Monday, April 21, 2008

Sonics: Levers and places to stand

Photo: Clay Bennett after rustling some Sonics off to Oklahoma City. Yee-haw!

I came across some interesting ideas about possible ways to save NBA basketball in Seattle yesterday from columnists Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (thanks to Neate for the link) and Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times. Both have a similar basic premise of the city, the state and various interests like the Ballmer group sitting down with Bennett and the league to work out a way for the NBA to exist in Seattle in the long run. It's a classic "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine scenario": in return for a guaranteed expansion franchise within the next couple of years, the city agrees to drop its lawsuit and let the team go, probably convincing Howard Schultz to give up on his suit as well. This is actually a pretty good idea, given the embarrasing e-mails that showed up as part of discovery in the city's case and prompted the Schultz lawsuit: who knows what other evil lurks in the heart of Bennett's computer? The Shadow might know, I'd love to know and David Stern doesn't want anyone to know, which could be easily accomplished if he decided to promise to replace the "bleeding ex-Sonics", and not with a slug either. Thiel and Kelley both also make the good point that the city shouldn't scrap the suits until a promise of a new team is firmly in hand: given Stern's sliminess of late, I wouldn't trust him at any distance farther than a free-throw line.

As Thiel writes, "Anything less than unambiguous commitment is meaningless, because Stern is slippery. Obscured by the legal posturing he shrouds in belligerent commentary toward Seattle is this action of true intent: In August, Stern fined one of Bennett's partners, Aubrey McClendon, for telling an Oklahoma newspaper that the group never had any intention to stay in Seattle. In other words, Stern so feared further exposure that he took $250,000 from one of the lodge brothers for telling the truth. His personal animosity toward Seattle's political leadership has so clouded his normally acute business judgment that Stern's mere word is simply not to be trusted in future dealings about the NBA in Seattle."

The city needs to show Stern and Bennett that they can do this the easy way or the hard way. Behind Door #1 is a new franchise for Seattle, a substantial decrease in bad press for the resurgent league, further league success found by maintaining a solid market and a bunch of happy Oklahoma hicks who finally get to play with their new toy. Behind Door #2, everyone's unhappy. Stern's upset because the further revelations in the lawsuits strain the league's already shaky credibility, because he'll be taking heat from fans and the media every time something happens in any of the court cases, because his bosom buddy Clay keeps calling to find out when he can get his team and because the Oklahomans who just gave the NBA a vast truckload of free public money for arena improvements and a new practice facility. Bennett's upset because he's tied down in a three-way war of attrition in court and can't yet become the hero of the Dust Bowl Division. Sonics fans and local lawmakers aren't in the greatest of moods because they're limited to a lame-duck team that's likely to leave at the end of the court proceedings. Clearly, that seems like a losing proposition all around.

That's not to say that the legal fight is hopeless, though: it seems like the city and Schultz both have decent cases, and the season-ticket holders' suit may have potential as well. It's just that a guaranteed team beats a chance of having one every time. The city and Schultz can certainly tar and feather the NBA's reformed image with their lawsuits, but in the end, the team might still be able to sneak out of town. As much as I'd like to see Bennett and Stern punished in the court of public opinion for their shady dealings, I'd rather see NBA basketball remain in Seattle: resorting to realpolitik to save the team is one of the rare cases where the ends justify the means. These lawsuits give Schultz and the city a good deal of leverage against Bennett and company: if they get a decent place to stand, they might be able to stop one of the epicentres of the Seattle sporting world from moving.

- Another Thiel column on how Stern's Friday press conference was ridiculously full of lies and exaggerations: Thiel does a great job of taking Stern to task here.
- Jerry Brewer of the Times on the pain of losing the team and who's ultimately responsible.
- Famed Times sports humour writer Dwight Perry quoted a nice jab at Oklahoma City from a Sporting News writer. "As a longtime NBA traveler, I'd much rather see the SuperSonics in Seattle," wrote Sam Smith of The Sporting News. "It's a beautiful city with phenomenal restaurants and culture and a quirky populace that makes you wonder at times if the country tipped in the late 1960s and the hippie movement landed there and stayed. It's a place unlike any in the U.S. Among the best last meals has to be the Copper River salmon available in the late spring. It hardly compares with my favorite IHOP in Oklahoma City."
- The Times' Percy Allen has a great blog post showing Stern's hypocrisy: it features a video clip of a televised interview with a local reporter at a Nov. 4, 1995 Sonics game where Stern raves about how good KeyArena is after the latest remodelling. A bit of a contrast to Friday, where he said, "It's the smallest footprint in the league with one of the lowest amounts of suites, the smallest amount of additional amenities and generally is not viewed in its current state as an arena that can support team on a going forward basis." Note to Clay: don't think Dave will be happy with the Ford Centre for too terribly long, even with the new taxpayer-funded renovations.
- Seth Kolloen of Enjoy the Enjoyment has a good post on the leadership shown by Governor Christine Gregoire throughout this fiasco, which can be summarized as "too little, too late."

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