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Friday, October 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:45 AM

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Steve Kelley

Walker's departure is too little, too late

Seattle Times staff columnist

At almost any other time in the Sonics' recent history, Thursday would have been a day for celebration.

Wally Walker resigned.

Finally.

This should have been the day Sonics fans had wished and prayed for.

Walker leaving should have meant tens of millions of dollars no longer would be spent by Seattle on centers who can't play. It should have meant no more clueless coaches like Paul Westphal and Bob Weiss would be hired. It could have meant the end of bad draft days and illogical deals.

Walker, who despite an empty portfolio, rose to become the CEO, president and part owner of a team he once sat on the bench for, will leave the Sonics next Tuesday, when the sale to the gaggle of Oklahoma City businessmen becomes official.

Good riddance.

Walker has systematically demolished a great franchise, alienated a solid fan base and made it easy for this group from out of town to swoop in, buy the Sonics and make everyone here feel uneasy, believing the team is going to move to Oklahoma City at the end of this season.

Thursday should have been a day for bunting and balloons. A day that signaled a brighter tomorrow. But the news might have come too late.

Walker, along with accomplice and former chairman of The Basketball Club of Seattle, Howard (Take The Money And Run) Schultz, have poisoned the hoop waters like some ecologically unfriendly corporation.

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They are responsible for the empty seats inside Key Arena. They are responsible for the lukewarm reception the franchise has gotten from the city, county and state when it has asked for the hundreds of millions of tax dollars needed for a new arena.

Walker is the reason this team has won exactly one playoff series since 1998. He is responsible for the loss of coach George Karl after the 1997-98 season.

If the team leaves town, we can blame it on Wally's Follies.

Walker squelched the 1994 draft-day trade of Shawn Kemp for Scottie Pippen.

He wasted more than $30 million on center/stiff Jim McIlvaine, crippling the Sonics inside the salary cap and angering Kemp to the point of permanent distraction.

Walker got into a very public feud with Karl that he couldn't control. Karl left because of Walker and took six seasons of sellout crowds with him. The franchise hasn't been the same since.

Walker hired Westphal to replace Karl, which was an unqualified disaster. When he finally found the right coach, Nate McMillan, Walker alienated McMillan, who left for Portland in the summer of 2005.

Then Walker sucked all the momentum out of the miracle season of 2004-05 by hiring defensively challenged coach Weiss.

Wally's Follies included drafting Corey Maggette in 1999, then trading him for Horace Grant, re-signing Kemp's replacement Vin Baker for more than $80 million, and signing free-agent center Calvin Booth for another $36 million.

Every bad move sunk the Sonics deeper in the West standings and made them even more irrelevant. Walker became, probably, the most disliked executive in Seattle sports history.

Airplanes flew banners over The Key asking him to leave. He was booed lustily at celebrations that retired the numbers of McMillan and Gus Williams. People brought placards to games demanding Walker fire himself.

Clay Bennett knew Walker's history here. He heard the thunderclaps of discontent. Why would he want someone with Walker's shoddy track record running the team he just bought?

It doesn't take a Red Auerbach to understand Walker wasn't right.

He wrecked the Seattle Sonics.

And now, as the much-ballyhooed 40th season approaches, it is beginning to feel like the 40th and last.

Instead of adding local investors to the mix, the Oklahoma City owners, led by Bennett, continue to add Oklahomans. It makes you wonder how much they care about the future of basketball in this town.

Now is the time for them to stop with the lip service and do something dramatic.

They should bring back former general manager Bob Whitsitt, who knows all of the players in this game — and I don't just mean the guys with jumpers and the shorts.

Whitsitt is friendly with the wealthy people in Seattle. He already has done an arena deal in this town. He understands how local government works. He has a passion for the game and a passion to keep the game in Seattle.

And despite the problems (almost all of them off the floor) with his players in his last seasons in Portland, Whitsitt knows basketball. If the owners are serious about working with governments to get an arena built, if they are serious about basketball in Seattle, they should make an offer to Whitsitt.

I doubt they will.

In fact, with an office full of executive vice presidents who understand the business of basketball and with GM Rick Sund freed from Walker's shackles, they may not replace Walker at all.

Thursday should have been a day to celebrate. Instead we are left asking ourselves, with Walker gone, is the team next?

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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