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Originally published Wednesday, March 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

State's reluctance to help Sonics stings city

Feeling a little motion sickness today? Tired of the wild ride? Wondering where all of that euphoria you felt late last week has gone? Worried, more than ever...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Feeling a little motion sickness today? Tired of the wild ride?

Wondering where all of that euphoria you felt late last week has gone? Worried, more than ever, that the best chance of saving the Sonics has been lost in the ennui of Olympia?

You're not alone.

"I feel the same way," Seattle's deputy major Tim Ceis said Tuesday afternoon.

He thought he had the makings of a great deal. He had an impeccable group of investors assembled. He had the support of City Hall. He had a proposal to remodel KeyArena that glittered with possibilities.

But he never had the state. Never had the governor's support. Never got close to the speaker of the house.

And, just as quickly as this $300 million deal seemed to come together last week, it came unraveled even faster this week.

Now what?

"We aren't giving up," Ceis said. "The mayor directed me this morning to sit down with the investor group and figure out how we can restructure this. But it's going to be hard. There's no rabbit out of a hat yet."

Now that Gov. Christine Gregoire has shown all the leadership of a rookie point guard and after the Speaker of the House Frank Chopp has made it clear he isn't interested in keeping NBA basketball in Seattle, where do the people who care go from here?

How can the Sonics be saved, when the people with the power to save them won't even address the issue?

"It's really difficult for the city to go this alone, without a partnership here," Ceis said. "And $150 million is a big bite and that puts us into the city's general fund, which then has the KeyArena competing with things like parks, police, fire, human services. That's what we were hoping to avoid."

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Late last week, Gov. Gregoire was handed the chance to be heroic. The super-rich quartet of Steve Ballmer, Jim Sinegal, John Stanton and Matt Griffin set the screen for Gregoire.

In concert with the city, this quartet had proposed a $300 million deal to remodel KeyArena and pursue the idea of buying the Sonics, or another franchise, and keeping the NBA in Seattle. The investors were willing to pay half the cost of the Key's makeover.

They understood the importance of the NBA in Seattle. And they were willing to write huge checks to breathe life into the game.

The city was going to throw in $75 million, through an admissions tax or other revenue generated at KeyArena. All the state had to do was to give King County permission to raise the remaining $75 million by temporarily extending car-rental and restaurant taxes. Those taxes, collected only in King County, are currently used to pay off the debt on Safeco Field.

It was the best deal this basketball-loving town would ever see, and all Gregoire had to do was call a short special Legislative session and convince the state's lawmakers to find the money to finish the deal.

Surely she didn't want to be known as the governor who lost the game.

Surely she would fight to keep the Sonics in town.

But when Gregoire could have done something extraordinary, she did nothing. And when he could have been a leader, Chopp was a laggard.

Neither understood how good and how fleeting this deal was.

"There was one guy in particular who wasn't agreeable to letting this happen, and that was the speaker of the House," Ceis said. "I think Frank, fundamentally, just doesn't believe that any money should be going to help a professional sports franchise. And I don't think he could get past his own personal biases on that issue."

Chopp's response has been disingenuous, not to mention shortsighted. Obviously, neither he nor the governor cares about the future of basketball, or the future of KeyArena.

"When he proposed this to us a week ago," Ceis said, "our response was, one, 'It will be too late,' and, two, 'Come on, Frank, we're not going to sit in a room and argue over whether or not this money should go to KeyArena, or cleaning up Puget Sound. That's just not appropriate.'

"Besides, it was just a cover-up way to say no. I mean, come on, they should have just come out and said, 'No, we're not doing it.' That would have been more honest."

Now, the deal is dying. The investor group has set a deadline date of April 10. A proposal needs to be in hand before the NBA Board of Governors meet April 17-18 to vote on Sonics owner Clay Bennett's request to move his franchise to Oklahoma City.

The deal is dying, but it isn't dead. Ceis and the city aren't surrendering to the stubbornness in Olympia.

"We're going to see if we can go it alone," Ceis said. "Somehow, some way, figure out a way to do this. I'm not willing to say no to this investor group yet.

"We're going to turn over every rock we can to try to find a solution. I'm hoping the general enthusiasm that came out of this new investor group stepping up won't be lost in the next few weeks."

It's too good a group to dismiss. Even the NBA would agree with that. And it's hard to imagine a group this strong coming together again.

"These guys aren't motivated by being sports fans," Ceis said. "They don't dream of owning their own franchise. They really, truly did this out of a sense of civic investment and wanting to do what's right for the community. How do you pass that up?"

Ask the politicians without vision. Ask Gregoire. Ask Chopp.

How can they pass this up? How can they, so glibly, say no?

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

Copyright © 2008 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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