clayton_bennett.jpg The Oklahoma City SuperSonics? Howard Schultz was trying hard not to say it, and Clayton Bennett (pictured) was trying just as hard not to relish


The Sonics Take Flight

The new ownership has "an out"—to Oklahoma.

clayton_bennett.jpgThe Oklahoma City SuperSonics? Howard Schultz was trying hard not to say it, and Clayton Bennett (pictured) was trying just as hard not to relish it. They stuck to the story line at a press conference today, insisting that Sonics principal owner Schultz and his fellow investors had just sold the financially ailing Sonics and Storm franchises to wealthy Oklahoman Bennett and other investors with the pure intention of keeping them in Seattle. Why in tarnation, they seemed to ask, would a man from Oklahoma pay $350 million for the teams if all he wanted to do was move them into a potentially vacant OK City arena, make lots of money, and bring a major league thrill to his fellow sports-happy Oklahomans? No, it just makes so much more sense to keep the team here thousands of miles away and continue that frustrating battle for a new Seattle arena that will require a public vote. Really. Don't laugh! 

Schultz, the grave-looking Starbucks founder, gave a Sonics jersey and Spalding basketball to Bennett, the pro-wrestler-sized controlling owner of the new Sonics ownership (effective probably around October, the Supes' home base will be Professional Basketball Club LLC, 210 Park Ave., Oklahoma City, OK). Amid a backdrop of the anniversary Sonics logo—1977 to 2007, which may now appear on the franchise tombstone—the owners danced and swayed and caveated their way to an explanation that, ultimately, this was a wonderful deal for Seattle. "The mayor has everything to gain!" exclaimed Schultz, whose ownership had just gained $150 million more than it paid for the team five years ago. Now, a new ownership could hassle with the city over the proposed renovation of KeyArena, hopefully keeping the team here for "many, many years to come," he said. His group realized they "simply would not be successful" in pursing further arena talks with the city. The buyers would arrive with a clean slate. Yes, "We want to come in wide-open," said Bennett, and "entertain" any offers to redo both the arena and a city lease that ends in 2010. Entertain is about what the Sonics did, too.

Mayoral spokesperson Marty McOmber says the city offered three renovation plans for the Sonics' consideration, the costliest coming in around $200 million but requiring approval of voters. The Sonics didn't reject the ideas, they just never responded to them, McOmber says. In a statement, Mayor Greg Nickels called the sale "a disappointing development" but says the arena offers "are still on the table" for the new owners to consider. Schultz said he was surprised the mayor's office released details of supposedly secret negotiations, wrinkling his face and noting, "It is just unfortunate." Try as they did, Schultz and Bennett couldn't clearly explain why the outside group should have any better luck with City Hall, although the Oklahomans won't immediately be burdened with the same curses: Schultz and company were obviously ticked at the requirement of voter approval for any new arena plan and burned by the hardball politicking that showed "no respect" —a term Shultz used regularly Tuesday— for his wealthy ownership. (No more free lattes for you, Nick Licata!)

With the city and Supes caught up in a dispute  that's gotten personal, the Oklahomans convienently arrive without baggage and toting some exceptional leverage: An arena awaiting back home. It's currently used by the NBA Hornets but could be available next season. The sales deal, as now structured, allows Schultz to possibly escape being remembered as the heartless Seattle capitalist who peddled the beloved Sonics, Seattle's initial big-league franchise, to another city. (He's selling the team in place; it's those other guys who will likely move it, see.) The Oklahomans are happy since they can't lose. They'll give it the old college try here, and when a lease deal can't be reached, they'll ride off into the sunset as the new Oklahoma Wranglers, or whatever. In short, this press conference was Goodbye, Supes. It's what Schultz meant in saying the Oklahomans "are better positioned than we are" and "they have an out." It's what Bennett meant in saying, "We'll evaluate our position after 12 months." Just in time for the 2007 Sonics anniversary—and burial.

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