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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - Page updated at 04:29 PM

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Steve Kelley

Schultz sold out Seattle for $350 million

Seattle Times staff columnist

Look at it this way, at least now we know what Howard Schultz's five-year plan really was.

Five years ago, the Lord of Lattes pledged an NBA championship for the city of Seattle. Five years later, he gave it the shaft instead.

Five years later, he and his ownership group, The Basketball Club of Seattle, sold the team to a group from Oklahoma City — where, not so coincidentally, the NBA is very interested in locating a franchise.

Forget the faux-festive scene inside the Furtado Center at Tuesday afternoon's news conference. The green and gold balloons tied to sneakers. The 1979 NBA and 2004 WNBA title trophies on opposite ends of the dais.

This is one of the saddest days ever in Seattle sports.

Tuesday, the Schultz group sold the Sonics and sold out the city. What is the price of betrayal? At least on this day it was $350 million.

Over and over again at the news conference, Schultz talked about the economic realities of the NBA, as if it just occurred to him that players' salaries are really, really high.

He talked about the impossibility of the team's KeyArena lease agreement as if he hadn't read it before he bought the team.

News flash: The Sonics aren't Starbucks. Basketball is a much different game than coffee. And the economic realities of the game are about as secretive as Jennifer Aniston's love life.

"I think there was some naivetÚ coming in," Schultz said, looking back on the day his group bought the team.

It was the understatement of the day.

And you have to be as na´ve as Schultz to think this was a good day for basketball in this town.

In his defense, when it comes to hoops, Schultz is a hopeless romantic. He believed the same ideals and models that worked in the coffee business could work in the basketball business.

They can't. They didn't.

And now this team could be 12 months away from leaving for Oklahoma City.

This great basketball town that has supported this franchise for 39 years, that set attendance records when the team was playing in the Kingdome in the 1970s, is desperately close to losing its team.

They dressed up the day to make it feel like a celebration. But all the balloons in the world can't hide what's real.

"We fully intend to fulfill our obligations at KeyArena," said Clay Bennett, the leader of the Oklahoma City-based group that is buying the team.

But later he put a time limit on optimism, saying he was committing to "a 12-month process" of good-faith bargaining with the city and the state to keep the team in Seattle.

As a basketball fan as hopelessly in love with the game as Schultz is, I hope Bennett isn't mouthing empty promises.

As a basketball fan who believes there isn't a better place to be on a cold January night than inside a warm arena, watching the best players on the planet defying the laws of physics, I hope Bennett's negotiations with the city will be more reasoned and less combative than his predecessor's.

The fan in me wishes the NBA would realize that New Orleans, even in the best of times, is a lousy basketball city and would decide to keep the Hornets in Oklahoma City, eliminating that possibility for Bennett.

As somebody who has seen this franchise founder since the mid-1990s, I wonder what it might be like watching a Sonics team that no longer is cursed with the incompetent presidency of Wally Walker.

Imagine a team with a president who doesn't throw millions of dollars at 7-foot stiffs. Imagine a team with a president who delivers more than one playoff series win in eight years. Imagine a team with a president who makes moves instead of excuses.

Imagine the Sonics without Walker.

More likely, 2006-07 will be a lame-duck season. Bennett and his partners will go through the motions of negotiations before throwing up their hands and announcing they have reached an impasse with all of the local governing bodies.

More likely they will call a balloon-free news conference sometime around next February's All-Star Game to announce that nothing is getting done. The city, not wanting to be stuck with hosting a team that wants to leave town, will negotiate a buyout of the final three years of the lease.

After 40 years, the Sonics will be gone.

And Bennett, with the NBA's blessing, will return home to a hero's welcome.

I hope I'm wrong.

"I see a bright and exciting future here in Seattle," Bennett said.

But this week, the future in Seattle feels as dark as the winter solstice.

It didn't have to be this way.

If Schultz really wanted the Sonics to stay in Seattle, why was his trigger finger so itchy? Why didn't he at least inform the Seattle City Council that he had an out-of-town buyer ready to make a deal?

Though the team has been on the market for about six months, this sale seems rushed.

Why didn't Schultz at least give someone like former general manager Bob Whitsitt a chance to put an 11th-hour local group together and maybe offer that ownership group a hometown price of, say, $300 million?

Even former owner Barry Ackerley turned down an out-of-town offer of $230 million before selling the team to Schultz's group for $200 million.

Back then, a mere five years ago, Schultz seemed heroic. Like Nintendo with the Mariners and Paul Allen with the Seahawks, he had saved the franchise.

But once he had the team, he did almost nothing with it. He talked about championships that he never came close to delivering.

This heavyweight businessman turned into a lightweight baller.

And now the future of the franchise is with a group we don't know that is based in a city that is thirsting for its own NBA team.

"They want to stay here," Schultz said.

Once again, he sounded much too naive.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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