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Originally published May 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 21, 2005 at 3:21 PM

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Sonics

After loss, new season for Sonics

The skies darkened and an afternoon rain shower doused Howard Schultz as he provided a state-of-affairs address on his basketball team...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The skies darkened and an afternoon rain shower doused Howard Schultz as he provided a state-of-affairs address on his basketball team, which had been eliminated from the NBA playoffs the previous night.

His message, in short: All is well.

It has taken him four years since leading a local investment group that purchased the Sonics to get to this point, when he could say those words without a hint of duplicity.

He had always been optimistic, even to a fault. It was Schultz who broached the idea of a five-year plan for the Sonics to reach championship level, which drew snickers and raised eyebrows around the city.

It has been Schultz who has unapologetically displayed his emotions for all to see at midcourt of Sonics games. He screams at referees after bad calls, slaps high fives with players and slumps in his chair in defeat.

His son, Jordan, once jokingly said that he has a lousy poker face.

The Starbucks man who has sold coffee to millions was never any good at selling a mediocre basketball team to a disenchanted and dwindling fan base.

But there he was yesterday, standing in the rain, selling and promoting once again.

And this time, his optimism didn't seem misplaced and his enthusiasm appeared to ring true as he spoke glowingly about the past and future despite the many questions swirling around the Sonics.

"What we've done, it's remarkable testimony to character, courage, commitment, leaving your ego at the door and playing the game the right way," Schultz said. "What we said when we bought the team is we wanted to build the kind of team that was emblematic with the values of the Northwest, and that's what we've done.

"We certainly recognize that we have something unique and special and we have to build on it. We have to make some tough choices and we will, but we'll try to put our fans first."

And now the proverbial ball is back in Schultz's court.

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As the principal owner, it is Schultz, along with CEO and president Wally Walker, who will be responsible for deciding who among the team's nine potential free agents will return — and at what price.

This season, the Sonics ranked 18th in the NBA with a $53 million payroll. Of the teams still in the playoffs, Phoenix ($46 million), San Antonio ($47 million) and Detroit ($52 million) have smaller salary demands.

Schultz said yesterday it's unlikely the Sonics' payroll will increase and that the team will remain below the luxury tax, if such a penalty remains in the new collective bargaining agreement.

The dour tenor surrounding the CBA negotiations suggests a lockout is impending, which gives the Sonics six weeks to address their issues before a potential work stoppage.

The team began negotiating with an attorney representing general manager Rick Sund weeks ago, and as of Thursday no agreement had been reached.

Before Seattle's 98-96 loss to San Antonio in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, Sund said: "The only extension I'm concerned about is extending this series."

Team sources indicated the Sonics plan to reach out to coach Nate McMillan once again after he spurned their attempt to begin contract negotiations last month.

At the time, McMillan said he wanted to remain consistent to an agreement he reached with the team last year, which was to wait until the end of the season before discussing his future.

Back then, he needed the Sonics more than they needed him, but after guiding Seattle to a 52-30 record and a second-round playoff finish, their positions have switched.

According to league sources, the New York Knicks will soon inquire about McMillan, who finished third in coach-of-the-year balloting, and he's sure to draw interest from Minnesota, Cleveland and Orlando.

The Sonics have exclusive negotiating rights with McMillan until midnight July 30.

Assuming that Sund will re-sign shortly, McMillan conceivably is the first domino in the procession, followed by All-Star guard Ray Allen, who expressed a strong desire to return to Seattle during a tearful display Thursday night.

Backup point guard Antonio Daniels confirmed yesterday that he plans to opt out of a deal that would pay him $2.2 million next season, and test the free-agent market.

Daniels' stellar performance in the playoffs, in which he outplayed Spurs guard Tony Parker, has increased his value, while injuries to reserve forward Vladimir Radmanovic might have decreased what teams will offer him.

The other free agents: guards Ronald Murray and Mateen Cleaves, forwards Reggie Evans and Damien Wilkins and centers Jerome James and Vitaly Potapenko.

Reserve forward Danny Fortson said yesterday he will not exercise an option that would make him a free agent. He has two years remaining on a deal that will pay him $13 million.

Schultz acknowledged that it's impossible to re-sign everyone, especially considering the franchise losses estimated at $17 million, which forced the need for a cash call, and the team's unfavorable arena deal with the city.

"It's not pressure; we're in a unique situation," Schultz said. "The guys have overachieved. The fans have responded, and we want to build on that. ... We've got some tough situations to make.

"But in view of how well we've done, we want to continue to win. We want to continue to build on this. We have a very solid foundation of young players that have stepped up, guys with great character and courage, and a great coaching staff. We recognize this is a unique opportunity."

The Sonics have made Schultz a fan again, just as they did back in 1996 when they advanced to the NBA Finals.

They've taken him to tremendous peaks and depths during a season unlike any other. He has endured criticism for being too active and not doing enough. But Thursday, even in defeat, he had never been happier with his team.

Yesterday he described a scene after the game in which a father consoled his sobbing pre-adolescent son. Just telling the story brought a wide grin to Schultz's face.

"That's what we had hoped for," he said. "We touched the hearts and minds of people. I think we galvanized this community once again. It reminds me when I was in the stands in the [arena] when we beat Utah in the '90s. I recognize how unique and special this is. That's why you're in sports."

Schultz couldn't stop smiling yesterday, and he hardly looked like the man who on the first day of training camp stood in the middle of a practice court and refuted rumors that he intended to sell the team.

Like every other Sonic who cleaned out his locker and loaded vehicles with his belongings, Schultz carried a black garbage bag stuffed full of memorabilia as he walked away from a season he'll never forget.

"I can't believe it ended so abruptly," he said. "You go through all of that and bam, just like that it's over."

Then again, maybe this is just the beginning.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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