Thursday November 8th, 2007

SEATTLE -- Clay Bennett, possibly the most hated man in Seattle these days -- about the only way he could be more hated is if he suggested a ban on caffeinated products within the city limits -- peers out at his office window that overlooks the practice court at the Furtado Center, empty on this off-day.

"All things being equal," the Sonics' chairman says, "I really wanted to stay here. I really did."

By "here" he means Seattle, where the Sonics have resided since 1967. He says it was not his intention to move the franchise to his home, Oklahoma City, which, considering his use of the past tense of the verb "want," now seems likely.

I had never met Bennett before our recent interview, so I didn't know whether to believe him. But individuals within the Sonics' organization I've known for a while -- and trusted for as long as I've known them -- swear that he is telling the truth. General manager Sam Presti and coach P.J. Carlesimo look you in the eye and say that Bennett is a straight shooter who honestly believed when he bought the team last October for $350 million that he would get an arena deal that would keep the team in the Northwest. Presti, who learned the biz in what is possibly the NBA's best organization (the San Antonio Spurs), says he took the job of GM in June largely because he trusts Bennett.

Based on those testimonies and a few others, then, I'm going to take Bennett at his word.

Certainly no one doubts Bennett on this point: He will move the franchise if he does not get, in his words, "a leadership-driven, tangible proposal with binding financing and a mutually agreeable lease agreement for a new arena." Which is exactly what the city says it will not give him.

So, let's review. Bennett bought the team intending to stay in Seattle. But he wouldn't stay in Seattle as long as the team played in what he considers an outdated, impossible-to-turn-a-profit KeyArena, which lacks, in his words, "premium seating, corporate suites, entertainment amenities, suites, loges suites, any configuration of premium product that extracts the higher market."

It's difficult to comprehend that a businessman as astute as Bennett, who made a fortune with Dorchester Capital, a private investment company, would believe that he has a deal for a new arena when he does not.

But there's the rub: Bennett never believed he had an arena deal -- rather, he believed he had the leverage to get an arena deal. That's the word he uses himself. He says that the previous ownership group, headed by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, did the "best thing they could possibly do, which was to sell it to people who came in not with the threat of leaving but with the leverage to pursue other options."

Where "leverage" ends and "threat" begins is hard to say, of course.

"I misjudged the political climate, even given a very passionate corps of fans," Bennett says. "I misjudged the lack of broad public support for public money to invest in an arena."

There is little doubt, too, that the Bennett team made some public relations gaffes along the way, as when his partner and minority owner Aubrey McLendon told an Oklahoma newspaper: "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle." So if I'm beginning with the premise that I believe Bennett (based on the testimony of people I trust), then I have to disbelieve McLendon, which isn't difficult, because he was one of the big donors to that slimiest of political organizations, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Bennett and his team are also hypersensitive to any hint that Oklahoma City is not an NBA market. It seems like a reasonable point to bring up, even given the city's solid performance in hosting the Katrina-ravaged New Orleans Hornets, but they don't want you to bring it up.

"Basically, I disagree with the premise of your question," he said when I asked him whether OKC would be OK with the NBA. "You're coming at it from the perspective that Oklahoma City is necessarily an inferior market."

Actually, it was neither premise nor perspective -- it was a question. Bennett went on to laud Seattle -- wonderful place, natural beauty, dynamic economy, great companies, culture and diversity -- but made it clear that he thinks Oklahoma City is the city's equal, if not superior. And, further, that any NBA family can be happy anywhere.

"It's been my experience -- and I am new -- that how players spend their days is really focused around the game, how they connect with each other, how the coaches connect with them," Bennett says. "That is ultimately much more important than where you are as a player."

Right now, the comments of the Sonics' primary young investment, rookie swingman Kevin Durant, seem in line with Bennett's. "With me coming to a new team and new organization, I think they [the media] wanted me to be, I guess, the savior," Durant says. "But it's all about a team concept here."

That's the way he should be thinking. He has too much on his mind (Seattle's 0-5 start for one thing) to deal with the distraction of relocation. But there is a whole layer of other people -- families, agents, endorsement reps -- who are concerned with where a player is playing. And, ultimately, veteran players care very much where they play.

Add all this up and it seems like the Sonics are goners, either after this season (if Bennett has his way and is able to break the lease) or after the 2010 season (when the team is contractually able to bolt). But because Bennett is a man of his word (so I'm told) and says he really wants to stay, and because the city fathers and the fans want the Sonics to stay, I have to believe there's a chance they will stay. Perhaps the city will give in to the idea of building an arena when the moving trucks, all bearing Oklahoma license plates, are backed up to the Furtado Center. At this point, that's what it might take.

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