The Most Interesting Sonics Game is Being Played Off the Court

And in the courts.

If it were hoops, the Sonics played a half-court game, and City Hall went into a stall. That's effectively how city attorneys were able to take an encouraging lead last week in Seattle's lawsuit against the Professional Basketball Club of Oklahoma City, the Sonics' carpetbagging ownership group. For the team to be legally abducted and resettled in Oklahoma City by next season, its ownership must soon escape its KeyArena lease obligation, currently valid until 2010. If majority owner Clay Bennett and his investors could have won a quick March hearing, as desired, they could have sent a positive signal to NBA owners, set to vote in April on the proposed move. A favorable ruling would also have been likely to hearten Oklahomans, who face a March vote on a $120 million arena renovation. Instead, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman set a June 16 trial date, erasing that potential slam dunk for Bennett. And while City Hall wanted an even-later October trial date that would have rendered an early exit virtually impossible, city attorneys can stop worrying about extending the clock now. Proving the Sonics are required to perform here until 2010 could lead to a settlement, a new arena deal, or a sale of the team. Granted, the pretrial window is smaller than the city hoped, and its attorneys won't be able to flood the zone, as planned, with invasive discovery motions and in-person depositions from New York to Seattle (with a layover, of course, in Oklahoma). Still, they're likely to make life miserable for NBA Commissioner David Stern and ex–Sonics majority owner Howard Schultz, and they also plan to depose current Sonics minority owner Aubrey McClendon, famous for saying Bennett's group never planned to stay in Seattle in the first place (a gaffe for which he was fined $250,000 by the NBA). In detailing the city's efforts to "lawyer up," Sonics attorney Steve Minson says the city attorney's office has brought aboard five attorneys from powerful K&L Gates. One of them, ex-Sen. Slade Gorton, is making $685 an hour, Minson reports. No problem, says the city: Under the lease, the party that loses in court pays both sides' legal bills. But don't forget the New Orleans factor. Despite being one of the best teams in the Western Conference, the Hornets' success has not translated into robust attendance figures in that devastated city. This situation makes it likely that owner George Shinn—already a one-time winner in the relocation game (he extracted the Hornets from Charlotte)—will exercise a $50 million escape clause in his lease at the end of next season. At that point, Shinn would clearly seek to move his team to Oklahoma City, which already supported the Hornets with sold-out crowds for two seasons while their permanent home recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Should it come to that, our money's on Shinn to win.

 
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