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Originally published Monday, March 21, 2011 at 5:50 PM

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Former Sonics owner Barry Ackerley dies

Barry Ackerley, who owned the Sonics for 18 years, dies at age 76 of a stroke in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Barry Ackerley came to Seattle and became its baron of billboards.

His SuperSonics wound up hanging banners at what is now KeyArena.

The former Sonics owner died Monday in Southern California after suffering a stroke on Saturday. He was 76.

"We are going to miss the great love and support of our husband, father and grandfather," said Ginger Ackerley, his wife, in a statement from the family. "He was larger than life and was a man of great integrity, humor and generosity. Above all else, he always put family first."

Mr. Ackerley entered Seattle's business community in 1975 with a background in sales and a specialty in outdoor advertising. The Ackerley Group became a national company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

He bought the Sonics in 1983, purchasing them from Sam Schulman. The team reached the playoffs 13 times in the 18 years Ackerley owned the team.

The Sonics won four division titles during that time, reached the conference finals three times and the NBA Finals in 1996. They won a league-best 63 games in 1993-94. About the only thing the Sonics didn't do under Ackerley was win a league title.

"He was a guy that wanted perfection, wanted the team to do well," said Lenny Wilkens, the Sonics coach when Mr. Ackerley bought the team. "He was excited when he got it. What I remember was he was very supportive."

Mr. Ackerley was the only Sonics owner Nate McMillan ever played for, drafted in the second round in 1986 and becoming known as "Mr. Sonic" during his 15-year career.

"I feel very blessed to have known and worked for Barry Ackerley," McMillan said in a statement.

The most sustained success in Sonics history came under Mr. Ackerley's ownership. The team won 55 or more games for six successive seasons beginning in 1992-93, and the Sonics didn't have a losing record in any of his final 14 seasons as owner. The Seattle Coliseum was renovated during Mr. Ackerley's ownership of the team, becoming KeyArena.

"The thing that I remember about him just from a business standpoint is he would spend the capital that was necessary to bring the talent in," said Kevin Calabro, hired to the Sonics' broadcast team under Ackerley.

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That doesn't mean he was a pushover.

"He was very tough," Calabro said. "He was a hard-nosed guy."

There were tempestuous moments under Mr. Ackerley, too. In 1994, Mr. Ackerley and GM Bob Whitsitt engaged in a dispute over whether the latter had quit or was fired, a messy exit that led to Whitsitt's move to Portland..

Mr. Ackerley sold the Sonics in 2001 to a group of investors led by Howard Schultz. Mr. Ackerley was saddened when the team relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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