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


Should Sonics fans keep the faith?

Seattle Times staff reporter

No one believes them.

But the new owners of the Sonics and Storm insist they will try their darnedest to reach a deal to keep the teams in Seattle, 2,000 miles from their hometown of Oklahoma City.

"I've made a lot of money in my life proving people wrong. So this might be one of those cases," G. Edward Evans, one of the new owners, who made his fortune in the telecommunications industry, said Wednesday in a telephone interview after touching down back home.

So should Sonics fans get their hopes up?

After all, the new guys contractually are obligated to go through the motions. The $350 million deal they signed with the local ownership group led by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz requires a "good faith" effort to keep the Sonics in Seattle — provided, of course, they receive an "attractive" arena deal, according to a letter signed by Clay Bennett, the Oklahoma investor introduced this week as the leader of the new owners.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said Wednesday they take the owners' statements seriously and will meet with them to see if an agreement can be reached.

Gregoire said it would be up to Seattle, or another city that wants the Sonics, to come up with the details.

"I'm not going to force anything down anybody's throat, particularly when they have to step up financially and with a lot of work, ... but if the city of Seattle wants them and will do that, or Bellevue or Renton, I'm there to work in a partnership."

Other local leaders were not optimistic. And recent history suggests it will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep the Sonics.

The first problem is the short time frame.

Although the Sonics have a lease at KeyArena until September 2010, the new owners have imposed a deadline of 12 months to secure an acceptable arena deal. That's a feat that Schultz's group failed to accomplish in more than two years of cajoling and threatening local and state politicians.

The real deadline may be even closer: The Legislature, which likely would have to vote on any arena package, convenes in January. State lawmakers and Gregoire have told Seattle politicians that they need to make a deal with the Sonics before coming to Olympia.

Gregoire wouldn't rule out the possibility of state aid, but said, "I'm not in any way communicating that there is a checkbook sitting here just waiting to be filled in."

Seattle politicians have not been eager to embrace the Sonics' cause.

Although Nickels has said that he will work with the new owners, neither he nor the City Council has given any indication that the threat of a Sonics move to Oklahoma will change their bargaining position.

"I really don't see much movement beyond what the mayor offered," said Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, a fierce opponent of tax subsidies for pro sports. "And we're only the first hurdle. People keep forgetting. How often does Seattle go down to the state Legislature and say 'we want something' and get it in one session?"

Nickels said recent offers he'd made to the team were still on the table. Evans on Wednesday called those offers, of between $50 million and $200 million in public funding for a KeyArena renovation, a "good starting point" for negotiations.

The new owners, a group of oil, banking and other executives from Oklahoma City, already have paid $350 million to buy the Sonics and Storm. Evans declined to say whether they'd be willing to open their wallets wider to finance an arena project in the Seattle area.

The ambivalence of Seattle leaders is in line with opinion polls, which consistently have shown the Sonics' request for taxpayer help to be unpopular in the city. An initiative to restrict public money for a KeyArena expansion to benefit the team is close to making the fall ballot.

Given Seattle's attitude, said state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, the best shot at keeping the Sonics and Storm in Washington state lies in the suburbs.

"I think it will be to our advantage to pretty much have Seattle out of the way, because their hostility was truly a distraction. It kept serious talks from going on," said Prentice, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee and one of the Sonics' biggest supporters in Olympia. She said she plans talks with Renton officials to see if plans for a new arena can emerge there.

Bennett and Evans met briefly Wednesday with Bellevue city officials and then toured possible arena sites on the Eastside before flying out of town midafternoon. Evans also spoke by phone with Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, a vocal proponent for a new Sonics arena in his home city.

Freeman said he was confident the new owners want to keep the team in the Seattle area, because the franchise would be more valuable. "It'd be very premature for people to assume that this team is just going to cut to Oklahoma," Freeman said. "I think that'd be a last resort."

King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer announced Wednesday that a regional panel of politicians from Seattle and suburban cities will hold a public hearing Aug. 2 to "explore the benefits of professional sports in the Puget Sound region." He said the region, not just Seattle, should fight to keep the Sonics and Storm.

Von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way, was active in the fight to keep the Seattle Seahawks in town in the 1990s. But he said he was not assuming the mantle of champion for the Sonics. "I want to test the political will of the region," he said.

Meanwhile, the new owners said they'll be back shortly to start talks on whether an agreement is possible. From a business perspective, Evans said, Seattle residents should keep in mind that the new owners have every reason to want to keep the Sonics and Storm here.

"It is a larger market. It is a more prominent market, and frankly, I think the NBA wants to keep a presence in a larger market like Seattle," Evans said.

But given the new owners' long-stated goal of bringing professional basketball to Oklahoma City, such statements have not convinced many in Seattle.

Seattle City Councilwoman Jan Drago said that, no matter what Seattle does, the fate of the Sonics and Storm depends on what happens to the New Orleans Hornets, which have been playing in Oklahoma City since being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

"If they go back to New Orleans, kiss the Sonics goodbye," she said.

Staff reporters Ashley Bach and Andrew Garber contributed to this report. Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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