Cuban and Allen were the only two to say no. A Trail Blazers spokesman said team president Larry Miller attended the meeting in place of Allen, but declined to explain why the Blazers cast a dissenting vote, saying, "It's still a league matter."

The committee's recommendation came despite objections from U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Gov. Christine Gregoire, who sent letters to Stern urging him to postpone Friday's vote until the team resolves its legal affairs.

"I'm disappointed that NBA leadership has ignored calls for good-faith efforts to keep the Sonics in Seattle and rewarded the bad-faith behavior of Clay Bennett and his ownership group," Murray said. "Violating the public's trust with empty promises is unacceptable, and the NBA's decision today sets a poor precedent."

The Sonics, who have been here since 1967, will be the first NBA franchise to move since the Hornets left Charlotte for New Orleans at the beginning of the 2002-03 season. Stern said that although owners understand the move is from a larger market to a much smaller one, they "focused on the likelihood of success in Oklahoma City."

Many owners who attended the meetings at the St. Regis Hotel in midtown Manhattan said they were impressed with Bennett's plan.

"Oklahoma City gave a wonderful presentation," said Los Angeles Lakers vice president Jeanie Buss.

According to league sources, Bennett compared the lucrative financial benefits that he'll receive in Oklahoma City with the lack of political support he had in Seattle — and in Olympia — on a $500 million Renton arena proposal.

He downplayed filings from the city attorneys last week that revealed e-mails in which the Sonics owners discussed moving the team during the one-year period following the July 2006 sale and said he was disappointed that former owner Howard Schultz plans to file a lawsuit to rescind the sale.

"I was disappointed because I had a nice relationship with Howard," Bennett said. "I haven't spoken to him about this issue, and I made a commitment to him personally as well that was meaningful to me, and I hail to that commitment."

A spokesman said Schultz had no comment.

"This is a sad day for basketball fans across Washington state," Gregoire said.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com. Times staff reporter Jim Brunner and The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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