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Originally published May 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 20, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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An interview with Clay Bennett, owner of Sonics

Staggering from the blow state lawmakers dealt the Sonics' and Storm's financial package on a proposed $500 million multi-purpose arena...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Staggering from the blow state lawmakers dealt the Sonics' and Storm's financial package on a proposed $500 million multi-purpose arena in Renton, chairman Clay Bennett retreated to his home in Oklahoma City for many weeks.

On Saturday, he emerged from the metaphorical bunker and watched the Storm's season opener from a private suite at KeyArena.

Before the start of the WNBA season, Bennett discussed a wide range of topics during a 45-minute interview with The Seattle Times. It was the first time he'd spoken publicly about his teams since April 17, when legislative leaders said they would not vote on the public-financing plan for the arena.

During the interview, Bennett re-affirmed his commitment to keeping both teams in the Seattle area, but he said he was pessimistic on finding a solution. He discussed why he fired coach Bob Hill, reassigned general manager Rick Sund and acknowledged the team mishandled Lenny Wilkens' promotion from vice chairman of the ownership group to president of basketball operations.

Bennett said the team has begun exploring markets outside of Seattle and dispelled published reports that he's interested in selling the Sonics or the Storm. He was hopeful the Sonics could secure the No. 1 pick in Tuesday's NBA draft lottery and said he intends to re-sign forward Rashard Lewis, who will become an unrestricted free agent in June.

The only subject that was off-limits was the search for a new GM and coach.

Bennett was extremely vague when asked about the interview process and how candidates are being chosen. When discussing possible GM replacements, he said he has been in contact with "the top tier of the NBA," alluding that informal interviews have already taken place.

"The process will not be vetted publicly," Bennett said. "When we have an announcement, then you can dissect what our intentions were. But we're not going to have a public process. We are committed absolutely to winning championships, and as we make these decisions, we keep that goal in mind."

While the coach and GM searches are the most immediate needs, and the June 28 draft is fast approaching, Bennett has spent an overwhelming amount of time determining the team's next move on the arena issue.

His lease with KeyArena expires in 2010, but he set an Oct. 31 deadline when he bought the teams for $350 million allowing him to relocate the Sonics and Storm if he's unable to land an arena deal here.

Bennett said he has began doing his "homework on other markets, including feasibility analysis and marketing reports," and admitted that he should not have identified Las Vegas as a possible destination before getting permission from commissioner David Stern.

"No. 1, there was miscommunication relative to my comments and perhaps I misspoke," Bennett said. "I'm completely in tune with the commissioner relative to Las Vegas. What I wanted to say was that while Oklahoma City is a viable market, it's not the only market."

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Still, his first choice is Renton.

"I am absolutely committed to the teams and committed to keeping them in the Seattle region," Bennett said. "But I'm pessimistic to finding a solution to those chances."

He said he has spoken with a dozen private-investment bankers about additional funding, but his attempts have not been fruitful.

"It gets down to a fairly simple notion," he said. "A private investment demands a return, and this investment will not provide a return."

The previous Howard Schultz-led ownership group claimed losses around $20 million a season.

Bennett also said that his ownership group will not commit any more money to the project. In its previous financial proposal, the ownership group asked for $300 million in King County taxes, $100 million from Renton and promised to cover the remaining $100 million balance.

When asked if he would re-submit a package that included a greater contribution from the team, Bennett said: "No. We're not putting forth more money. Why should I? We're already investing in an economic model that doesn't provide a return, but willing to do it to get this done. The unfortunate reality is this requires a significant public investment or else it's not going to get done."

Bennett said he has not reconsidered the 14-acre property in Bellevue, which was nearly chosen by the ownership group. He also said that he has not had substantive talks with real-estate developer Dave Sabey about a 55-acre site at the south end of Boeing Field despite reports that they're working on a deal and that Sabey had offered to buy the Sonics from Bennett.

"I am a friend of Dave Sabey and I respect him as a businessman," Bennett said. "He's been a great supporter of our attempt. I am aware that he's acquired that site, but we've had no relative discussions. I'm open to ideas, but there's nothing there."

Bennett believes if the Sonics are to remain in this region, then they are going to play at the proposed site in Renton. He's trying to apply political pressure on Gov. Christine Gregoire to call a special session of Legislature to secure a deal.

"The public has got to demand the government to move into action," he said. "I don't know what special demands need to happen to accommodate that process, but a public vote is required.

"It really gets down to does the market support the building of a new multi-purpose facility, which will provide a vast amount of revenue-generating streams and secure the NBA and WNBA in the marketplace for future generations? I fully respect the decision of the market. But there has to be a definitive answer to those questions. We must move on."

With regards to Lewis, Bennett said: "I think he is an outstanding talent and fine young man. I hope he will be a part of the Sonics a long time. I'm very much committed to keeping him."

Bennett was unsure where he'd watch Tuesday's draft lottery, but he is hopeful Seattle can parlay its fifth-worst record into a top draft pick. The Sonics have approximately an 18 percent chance of landing one of the top two picks.

"It would be transformative for us and an enormous shot in the arm," Bennett said. "It would bring an energy and excitement and a new vision and new look and new way forward. We have had very little if anything go our way. I think we're due for some good news."

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