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Thursday, July 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Steve Kelley

Whitsitt: After 39 years, Sonics belong in Seattle

Seattle Times staff columnist

A little more than a decade ago, this team was his team and the dream of a new basketball building was his dream.

Bob Whitsitt was the president of the Sonics from 1986 to 1994. He was the real architect of the 1996 Western Conference championship team that his successor, Wally Walker, enjoys taking credit for building.

Whitsitt drafted Gary Payton and took a chance on a high-school kid named Shawn Kemp. Whitsitt traded for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins and acquired Ricky Pierce. Whitsitt gambled on the gamboling coach from Real Madrid, George Karl.

And before he resigned after a dispute with then-owner Barry Ackerley, Whitsitt was the front man in the negotiations for the remodeling job that turned the Seattle Coliseum into KeyArena.

And that's why, the day after Howard Schultz and his gang sold the Sonics to a group from Oklahoma City, Whitsitt was feeling the same hangover every heartsick Sonics fan was feeling.

"I'm bummed," Whitsitt said Wednesday afternoon as he sat in the lobby of a downtown hotel. "But I think, a day later, I take the position, 'Let's really hope it all gets figured out and stays here.' Because the one thing I don't want to think about is Seattle not having NBA basketball. That would just be a complete downer. That would be bad for everybody on every level.

"To be honest with you, I certainly wish it was a local group buying the team. Local tends to want to stay local. You always feel a little more comfortable and secure. But let's hope these guys come in and give it the best shot. This franchise is so much stronger than you could imagine. I mean you're just about at the 40-year mark. That is solid, proven stock."

One scene from the news conference still lingers naggingly the day after. Despite all the green and gold balloons that wiggled festively around the Furtado Center on Tuesday, the mood was funereal.

Clay Bennett, who should have been ecstatic that he had purchased an NBA team, never really smiled. He looked like he was buying a condo in Kabul, not a basketball team in Seattle.

And when Schultz presented him with a Sonics' No. 1 jersey — wasn't that Gus Williams' number? And isn't that number retired? — Bennett looked as thrilled as if he had just been given an oven mitt.

"The guy [Bennett] said something like, 'I'm going to give it 12 months,' " Whitsitt said. "I'm thinking, 'Whoa, there's four years left on the [KeyArena] lease, and he's giving it 12 months?' Well, hopefully it's a good 12 months.

"The one thing I know, the team's been well-supported here. I view it as, if the fans' support has been there year in and year out, then the community deserves a team. And the fans' support has been there for the almost 40 years. All the other agendas and issues and politics and economics, all those things should be able to get figured out behind closed doors."

The league has too many markets that truly are weak — Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, for instance — to tinker with a city that has had the long-term support the Sonics have enjoyed.

"If you're the commissioner, you're always looking to make your weakest franchises better," Whitsitt said. "There are a number of sputtering franchises, and this isn't one of them. Plus you need the presence up here. You need a little rivalry with Portland. You need a little action going in this corner up here."

He has been out of the league since leaving the Portland Trail Blazers in May 2003, but Whitsitt, whose company, Whitsitt Enterprises, is considering bringing an indoor lacrosse franchise to Seattle beginning in 2008, says he still watches a couple of NBA games a night.

He was a gym rat long before he was a GM. He still attends Sonics games. He was courtside for the home finale this year against the Denver Nuggets.

"The trouble with KeyArena is with the lease, not the building," Whitsitt said. "I can tell you, I still talk to a lot of people in the league when they come to town, and they love playing in KeyArena. It's a great venue to watch a game. And it can be a great venue for the lacrosse team. I believe fans enjoy watching events there."

Don't laugh at lacrosse. The National Lacrosse League has grown from four teams in 1997 to 13. It has a TV contract with OLN, the network of the National Hockey League. It is a league that has found a niche.

And Whitsitt is smitten with the game. His son Sean played it at Harvard. But he sees it as a complement to the NBA, not a substitute.

"We started this process with the NLL, with 100 percent belief that we had no 'buts,' that the Sonics would definitely be here," he said. "We're not looking to replace the NBA. We're looking to add something. What we're hoping is that we don't lose the Sonics."

This gloomy day-after, most of heartsick Seattle was hoping right along with Bob Whitsitt.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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