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Wednesday, February 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sonics

Sonics could find a suitor in Oklahoma

Seattle Times staff reporter

OKLAHOMA CITY — Clay Bennett, a prominent local businessman who led a group of corporate investors that lured the displaced New Orleans Hornets to Oklahoma City, said he is watching with interest the political proceedings involving the Sonics, the Seattle City Council and the Washington State Legislature.

Bennett is keenly aware of the strife building between city officials and the club, which seeks a taxpayer-funded $200 million for renovations to KeyArena. He also read the comments from principal owner Howard Schultz, who said last week that Sonics owners would be forced to sell or move the team unless they receive public assistance.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Bennett said that he has not been in contact with anyone representing the Sonics, but "we'd be very interested in those discussions and would pursue them vigorously."

Oklahoma City is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Long before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 and washed the Hornets out of New Orleans, mayor Mick Cornett had pestered NBA commissioner David Stern about relocating to Oklahoma City

Led by Cornett and Bennett, Oklahoma City offered Hornets owner George Shinn an unprecedented package of public and corporate support.

The Hornets were given free rent at 20,000-seat Ford Center as well as furnished apartments for 108 employees and office space for the staff.

If the Hornets fail to earn $40 million this season, the state, the city and a group of local investors will make up the difference up to $10 million.

Bennett said: "I don't have specific info but my sense is they were doing fine."

Doing fine as in selling more than 11,000 season tickets, which, team officials say is sixth in the NBA. Last season, the Hornets were 29th in season-ticket sales.

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Attendance has improved by an average of 4,000. The Hornets, last in attendance last season, are now seventh and have likened the crowd to a college environment.

"We won 13 homes games, and I would say they've [fans] had their hands in six of them," coach Byron Scott told The Associated Press. "The energy in the crowds has been a tremendous boost to our team."

The Hornets are 24-23 entering tonight's game against the Sonics (19-29), and if the regular season ended today, they would advance to the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. It's a remarkable feat for a team that finished 18-64 last season.

While the honeymoon between Oklahoma City and the Hornets has been blissful, the marriage wasn't built to last.

A week ago, Stern announced the team would play 35 games at the Ford Center in 2006-07, but said he hoped the team will return to New Orleans full time in 2007-08.

Essentially, Oklahoma City is auditioning for the next 1 years for one of several NBA teams.

The Sonics, Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings all seek new or improved arenas while the Atlanta Hawks are a habitual candidate for relocation.

"We are acutely interested and very focused on bringing a team to Oklahoma City," Bennett said. "It's a tricky spot to be in because you don't want to overstep your boundaries ... but the Sonics, yes, are a possibility and a team that would do well not just here, but I'm sure anywhere that they played."

Anywhere, perhaps, except Seattle, where the team says it has lost $60 million because of an unfavorable lease that expires in 2010.

Accompanied by deputy mayor Tim Ceis, Sonics CEO and president Wally Walker will present a proposal to the House Finance Committee on Thursday morning in a last-ditch effort to gain support from state lawmakers.

The Sonics seek to extend the King County restaurant and hotel taxes used to build stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks to pay for KeyArena renovations or a new basketball arena.

Schultz issued a "sell-or-leave" ultimatum in hopes of prompting lawmakers to make a decision before the legislative session ends on March 9. He instructed Walker "to look into alternatives," but said the team has had serious discussions about moving.

There's no denying that Oklahoma City is growing a NBA fan base and trying to create a climate to support major-league pro sports in a place where loyalties between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have ruled for decades.

"If the Hornets go back to New Orleans, I expect we'll get a franchise," Bennett said. "There haven't been any promises made, but there's been a lot of congratulations offered to us and encouragement and recognition. This a bona fide marketplace for the NBA. We've proven that."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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