Friday, April 18, 2008

Sonics: A super-sized challenge

Today, the NBA owners voted 28-2 to allow Clayton "Buccaneer" Bennett to relocate the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. The only franchises opposed to the move were Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks and Paul Allen's Portland Trail Blazers, which is disappointing: you'd think Bennett's blatant lies might have caused a few other owners to question the wisdom of this move, especially given that the idea is to relocate from the 14th largest media market to the 45th.

Of course, Bennett is now claiming that it's all a big misunderstanding. As the Associated Press reported, "When he wrote, 'I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can,' he meant he was determined to find a way for the Sonics to remain in the city, Bennett contended." That might fly if your name is David Stern and you don't find it necessary to actually study e-mails by one of your ownership groups that could show misrepresentation and fraud in their purchase of a franchise. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of the owners have the same attention to detail as Stern, as Stern told Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Greg Johns. "I would say none among the 30 owners questioned the good faith of Clay Bennett as the leader of this franchise and accepted his assurance that he'd acted in good faith," Stern said.

Apart from the irony of an overly pompous man like Stern who prides himself on acting smarter than everyone else making a grammatical slip-up (none among the owners accepted his assurance?), this also seems to indicate that the NBA owners aren't especially interested in Bennett's underhanded dealings. Of course, it's in their advantage to favour him: if robber barons like Bennett can simply pack up and leave for more favorable climes when they aren't given free arenas at public expense, it gives each owner more leverage in their negotiations with their own cities. Helping Bennett isn't good for the league, but it's advantageous for many individual franchises, particularly those looking for new arena funding from the public purse. That doesn't make for good optics, though: as Basketball Prospectus contributor Maury Brown wrote last November, "Watching an ownership group purchase a team with the transparent means of hijacking them to another city, or using relocation as an extortion ploy to get a new arena, is enough to make any fan nauseous."

In the end, though, basketball in Seattle isn't irrevocably doomed: the challenges have just gotten bigger. There's always the chance the city will receive an expansion team, and Bennett seems amicable to leaving behind the team name and history. What would be even better, though, would be retaining the current team. That's still possible, especially with the tri-pronged array of court battles yet to be fought: Howard Schultz's lawsuit to get back the team, the city's lawsuit to enforce the team's lease through 2010, and a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Sonics' season-ticket holders who feel Bennett misrepresented the team's plans to stay in Seattle to them to convince them to buy tickets. Given that the e-mails came out of discovery in the city lawsuit, who knows what other dirty laundry might show up to aid the various cases for keeping the Sonics?

Also, Bennett seems to be feeling the strain: in a recent brief in the city case, he accused Seattle leadership of a "Machiavellian plan" to force him to sell the Sonics to local ownership. Bennett accusing anyone else of being Machiavellian is quite humourous: as Seth Kolloen of Enjoy the Enjoyment wrote, "This is like the Unabomber accusing his brother and the FBI of conspiring to get him arrested." If Bennett continues with this wave of ridiculous protests, he might hurt his own case and damage the league's image of him, making a forced sale more palatable.

Kolloen also makes the excellent point that the Sonics have Slade Gordon on their side, a man whose lawsuit was responsible for the city receiving the Mariners after the Seattle Pilots fled town. Gordon has a vast array of experience, including serving as the state's attorney-general and a U.S. Senator: he's a good man to have in your corner in this kind of dispute.

Even if Schultz can't get the team back, it's worthwhile to keep in mind that Seattle has a powerful group of owners-in-waiting as well. Steve Ballmer, Jim Sinegal, Matt Griffin and John Stanton are the kind of owners this league wants, with plenty of cash to throw around. They've also made an excellent proposal for a refurbishment of Key Arena, and are willing to commit substantial amounts of their own money to the task: $150 million of the $300 million total, which is far better than the $100 million Bennett offered towards his ridiculous $500 million arena plan in Renton. I'm quite sure that plan was nothing more than an elaborate facade to try and show good faith, as the $300 million Bennett was asking for in money from the state (note: I know the numbers don't add up, but Bennett didn't specify where the extra $100 million was to come from in the story I found: perhaps the city of Renton?) was patently ridiculous given his own miniscule contribution. By comparison, the Ballmer plan looks fantastic. Additionally, the city of Seattle was on board with their contribution, and the state didn't reject the proposal out of hand, but rather said they would form a task force to study it next year. The offer is officially off the table, but Griffin told Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner his group might still be interested if the state comes through with the money.

Despite the above reasons for minor optimism, this is still a very dark day for Seattle, and the NBA as a whole. As ESPN's Tim Keown pointed out, it's unfortunate that this situation developed during one of the most exciting NBA seasons in years. It's as if someone drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa, and it makes it difficult for multi-sport fans like myself to wholeheartedly commit our interest to the NBA when they allow these ridiculous acts of piracy. Bill Simmons perhaps summed it up best in the "Note to David Stern" he inserted into the middle of his MVP picks column. "This was your Bay of Pigs," he wrote. "This was your Watergate. This seedy, incomprehensible saga stained your legacy -- it did -- and the sooner you publicly admit that you handled this situation appallingly from start to finish and do your best to make amends, the better off you will be. I'm speaking for all of us here: We don't want to follow a league in which anyone's franchise can be basically hijacked on a billionaire's whim. You need to fix this. You need to fix this right now." Truer words were never spoken.

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