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Monday, January 22, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

We all lose out if we lose the NBA

Seattle Times staff columnist

Allen Iverson is coming to town Tuesday night and the Denver Nuggets' great experiment will continue.

Is the basketball floor big enough for Iverson and his new teammate, Carmelo Anthony, who has finished his 15-game suspension and plays his first game alongside new teammate Iverson tonight in Denver?

Can they share the ball? Share the stat sheets? Share their dream of winning big, maybe even winning an NBA championship?

Seattle-area basketball fans are fortunate to be witnesses to the beginning of this experiment. KeyArena is the first road stop on Denver's basketball barnstorm.

It is this city's good fortune to watch Iverson tirelessly slalom through screens, rubbing his defenders off the hips and elbows and shoulders of his Denver teammates and to watch Anthony attempt to play off Iverson's energy. We get to see how the Nuggets' George Karl, in his first road game as their coach, integrates his two extraordinary talents. And we get to see how Sonics coach Bob Hill chooses to defend them.

We're fortunate in this area to have an NBA game to watch and even when the home team is nine games under .500, as the Sonics are, there are nights like Tuesday that should make us all glad the league is here.

But we all know how close we are to losing the Sonics.

We know how close to losing 40 years of memories we are. Forty years of families going to games, 40 years of Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Havlicek and Walt Frazier, Julius Erving and Bill Walton coming to town. Forty years of watching Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas.

We are this close to losing that. Unless the state legislature agrees to contribute $300 million to help fund a new multi-purpose arena, the NBA will be gone.

It's that simple. And it's that sad.

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Something has to be done.

The legislature has to show foresight. It can't vote on a new arena plan based on the NBA standings, where the Sonics are last in the Northwest Division.

It has to weigh the value of this franchise on this area. It has to remember the excitement that is felt every time a Seattle team gets on a playoff roll.

Remember the Mariners in 1995 and in 2001 when almost everybody of every age became and remained a baseball fan? Remember the sweet agony and ecstasy of these past couple of Seahawks seasons?

And even though it has been more than a decade since the Sonics have been a legitimate championship contender, it is easy to remember the hours, months, years of enjoyment the area has gotten from that franchise.

From Slick to Downtown, J.J. to D.J. From Lenny to Jack to Gus. From Nate to The Glove to The Reign Man. From Rashard Lewis to Ray Allen, the Sonics have made an enduring connection with this community.

They aren't very good now and they are years and several lottery picks away from being a championship contender again, but the Sonics will be good again. And do we really want them being good in Oklahoma City or some other less worthy city?

Let's not be small-minded about this. Let's not be short-sighted. Let's not be Mayberry.

Let's remember the funding for this arena largely will come from taxes on tourists, the same kind of taxes we pay when we stay in Portland or Chicago, or Miami, or Philadelphia.

Let's look at the big picture. Look at the intangible value sports franchises bring to an area.

Let's think about the playgrounds that are built by the local teams. The schools that are visited. And, equally important, the unambiguous joy most of us get from a day or night at the ballpark or arena.

Let's remember the reluctance of the legislators and the voters before the baseball and football stadiums were built. Was the public financing of those buildings a bad idea? Isn't Seattle a better city because of them?

The proposal made by new Sonics owner Clay Bennett is a work in progress. The proposal needs to be more specific. He has to settle on a site. And, I believe, his ownership group has to pony up more money for the building.

After all, this is a franchise that spent more than $60 million on a couple of centers — Jim McIlvaine and Calvin Booth — who were about as mobile as an all-purpose arena. This is a franchise that didn't mind wasting more than $70 million on big-league bust Vin Baker.

Bennett and his group can afford to be more of a partner in this place.

But let's not be the one state that says, "No."

Let's not be remembered as the one place that made a mistake, that put its foot down and let its team leave.

Let's not be Mayberry.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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