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Originally published August 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 27, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Steve Kelley

Time for Sonics' fans, leaders to fight exit strategy

Call it "The Montreal Expos Exit Strategy." Because that's what this August offensive from the wanderlusting Sonics ownership feels like...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Call it "The Montreal Expos Exit Strategy."

Because that's what this August offensive from the wanderlusting Sonics ownership feels like.

The strategy seems something like this:

Let inflammatory comments slip from purposely loose lips, creating an adversarial relationship. Operate the team on a shoestring. Alienate the politicians and the fans.

Declare war and then backpedal. Declare war and then backpedal. Talk tough and then "aw shucks" some lame, clarifying statement.

Lose a lot of games. Finally throw your hands up in the air. Explain to the powers that be how misunderstood you feel. Tell them you've tried everything in this town and nothing works. Show them the dwindling attendance figures, then declare, "It's time for us to go."

On second thought, the strategy of the new Sonics ownership seems eerily like the plot line from the movie, "Major League," with Sonics chairman Clay Bennett reprising Margaret Whitton's role in the film.

Minority owner Aubrey "The Oil Man" McClendon fired the first shot, telling an Oklahoma City business journal it was the ownership's intention all along to move the Sonics to OKC.

Back in New York, commissioner David Stern has enough problems, dealing with a cheat of an official, Tim Donaghy, who appears to be ready to blow his whistle on several colleagues.

Stern also is trying to get an arena deal finished in Sacramento. He already has serious problem-franchises in medium-sized cities like Memphis, Charlotte and New Orleans. And his great game is suffering from perception problems and stagnant television ratings.

He wants, you could almost say needs, a team in Seattle. He wants the renewed buzz Portland's Greg Oden and Seattle's Kevin Durant could generate in the Northwest, one of the league's best rivalries.

Stern already is up to the knot in his tie in troubles. And the last thing he wanted in this summer of discontent was some newbie, some calculating, shoot-from-lip yay-hoo, complicating his life.

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His $250,000 fine of McClendon was significant, not so much for its size. (That's walking-around money for Oil Man Aubrey.) It was significant because it was a very public reprimand and something you know Stern didn't want to do.

Now comes news, broken by the Tacoma News Tribune, that in meetings in Seattle with Sonics staff on Friday, Bennett outlined a plan that is in place to move the team out of Seattle.

According to the Tacoma paper, Bennett told the staff that Oklahoma City was willing to pay legal fees if Seattle fought to force the Sonics to honor their lease. He said that city would pay the lease's buyout and whatever relocation fees that would be assessed by the league.

That's how much loyalty Bennett has engendered among his staff. It seems as if at least one staff member ratted him out.

If all Bennett says is true, Oklahoma City seems prepared to sink almost $700 million into the quest to bring the Sonics to the Southwest.

Bennett called the plan "a hypothetical." But it sounds as hypothetical as Newton's Law.

These robber barons want to move the team, period.

And this detailed relocation plan is a sobering call to arms for Seattle's mayor and city council, for the governor and the state Legislature. And a call for help from this city to Stern.

This situation has gotten so ugly and so contentious, Stern almost has to get involved.

And, I believe, if this area can finalize a viable arena deal that already is in discussion, he will find a way to keep the team in Greater Seattle.

The problem with "The Montreal Expos/'Major League' Exit Strategy," is that Seattle isn't Montreal. And the only way the league is going to allow Bennett to move is if the city or the state does nothing.

There are very wealthy people in this area who also are passionate about the NBA and the Sonics. And it is absolutely essential that they get together with Mayor Greg Nickels and Gov. Christine Gregoire and put together a plan that keeps the team here.

Accidentally, but effectively, Bennett and McClendon have strengthened the resolve of this area to get an arena deal done. They've awakened the slumbering politicians and angered the wealthy hoop fans.

Bennett told the Tacoma paper he believed Sonics fans were directing their anger at the wrong person. He said they should be upset at the previous ownership group, led by Howard Schultz, for being so naive as to sell the team to outside ownership.

It was as if Bennett were saying, "Look, I know I'm a snake, but I didn't sell this team to myself."

Nobody will argue that Schultz sold out Seattle. He's as much a villain in this story as the OKC Chorale.

But Howard Schultz is old news.

It's time to turn our attention away from the evil doers from Oklahoma and to the matter at hand — finalizing a plan that impresses Stern and keeps the Sonics in Seattle.

The fight is on.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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