supes.jpg McClendon and Bennett

If it were hoops, the Sonics played a half court game, and City Hall went for the stall. That’s effectively how city


A Halftime Lead

supes.jpg McClendon and Bennett

If it were hoops, the Sonics played a half court game, and City Hall went for the stall. That’s effectively how city attorneys were able to score and take an encouraging lead yesterday in Seattle’s lawsuit against the Professional Basketball Club of Oklahoma City, the Sonics’ carpetbag franchise owner. If the team is to be legally abducted and resettled in OKC by next season, its ownership must soon escape its KeyArena lease obligation, valid until 2010. The partnership’s best hope was to convince a federal judge the lawsuit is merely a landlord-tenant dispute. As the Supes say in court papers, "Defendant stands ready to pay all remaining amounts owed under the lease through the end of the lease in 2010. The only remaining question is whether the City can also force the Sonics to play in KeyArena during that period." If majority owner Clay Bennett and his investors, who say such "performance" is not required, could garner a narrowly construed ruling and a quick March hearing, they could send a positive signal to NBA owners, set to vote in April on the proposed move. Such a favorable ruling -- guaranteeing a move after damages were totaled up at trial -- would likely hearten Oklahomans facing a March vote on a $120 million arena renovation.

Instead, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman has now set a June 16 trial, erasing that potential slam dunk for Bennett. And while City Hall wanted an even later Fall trial date that would create uncertainty for NBA game schedulers and persuade owners to at least temporarily reject a move, city attorneys can stop worrying so much about extending the clock now (and there’s always lengthy appeals if needed). Showing the Sonics are required to perform until 2010 here could lead to a settlement, a new arena deal or a sale of the team. The pre-trial window is smaller than the city hoped. And 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 in Oklahoma.

Still, city attorneys are likely to grill, and make life miserable for, NBA commissioner David Stern and ex-Sonics majority owner Howard Schultz, they say. They also plan to depose current Sonics minority owner Aubrey McClendon, famous (and fined $250,000 by the NBA) for saying the owners never planned to stay in Seattle anyway. Though Bennett, who says the team lost $17 million last year, has hired a prominent litigation team, Byrnes & Keller, he accused the city of "lawyering up" by setting aside $1 million for legal costs. 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 the legal bills for both sides.

And 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, making it likely that owner George Shinn -- already a one-time winner in the relocation game (he moved the Hornets from Charlotte) -- will exercise a $50 million escape clause in his lease at the end of next season. At that point, it would be crystal clear where Shinn would seek to relocate his team: 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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