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Saturday, July 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

What would Schulman do about Sonics now?

Seattle Times staff columnist

Imagine if Sam Schulman could speak to us today.

If the man who brought big-league sports to Seattle, when he and partner Eugene Klein paid the whopping price of $1.75 million for an NBA expansion franchise in 1967, could offer his opinions and suggestions on the uncertain state of the franchise he birthed.

For the 16 years he owned the Sonics, Schulman turned sports ownership into a thrilling high-wire act.

He took chances. He made headlines. When he failed, it was colossal. But when he succeeded, it stirred this city like nothing Seattle sports has seen.

Schulman was a showman. He came to Seattle with all the elan and marketing chutzpah of a Hollywood pitchman. He knew how to win games, win hearts and fill seats.

Imagine if somehow we could conjure him, if we could tap into his brilliance and ask him for his take and his advice after Tuesday's sale of the Sonics to a group from Oklahoma City.

"First of all," he might say, "I feel I owe the city an apology. I mean I was the guy, or at least I was the owner, who brought Wally Walker to Seattle.

"Believe me, when we picked him up from Portland in the 1977-78 season, I thought I was getting a bit player, not a villain. How was I to know that almost 30 years later he would be part of the gang that washed its hands of the future of professional basketball in Seattle?"

Schulman, who died in 2003, might sadly shake his head when he thinks about the damage Walker has done to the franchise since becoming GM in 1994.

"Look," Schulman might say, "nobody's perfect in this game. I made my share of mistakes. I traded Dennis Johnson for Paul Westphal. I let Gus Williams sit out an entire season. Good grief, I traded Lenny Wilkens to Cleveland, so I know what it's like to be the bad guy in this town.

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"But I started this franchise from scratch. Walker inherited a championship contender. One day he was a harmless broadcaster. The next day he was the general manager of a 60-win team.

"And what did he do with it? Well, I don't think you conjured me just so I could tell you what you already know. Let's just say the last eight years haven't exactly been heavenly for this franchise."

Schulman was a fighter, and even though he was from Southern California, he cared more for Seattle than the Seattle guys who sold the team this week. Schulman wouldn't have quit on this city. Unfortunately, this isn't his fight.

"Well, if you're going to ask," Schulman might say, "I would tell you that I believe this franchise is gone. I mean the Sonics weren't just sold to a group from Oklahoma City. They were sold to Mr. Oklahoma City.

"Clay Bennett is to Oklahoma City what Steven Spielberg is to Hollywood. He's as much a part of that town as thunderstorms and cowboys. When the Hornets return to New Orleans next season — and they will return there — if Mr. Oklahoma City doesn't bring the Seattle franchise with him, he won't be invited back to the state."

Imagine if we could ask Schulman for a solution. For a way to keep NBA basketball in Seattle.

"A few things before I go," he might say. "First of all, the city has to make sure that if the team leaves, Seattle keeps the rights to the green and gold colors and keeps the nickname, just like the NFL Cleveland Browns did. And the next franchise that comes here has to be called the Sonics.

"But let's think outside the box like I did when I signed Spencer Haywood and hired Bill Russell and brought back Lenny to lead us to the 1979 title.

"I would propose a franchise swap. Look, the Hornets aren't going to make it in New Orleans. It's not a basketball town. But for public-relations purposes the NBA has to give it a year. After that, anything goes.

"So let's get the right people talking to the city council and Legislature. People who won't have their feelings hurt when the politicians don't roll over for them.

"People who won't cynically ignore the city council's proposals the way the Sonics did. Deal-making people like former Sonics president Bob Whitsitt. Tough guys in the same mold as me. Let's get an arena deal done and then go after the New Orleans franchise.

"If you're asking, I would say Seattle will be NBA-free for a year, but, my gosh, this is a great basketball town with a rock-solid 40-year history. With a new arena in the works, there is no reason it couldn't get the Hornets, who would become the new Sonics in 2008-09.

"Chris Paul in Seattle? I leave you with that pleasant possibility. It's the best I can do."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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