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Originally published Friday, April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

City's fight for Sonics is the best way to honor the team

By now, most cities would have quit. They would have caved in to the steady drip, drip, drip of NBA commissioner David Stern's nasty quips...

Seattle Times staff columnist

By now, most cities would have quit. They would have caved in to the steady drip, drip, drip of NBA commissioner David Stern's nasty quips.

They would have watched the incredibly shrinking attendance figures at KeyArena. They would have counted the team's losses and, like the team did weeks ago, would have given up.

They would have negotiated a buyout of the arena lease, taken the money, kept the team name and allowed The Team Formerly Known As Sonics to leave for Oklahoma City.

But Seattle is fighting. It is doing everything it can to keep the franchise inside KeyArena. And it is compiling mountains of evidence that, once again, shows Clay Bennett's ownership group to be a pack of prevaricators.

As reported in Thursday's Seattle Times by Jim Brunner, the city obtained e-mails that show how impatient the franchise's ownership is to get out of town.

Last April, with three years remaining on the lease, co-owner Tom Ward e-mailed Bennett to ask about the possibility of escaping the lease, escaping Seattle and going where they've intended to go all along.

Ward worried, "... Are we doomed to have another lame-duck season in Seattle?"

As the Sonics' 18-61 record attests, they have been more lame than duck.

The e-mails also confirm that Bennett never was inclined to bargain in good faith with local politicians. Remember when previous owner Howard Schultz assured us that Bennett's ownership group was the best option for keeping the team in Seattle?

Ha.

Bennett supposedly promised Schultz he would bargain through 2007 in an effort to keep the team in the Seattle area. But Bennett and the NBA's idea of "good faith" bargaining is making absurdly grandiose, non-negotiable demands.

If the villainous Schultz truly cared, he probably could sue Bennett for breaking that good-faith agreement. And then again, Schultz could quit his chief executive role at Starbucks and become a barista on Capitol Hill.

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In truth, Bennett's wanderlust began the day his group bought the team.

A year ago, for instance, he discussed, with co-owner Aubrey McClendon, the possibilities of breaking the lease.

We all know McClendon. He is part of franchise history because of the $250,000 fine Stern levied against him for remarks he made to an Oklahoma City business journal saying the plan always was to move to OKC.

In an e-mail from Ward to McClendon, in August 2006, shortly after they bought the team, Ward, discussing the probability one member of the group was pulling out, wrote, "I don't think you or I want to own a team there [Seattle] either."

None of these e-mail exchanges should be surprising, but they are damning.

And what does the NBA think of all of this?

Another no comment.

Isn't it interesting how Stern couldn't wait to call the 11th-hour efforts of the city and an ownership group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to keep the team in town "a publicity stunt," but he has no comment about the gaggle of liars whose bidding he has done?

Is this what the NBA really stands for? A legacy of deception? A steady stream of insults directed at a city that has a 41-year history in the league?

There is no doubt — only a publicly-financed, half-billion-dollar pleasure dome in Renton would have placated Bennett and his boys.

Nobody could have blamed the city if it quit this fight, the way the players quit in Denver. It could have taken the path of least resistance, allowed the team to move and hoped that some day Stern would grant it another franchise.

But instead of grieving, the city is grappling. In these darkest hours it is standing up to these basketball bullies. This summer, a federal judge will decide whether the franchise must honor the KeyArena lease and stay for two more seasons.

Maybe, just maybe, the NBA will learn it can't fight City Hall.

Or maybe fighting the league could backfire on Seattle.

Stern could threaten the city by saying, "If you don't play this game the way we want you to play it; if you continue to fight us in court and hold us to the terms of the lease, I'll put a team in Fargo, N.D., before I ever put another team in Seattle."

But the city isn't cowering in the face of Stern's threats and insults.

The fact the city is willing to fight so doggedly for a team that has been here since 1967 should be something the NBA celebrates.

If Stern would get out of his own way, he would realize Seattle is validating the NBA in a way Oklahoma City can't. Seattle is honoring the league, not insulting it.

The fight continues and the evidence against this ownership group grows.

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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