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

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A 3-joint play for Sonics and Hornets

Seattle Times staff reporter

Two NBA franchises stretched between three cities have created one potentially big problem for commissioner David Stern.

When Oklahoma City businessmen purchased the Sonics and the WNBA Storm on Tuesday, basketball fans in Seattle were inadvertently pulled into a triangle that includes Oklahoma City and New Orleans.

The Hornets played last season in Oklahoma City and will play there again next season, but the NBA plans to return the team to Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans for 2007-08.

In many ways, Oklahoma City and Seattle have joint custody of the Sonics. Investment capitalist tycoon Clay Bennett, chairman of the Professional Basketball Club LLC, said Seattle has 12 months to reach a binding assurance on a replacement for KeyArena or renovations and a new lease. If there is no deal, he is expected to try to move the team to Oklahoma City.

While there's no guarantee the Hornets will return to New Orleans and the Sonics will relocate to Oklahoma City, it appears as if Seattle will be the city left standing in the high-stakes game of musical chairs.

Stern, meanwhile, has provided no assurances that Seattle's oldest professional franchise won't leave the city after a 39-year relationship that has included three NBA Finals appearances and the 1979 championship.

NBA spokesman Tim Frank said Wednesday that Stern, who has been out of the office, is closely monitoring the situation.

"We still have got to review all of the sale information and do our due diligence," Frank said. "It would be inappropriate for David to give any comment right now."

The NBA Board of Governors meets in October and requires at least a three-fourths vote to approve the $350 million sale. Once that happens, the countdown officially will begin, and moving vans quite possibly will carry the Sonics and the WNBA's Storm away.

"David has been pretty clear on the subject for years: Our first priority is for teams to stay in the city that they are at," Frank said. "We were encouraged to hear that they [the new owners] are working with the city to remain in the Pacific Northwest.

"We don't work to move our teams. Moving teams is a last option."

The Hornets started as an expansion franchise in Charlotte in 1988, then moved to New Orleans in 2002 when Charlotte would not build a new arena.

The team is expected to return to New Orleans, but owner George Shinn has been non-committal and possibly swayed by recent projections that the team will exceed last year's season-ticket sales — it sold out half of its 36 home games at Ford Center in Oklahoma City.

"Are we going back to New Orleans? I can't answer that question," Shinn told The Oklahoman. "This team is New Orleans' team to lose. Our plans are to go back.

"I have a responsibility to my heirs and to my employees to make sure this franchise is successful and strong. I don't know what city that will be in. I hope it will be in New Orleans because that's our home, but I can't read the future."

Shinn's lukewarm endorsement of New Orleans, coupled with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett's preference of the Hornets, fuels belief that the city might keep its first NBA franchise.

"It's presumptuous to assume that Clay Bennett and his ownership group won't own that Seattle team for a long, long time in Seattle or somewhere else," Cornett told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "It's presumptuous to assume they're going to move that franchise to Oklahoma City.

"I understand that people are going to say that seems to be a likely scenario, but that's just speculation."

In Cornett's scenario, Seattle keeps the Sonics, the Hornets remain in Oklahoma City and New Orleans is the odd man out.

This set of circumstances, however, appears unlikely because Stern repeatedly has said he's committed to having a team in New Orleans. The Hornets will play six games at the 17,200-seat New Orleans Arena next season as a trial run for a full-time return in 2007-08. The NBA, which awarded the 2008 All-Star Game to New Orleans, is also working with the Hornets to secure corporate sponsors and season-ticket holders.

Michael Thompson, the Hornets' director of corporate communications, said Shinn also seeks a state-funded practice facility and a local investor before returning to New Orleans.

"If those conditions aren't met, then we'd see ourselves as a free agent," Thompson said. "Certainly Oklahoma City would become an option ... because we're familiar with the city and we've had some success here; but again, there's other options."

San Jose and Kansas City are potential NBA markets. Thompson said the Hornets have not considered moving to Seattle.

"I understand that the fates of the [three] cities are intertwined; but for us, at this time, Seattle is not an option," he said. "Seattle already has an NBA team and an ownership group committed to making that situation work."

Said Frank: "No one knows how everything is going to play out in Seattle, Oklahoma City or New Orleans. Obviously, two teams can't play in three cities, so that will need to work itself out."

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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