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Originally published April 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 19, 2008 at 3:02 AM

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NBA approves Sonics' move to Oklahoma City

The NBA Board of Governors voted overwhelmingly today to approve the Sonics' move from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Sonics owner Clay Bennett is trying to get out of the lease to play at KeyArena through 2010 and move the team before next season. The City of Seattle has filed a lawsuit to keep the Sonics at KeyArena the next two seasons.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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NEW YORK — NBA owners overwhelmingly approved the Sonics' relocation bid to Oklahoma City today by a 28-2 vote of the league's Board of Governors.

"The support for the NBA demonstrated by the fans, government leaders and business community of Oklahoma City over the last three years has been extraordinary," said NBA commissioner David Stern. "The Board of Governors is confident that the level of local support will result in success for the Sonics franchise in Oklahoma."

Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks and Paul Allen of the Portland Trail Blazers were the only votes against the move. Allen was not in New York for the meeting, represented by team president Larry Miller.

The City of Seattle has filed a lawsuit to keep the Sonics at KeyArena through a lease that ends in 2010. A trial is scheduled to begin June 16. Stern said the Sonics are prepared to play two more seasons in Seattle if the team loses in court.

The Sonics ownership group had offered a $26.5 million settlement to the City of Seattle to pay the remaining two years of the KeyArena lease rather than fulfill a "specific performance clause" that requires them to play games inside the building. That offer was rejected.

Sonics chairman Clay Bennett expressed regret that the team would leave Seattle, either before next season or after the lease expires in 2010, but said, "I'm thrilled for Oklahoma."

The Sonics will have to pay a $30 million relocation fee.

Bennett was asked if he felt he had made a good-faith effort to keep the Sonics in Seattle.

"No question about it," Bennett said. "I think about it all the time. We could not engender the leadership of the marketplace to support a new building."

Metropolitan King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer said local officials should accept that the current Sonics 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 future franchise.

"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, R-Federal Way. "Right now there are so many people willing to throw hand grenades into the room that we're losing."

Both Bennett and Stern made it clear the Sonics are moving to Oklahoma City, whether it's now or after two more seasons.

Bennett was asked about another NBA team replacing the Sonics eventually in Seattle.

"Seattle should be a future opportunity for the league," Bennett said, "but a modern building must be built."

Stern and Bennett both restated their belief that KeyArena is not a venue that meets NBA standards.

Stern, when asked about the NBA's future in Seattle, was critical of recent comments made by former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton.

"I'm trying hard on one hand to not close the door [on a future NBA franchise in Seattle] but I'm giving this press conference in the face of a scorched-earth policy [by Gorton] to inflict as much possible injury on our team as he can," Stern said.

Bennett was asked about leaving the Sonics nickname, colors and history in Seattle.

"I believe the name should probably stay in Seattle," he said.

Both Bennett and Stern said that was a decision on that would probably have to wait until after the court case was settled.

Earlier today, Bennett, who filed a relocation request on Nov. 2, presented the other 29 NBA owners with a relocation plan highlighted by the lucrative benefits that he'll receive in Oklahoma City.

"Oklahoma City gave a wonderful presentation," Los Angeles Lakers co-owner Jeannie Buss said after the vote.

According to league sources, Bennett also detailed struggles to build an arena in the Seattle area during his presentation. He also downplayed filings from the city's case last week that revealed e-mails between the Oklahoma City-based owners. In those e-mails, the owners discussed moving the team during the one-year period following the July 2006 sale in which they had pledged "good faith best efforts" to keep the franchise in Seattle.

Bennett walked into the meeting with seven votes from the relocation committee comprised of New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz, Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon, Los Angeles Lakers vice president Jeanie Buss, San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, Miami Heat managing general partner Micky Arison, Chris Cohan of the Golden State Warriors and Ed Snider of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The committee's recommendation outweighed the objections from U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Gov. Christine Gregoire and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who sent letters to Stern urging him to postpone the vote until the team resolves its legal affairs.

After the vote, Murray and Cantwell each issued statements:

"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," said Murray. "Violating the public's trust with empty promises is unacceptable, and the NBA's decision today sets a poor precedent."

Cantwell said, "For decades the Sonics have been part of the Seattle community and its culture. As an avid sports fan, I'm dismayed to see the NBA rewarding such unsportsmanlike conduct. The Sonics ownership misrepresented their true intentions to the community and yet the NBA gives them a bonus for this bad-faith effort."

The Sonics will become the fourth franchise to relocate since 1985. The Kansas City Kings moved to Sacramento, the Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis and the Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans.

Bennett's attorneys filed a federal-court motion Wednesday accusing Nickels of a "Machiavellian plan" to force him to sell the Sonics back to Seattle investors led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Bennett repeatedly has said the Sonics are not for sale and if he's unable to negotiate a buyout then he'll ride out the remaining two years of the lease if necessary.

In anticipation of the team's arrival, Oklahoma City voters last month approved a $121 million sales-tax package to renovate the city's Ford Center arena and build an NBA practice facility.

The Oklahoma Legislature sweetened the pot for the NBA on Thursday, approving a payroll-tax rebate for the Sonics worth an estimated $60 million over 15 years. The state House approved the measure 67-32 and sent it to Gov. Brad Henry, who swiftly signed it into law.

Supporters of the rebate plan said the team's relocation would have a $180 million economic impact on the state over 15 years and bring other intangible benefits to the state. Oklahoma City hosted the New Orleans Hornets for two seasons after the team was uprooted from its home arena following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Mark Rupp, director of the Washington, D.C., office for Gregoire, said the governor wants to begin dialogue with the NBA about replacing the Sonics if they leave.

"We definitely want to have conversations with the NBA about getting a franchise in Seattle," Rupp said. "My general understanding is that they are looking to go international, but Seattle is one of the most international cities in the world."

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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