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Originally published May 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2008 at 2:16 PM

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Sonics

Lawyers pressured Nickels to say Seattle won't miss the Sonics

Lawyers for Sonics owners tried to get Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels during a deposition last month to admit that the team's departure would...

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Lawyers for Sonics owners tried to get Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels during a deposition last month to admit that the team's departure would have little impact on the city — and would even have the benefit of improving traffic around KeyArena.

In a further sign of an apparent legal strategy of downplaying the Sonics' importance, the team's lead local attorney, Brad Keller, repeatedly asked Nickels whether the NBA's departure would harm the city.

"Can you identify any specific company that was considering locating here that told you that an important consideration to them was that Seattle had an NBA franchise?" Keller asked during a typical exchange.

Nickels answered no, though he also insisted that professional sports are a part of what makes "a great city."

That exchange, and dozens of similar ones, came during Nickels' four-hour deposition by Sonics attorneys fighting Seattle's federal lawsuit that seeks to keep the team at KeyArena through September 2010, the end of current lease.

A copy of the April 2 deposition was made available for review Wednesday by Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr's office, in response to a public-disclosure request.

While professional sports teams generally like to pump up their importance to the community — especially when demanding taxpayer-funded arenas — part of the Sonics owners' strategy in the lease lawsuit has been to prove that Seattle no longer cares for the team and won't miss it.

The team's attorneys have argued in legal filings that the Sonics' departure would cause "no net economic loss" for the city because people would simply shift entertainment spending to "the city's many other sports and entertainment options."

The team wants to pay a cash settlement of the KeyArena lease in exchange for leaving to play in Oklahoma City next year. The case is scheduled to go to trial June 16.

Nickels was repeatedly asked during his deposition to admit the Sonics' departure would have no effect on Seattle's major assets, from big employers like Boeing, to attractions such as the Pike Place Market or views of Mount Rainier. At one point, Keller got Nickels to admit the team's exit would be a boon in one sense — reducing the game-day traffic that contributes to the so-called "Mercer Mess" on the streets around KeyArena.

"If the Sonics didn't play the last two years under their lease you would have at least 41 days of amelioration of the Mercer mess, wouldn't you?" Keller asked.

Nickels answered: "Well, we would have 41 evenings that would be less congested on the Mercer Street, yes."

Keller also asked Nickels about San Diego, which has seen the departure of two NBA teams: the Rockets to Houston and the Clippers to Los Angeles.

Nickels was asked whether he considered San Diego, without an NBA team, a "world-class city."

"I consider it a fine city," Nickels said. "Second to Seattle or third, maybe fourth best on the West Coast."

During the wide-ranging deposition, Keller also asked Nickels whether he'd delayed pushing for a KeyArena expansion for the Sonics until after his 2005 re-election campaign — an accusation the mayor strongly denied.

In another testy exchange, Keller pressed Nickels on whether the city's lease lawsuit was part of a scheme to force principal Sonics owner Clay Bennett and his Oklahoma City partners to sell to a local group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Nickels responded that "the longer the team is here, the better the chances are that we will find a long-term solution, one of those parts being local ownership."

Keller accused Nickels of not answering his question, and rephrased his question several times but eventually moved on to other topics.

The Sonics' lousy play on the basketball court this year — the team wound up with the worst record in franchise history — also was raised during the deposition.

After Nickels talked about the great pride he and others felt after the Sonics' 1979 NBA championship, Keller asked whether the mayor felt "great pride and exuberance" in the team's most-recent season.

Nickels: "Pride and exuberance are not the emotions that come to mind."

Keller: "Fair enough, sir."

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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