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Originally published March 21, 2011 at 9:01 PM | Page modified March 22, 2011 at 5:56 PM

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Steve Kelley

Barry Ackerley gave Seattle a long look at greatness

There was no way Barry Ackerley could follow Sam Schulman's act. Or so we thought. Schulman was Hollywood. Ackerley was Iowa City.

Seattle Times staff columnist

There was no way Barry Ackerley could follow Sam Schulman's act. Or so we thought.

Schulman was Hollywood. Ackerley was Iowa City. Schulman was Barnum & Bailey. Ackerley was Standard & Poor's. Schulman was fun and games. Ackerley was strictly business.

But fortunately for Seattle's basketball fans, the one trait Schulman, the original owner of the Sonics, shared with Ackerley, his successor, was the ability to win.

Ackerley, who died Monday at age 76, was the team owner for the longest-running stretch of success in the franchise's history.

In his 18 seasons, the Sonics won four division titles and one Western Conference championship. They made the playoffs 13 times.

In 1986 Ackerley hired a sharp, young kid from the Sacramento Kings, Bob Whitsitt, who became the Sonics' president in 1986. And Ackerley was smart enough to let Whitsitt wheel and deal.

Ackerley allowed Whitsitt to take a chance on George Karl, a stubborn coach who had flamed out in Cleveland and Golden State and was coaching Real Madrid in Spain.

Whitsitt and Karl were unorthodox mavericks. Symbiotically, they worked together. Whitsitt, the steady hand. Karl, the mercurial force.

In 1989, before it became fashionable, Whitsitt drafted a teenager, Shawn Kemp. In 1990, Whitsitt paired him with first-round pick Gary Payton to form one of the most feared combination punches in the game.

Whitsitt surrounded Payton and Kemp with complementary players Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, Ervin Johnson and Frank Brickowski.

Ackerley signed the checks.

He didn't win a championship, the way Schulman did. But he came close. In the two seasons Michael Jordan was playing baseball, the Sonics were probably the best team in the game. But both years they couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs.

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When Jordan returned, the Sonics finally got through the playoff muck, getting to the NBA Finals and taking the Bulls to six games.

That was the first year of KeyArena, the remodeled Coliseum. And that season the Key was the place to be. It was loud, intimate and intimidating. It was the sight of some of the most attractive basketball ever played.

It also was obsolete the day its doors opened. Tough-minded businessman that he was, Ackerley strong-armed the city into building an arena on the cheap, squeezing it into the Seattle Center's tiny footprint.

Originally he had hoped to build a 20,000-seat, privately funded arena south of the Kingdome, but that plan failed when Ackerley couldn't guarantee the sale of 70 luxury suites.

To say that Barry and I had our difference would be an understatement. For one season he banned me from press row because of my "negative" columns and banished me to the "bucket" that hung from the top of the Coliseum.

And when he fired Whitsitt, one of Ackerley's worst moves as owner, he bristled at several columns I wrote that said the move was wrongheaded.

But years later, when I saw him in Peoria, Ariz., at a Mariners spring-training game, Barry was engaging and kind and, I guess, forgiving.

In the sports world, Ackerley will be remembered for winning more often than he lost.

Ackerley brought the best broadcaster in basketball, Kevin Calabro, to Seattle. Like his predecessor, Bob Blackburn, Calabro became a beloved figure in the city.

KJR, the first all-sports-talk radio station, was birthed by Barry. How did that work out?

And it should also be remembered that the Ackerley family brought the WNBA expansion Storm to Seattle. The Storm has won two championships, the only two major-league professional championships won in Seattle since the 1979 Sonics.

But the best thing about Barry Ackerley was that he wasn't Howard Schultz.

He didn't preen and pout in the front row, acting as if the cameras always were on him. In fact, he eventually vacated his courtside seats and watched games from the anonymity of the suites.

Barry wasn't a phony. He didn't make new-agey pronouncements about sports franchise being "public trusts" like Schultz did.

And when he finally sold the Sonics in 2001, he didn't sell them to someone hellbent on moving them out of Seattle, the way Schultz did.

He sold the Sonics to Schultz.

Of course, it turned out to be a horrible mistake. Schultz was a basketball Benedict Arnold.

The Sonics won under Ackerley. They left after Schultz. Ackerley will be remembered for banners. Schultz will be remembered for bailing.

Ackerley will be linked forever with Karl and Calabro, Payton and Kemp, Nate McMillan and 1996. He gave Seattle a long look at greatness.

And for all of that, he should be remembered with fondness.

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

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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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