The deal: What was the city thinking?
Seattle city leaders defend their deal with the Sonics owners, insisting it gives Seattle a better long-term chance at landing a new NBA team.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It was never supposed to be about the money.
Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr left no doubt about that in September when he announced a lawsuit to hold the Sonics to the final two years of the team's KeyArena lease.
Sonics owner Clay Bennett, Carr vowed, would not be allowed to buy out the lease and move the team to Oklahoma City.
"Too often, pro sports teams have run over local governments and gotten their way with them. Today we are standing up and saying 'no,' " Carr said. "We have an agreement. We are going to enforce that agreement."
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was equally resolute on the witness stand when the case went to trial three weeks ago: "The longer the team is here, the better the chances are we can put a deal to keep them here for the long term."
Yet last week, Nickels and Carr stood together at City Hall to announce the settlement allowing the Sonics to skip town in exchange for $45 million (plus perhaps $30 million more in five years) — with no promise the city will ever get a replacement team.
The deal, which came together hours before a federal judge was to rule in the lease case, infuriated many Sonics fans, who accused city politicians of selling out.
"Mayor McCheese gave away our history, gave away 41 years of Sonic basketball for a vague promise from David Stern," KJR radio sports-talk host Dave Grosby said in a video rant on the station's Web site. "They betrayed everyone who is a sports fan in this city today."
City leaders deny that they caved. They said they were confident they'd win in court.
But in the end, they say, they came to believe what the NBA and Bennett had been saying for months: Even if the city won the case, the Sonics would leave in two years, and bad blood with the NBA would prevent Seattle from getting another team.
Carr said he's as upset as Sonics fans at the team's departure. "I get a horrible pit in my stomach thinking about it."
But pinning the loss of the team on the city's settlement deal is unfair, Carr said. "The Sonics weren't lost yesterday. They were lost over a period of years."
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, frustrated by his inability to get a taxpayer-funded KeyArena expansion, in 2006 sold the team to Bennett and his partners, who had long desired an NBA team for Oklahoma City. By the time the Sonics lease trial began, the NBA had blessed the team's relocation.
"We were faced with some really bad choices," Carr said.
One option was to "win" and keep the Sonics as a lame-duck franchise for two more dismal seasons at KeyArena, Carr said. After that, Bennett would take the team to Oklahoma City and Seattle would get nothing. Bennett even threatened to take the team's colors and history with him.
"Yes, this is a pragmatist approach to the situation," said Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis. "We had to strip back the emotion and try to look at what was the best path."
Settlement talks began quietly about three weeks ago, just before the trial's start. Negotiations were mostly by phone and e-mail, though Carr said he met once with Martin Stringer, an Oklahoma City attorney for Bennett, at the Seattle federal courthouse where the trial was taking place.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer played a pivotal role in the talks, Ceis said, by calling NBA Commissioner Stern to assure him that a Ballmer-led group of local investors was committed to acquiring another team to play at KeyArena — provided state and local politicians approved a $300 million upgrade.
The city tried to hold out for a guarantee from the NBA that Seattle could receive an expansion team or another franchise.
"We wanted one. We didn't get one," Carr said.
Meanwhile, as the trial got under way, the city's case didn't come off smoothly.
On the first day, Nickels appeared evasive and rambling under cross-examination by Sonics lead attorney Brad Keller. On Day 2, the city's hired economist, Andrew Zimbalist, was skewered over an economic-impact report he'd written.
As the trial progressed, Bennett's attorneys generally appeared poised and smooth, while the city's at times came across as less organized.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman pointedly questioned the city's contention that the loss of the Sonics could not be measured in dollars.
The Sonics lawyers even sought to portray Bennett as a victim of Seattle civic leaders who hoped to lock him into KeyArena for two more seasons to financially "bleed" him into selling to Ballmer's group.
On the trial's final day, Sonics attorneys revealed that former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, while working for the city as an attorney, violated a confidentiality agreement by e-mailing Ballmer about a secret meeting between city and NBA officials in October.
"I can tell you we thought we had put forth an extremely strong case that would have warranted the PBC [Bennett's ownership group] prevailing," said Keller, who called his cross-examination of Nickels a "highlight" of his trial career.
Carr cautioned against reading too much into the courtroom performances or Pechman's reaction to them.
He said he was confident of victory because the city's main argument was solidly established — that Bennett had agreed to honor the KeyArena lease, which contained no provision for early termination.
But as Pechman's ruling drew closer, both sides had an incentive to make a deal.
"No matter how many times I was sure I was gonna win a case, there have been a few where we lost," Carr said. "Rolling the dice is a very dangerous thing to do."
On that point, Keller agreed: "... The advantage of the settlement [for the Sonics] is finality and the ability to move forward with its relocation to Oklahoma City."
In return, the city agreed to accept $45 million. That's substantially more than the $26.5 million Bennett offered in February, and will cover the city's estimated $30 million debt remaining on KeyArena's 1995 renovation.
Bennett will owe $30 million more in five years if the NBA does not approve a new team for Seattle. But Bennett will not have to pay that money if the Legislature fails to authorize at least $75 million for a renovated KeyArena by the end of 2009. Carr said that should be an incentive for lawmakers to finally get an arena deal done.
As part of the settlement, the NBA issued a statement agreeing that a remodeled KeyArena could be a suitable venue for the league — something Bennett had always rejected. Stern said Seattle remains "a first-class NBA city that is capable of serving as home for another NBA team."
In the end, that statement — which made no promises — was the closest Seattle got to a guarantee of a new team.
Ceis said it was better to make peace with the NBA than to pursue the lawsuit to the bitter end — even if Seattle won the case.
"Having the ruling, while it would be a great victory for the fans to say we forced them to stay with the lease, that wouldn't leave us with a clear future for basketball," Ceis said.
It may take years to learn whether the settlement improves the chances of the NBA returning to Seattle.
"While everybody feels kicked in the face over losing this team now, I don't think people feel worse about our longer-term options," said Brian Robinson, co-founder of the fan group Save Our Sonics. "I think that their reasoning for taking this deal was legitimate. I don't think they just took the money and ran, but we'll have to see Mayor Nickels prove that."
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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