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Originally published Monday, June 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Fans need to send message about Sonics

People will be watching. Even with the juiciest NBA Finals of the 21st century underway, even as this series between Boston and Los Angeles...

Seattle Times staff columnist

People will be watching.

Even with the juiciest NBA Finals of the 21st century underway, even as this series between Boston and Los Angeles allows all of us the luxury of strolling down basketball's memory lane, people will be looking at Seattle next week.

Does the city really care about keeping the Sonics?

There has been so much talk about the team's legacy; so much talk about the Sonics' history being passed down from generation to generation. Now that talk must turn into action.

Forty-one years of Sonics' basketball, not all of them pretty, have welded this community together. Or at least that's what all of us who want the NBA to stay in Seattle have said.

Now, it's crunch time.

No matter how much owner Clay "Boo Hoo" Bennett and his partners try to argue to the contrary, their e-mails prove they never seriously intended to keep the team in town.

It would have taken the sweetest of sweetheart deals, some unprecedented and unacceptable offer to build Bennett a half-billion dollar, pleasure palace that he could turn into his personal ATM machine, for him to want to keep the team in Seattle.

So now we'll see him and his e-mails in court.

But how seriously bullish on basketball are this city's fans?

The league will be watching, looking for an answer.

The odds are steeply stacked against the city, but all things remain possible.

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A week from today the trial, which will decide if the KeyArena lease agreement is strong enough to keep the team here for two more years, begins.

And, a week from today, the indefatigable advocacy group, Save Our Sonics, will hold a rally, at 4:30 p.m., at the federal court building (Seventh and Stewart), the site of the trial.

Longtime all-star and one of the most familiar faces in team history, Gary Payton, who has been passionate about his belief that this team belongs in Seattle, will speak.

Xavier McDaniel, another fan favorite and an unsung hero in the fight to keep the team, will be coming from his home in Columbia, S.C., to rally the town.

Who knows, if you're lucky, you might even get a glimpse of Bennett as he leaves the courthouse that day.

Why is this rally important?

Because people will be watching.

The league doesn't like getting embarrassed and if a huge crowd gathers at the courthouse, the rally will rate ESPN airtime and it will be a signal to the rest of the country that Seattle still cares.

If thousands, instead of hundreds, show up it will be another example that the NBA is dead wrong about this city.

After all the negative remarks from the commissioner's office and from the team's ownership, this will be the most profoundly, populist gesture Seattle fans can make that they believe the game belongs here.

This rally needs thousands of people to make it work. It really is important, because throughout this process, Bennett counted on a cave-in. He thought fans would quit. He figured the mayor and the City Council would capitulate.

He believed he could write a check and ride out of town. Thought he could bully his way out of this lease. He thought it all would be over by now. His team would be in Oklahoma City and he would be heroic.

His group will snicker if only 300 people show. You can imagine the scene, another cool, gray day, a little drizzle and a few hundred people huddled together. The ownership group, the commissioner, the entire NBA will question, once again, Seattle's commitment.

But if thousands gather, rain or shine, the message will be much different.

People will be watching.

And, if you still care about keeping basketball in town, you'll go to the rally next Monday and cheer Payton and McDaniel, the same way you cheered them when they used to thrill us on the floor, when there never was a doubt that the Sonics belonged to Seattle.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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