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Originally published December 11, 2010 at 8:04 PM | Page modified December 11, 2010 at 8:24 PM

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Steve Kelley

NBA could return to Seattle — if Steve Ballmer is interested

It seems inevitable New Orleans will lose the Hornets. Seattle could be their new home, but that probably depends on whether Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wants to buy the team.

Seattle Times staff columnist

2010-11 U.S. TV market rankings

No. 13

Seattle-Tacoma (1,874,750 TV homes)

No. 52

New Orleans (635,860 TV homes)

Source: Nielsen


In the hot, overcrowded ballroom of a downtown hotel, team spokesman Matt Griffin is standing at a podium in front of a large, familiar green and gold Seattle SuperSonics banner.

To his left stand members from the team's illustrious past. Gary Payton. Xavier McDaniel, Lenny Wilkens, Detlef Schrempf, Fred Brown, Slick Watts. To his right is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

It is sometime in 2011. The NBA has reached agreement with the players' union on a new collective bargaining agreement, and the lockout has ended.

And the feeling in the ballroom is electric, the way it was in KeyArena in 1996 when the Sonics played the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

The room quiets as Griffin begins to speak.

"It is with great pleasure that I announce today that the Seattle SuperSonics are back," Griffin says, as the room erupts in cheers. "The ownership group led by Mr. Ballmer has agreed to purchase the Hornets and will play their games in KeyArena until construction is completed on the Microsoft Center in Bellevue."

It could happen according to several people interested in bringing the team to Seattle. But only if Ballmer is interested in fighting the good fight.

New Orleans almost certainly is losing the Hornets. In the next several weeks, the team won't meet its necessary attendance numbers, which will trigger an escape clause in the lease.

The Hornets have seven games remaining, before the lease's deadline, to reach their attendance benchmark. They won't hit the mark.

They have to average more than 15,000 in those games, two of which are on weeknights against NBA bottom-feeders Philadelphia and Sacramento.

The Hornets drew only 10,800 for a home game against Detroit and, despite their 11-2 start, they averaged only 13,000 fans in those early games.

On or about March 31 of next year, the NBA, which is in the process of purchasing the Hornets from owner George Shinn for $300 million, will announce it is opting out of the lease.

Good public-relations man that he is, commissioner David Stern will offer the Hornets to local business people, telling them this is the perfect time to negotiate a friendlier lease.

There is very little likelihood of a local buyer coming forward. The resources aren't there, and New Orleans never has shown the passion for the NBA that Seattle has shown.

Sometime in the summer, Stern will leak the news that his league is preparing to move the Hornets to a city that truly wants basketball.

The beauty of this deal would be that Ballmer never would have to set foot in New Orleans. By the time he publicly got involved, the team already would be heading out of town. There would be no lame-duck seasons like there were for the Clay Bennett Sonics in Seattle.

The sale price would be around $350 million, which would mean the league would make $50 million and Ballmer would pay less than he was offering Bennett for the Sonics.

The NBA wants Ballmer in its fraternity, and people close to him say Ballmer wants in. But he'll never be the public leader. He probably will never announce a news conference or give a lengthy interview stating his good intentions.

But he will be involved in the talks with his friend Stern. He can tell Stern of a plan to build a privately funded arena in Bellevue.

He probably can sell Stern on the idea that the City of Seattle is willing to make a generous deal to use KeyArena as the new Sonics' transition home.

He will be competing for the Hornets with Kansas City, which already has an arena waiting. But Ballmer can argue to Stern that Seattle has rich potential corporate dollars that Kansas City doesn't have.

There is good, broad corporate support for bringing the Sonics back to the Northwest and, unlike the old Sonics, the new Sonics should enlarge their corporate base and court the small- and medium-sized business owners.

Bellevue and Seattle will fight it out to see which city would get the team. (The idea of a Microsoft Arena in Bellevue was my purely hypothetical idea.) NBA fans will be the winners in that battle.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Steve Ballmer and his financial partners. By the time the league announces a deal with him, the Hornets already would be homeless. Ballmer wouldn't be an evil-doer.

He can ask for help from grass-roots organizations like Save Our Sonics and Sonicsgate to spread the good word and sell the idea of a new, more financially sane NBA. He can use them to remind old Sonics fans about the rich history of this team and to re-energize fans for the future.

There is a lot of work ahead. There is real competition for the team. But the possibility of the reborn Sonics returning to the Northwest is real.

If Ballmer is interested.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

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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. | 206-464-2176



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