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For Seattle, the Sonics' victory is the saddest of happy nights

SEATTLE -- On their way out the door, the young SuperSonics upended the Mavericks 99-95 on Sunday night, but the celebrating ended as soon as it began. What had been won, really? A victory in their worst season on the court; a meaningless evening amid the bigger scheme.

The fans were slow to leave, knowing they might never be coming back and no doubt wondering why they should care. Why invest money and joy in a franchise that apparently would rather play in a smaller market without tradition, that is cashing out 41 years in one of America's great cities? I BLEED GREEN read a sign held high by one stubborn fan; SAVE OUR SONICS read many others. On and off the people chanted epithets at the owner while cheering on his players, and afterward a father and his two young children lingered at their seats in their green and yellow Afro wigs that they likely won't be needing any longer. Hundreds of others stayed as long as they could, like old friends unwilling to leave a college reunion.

This was the last home game of the last Seattle season, if Sonics owner Clay Bennett has his way. Before he relocates the team from Seattle to his hometown in Oklahoma City, the Sonics need to escape the remaining two years of their downtown KeyArena lease either by winning a court case with the city in June or by negotiating a buyout.

The league's owners are expected to approve the team's relocation this week in New York, though the vote won't be unanimous (only a majority is needed for approval). "I'll do what I can to keep them here,'' said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, standing on the court before the game. "It's not over 'till it's over. I'll vote against it.''

Cuban emphasized that Bennett was "doing the right thing'' for the fans in his home state by moving the team to Oklahoma. "But it's about Seattle vs. Oklahoma City, and which is better for the NBA. No question it's Seattle,'' said Cuban, measuring the revenues, visibility and franchise history that would be sacrificed by moving from Seattle to a financially inferior market. He made special note of the NBA's 41-year investment in Seattle. "There is an equity value that you can't quantify,'' he said. "But it should be quantified.''

Kevin Durant, the 19-year-old presumptive Rookie of the Year, sat in the cozy, green Sonics locker room and tried to say the right things before the game. He had been following the Sonics for as long as he could remember. "I watched the [1996 NBA] Finals series,'' he said, his hands clasped across his knees. "The George Karl era, Shawn Kemp, GP [Gary Payton], I watched all that.''

So what did he think of the impending divorce? "It's something I rarely think about, to be honest,'' he said. "I can't stress enough ... let me say this right ... I have no control over any of it. No matter what, I've got to continue to play. If we leave, we leave. If we stay, we stay.''

Much as players must play despite contractual disagreements or rumors of impending trades, so was Durant viewing the move to Oklahoma City as another "business decision.''

"It's part of the game,'' he said. "Everything is part of the game.'' Apart from the reduction in attendance, the community trauma had little effect on the players this season.

In the second quarter, Payton appeared from the visitors' tunnel and angled his way to his front-row seat in the corner near the Mavericks' bench. Screaming cheers around him spread quickly throughout the arena, and his formal introduction on the scoreboard video screen created a standing ovation that was the loudest and most sincere of the evening. The 16,272 were applauding what they had before seven years of arena squabbles swallowed up the franchise.

Slick Watts arrived without his headband; Downtown Freddie Brown showed up too. The Sonics recovered from an early 14-point deficit to build a brief nine-point lead as the crowd lost itself for a moment in the joy of the game.

"It was emotional,'' said Sonics forward Nick Collison, who lives year-round in Seattle and would like to stay. "That was the first thing I thought when the crowd went nuts: I really thought it would be a shame if this is it.''

The new administration has pursued a disciplined strategy to accrue draft picks and salary-cap space while rebuilding around Durant, though the benefits are set to be harvested elsewhere. I don't believe that Bennett ordered the offseason departures of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis as sabotage to ease his departure; new general manager Sam Presti is trying to grow a champion from the ground up, as he learned to do from his years in San Antonio. It's just that the timing happens to be awful.

Seattle's building is the smallest and its lease is the worst in the NBA, according to Forbes magazine. Bennett has wanted nothing to do with proposals to remodel KeyArena, preferring a $500 million suburban arena instead. But that was a non-starter politically after Seattle had built new stadiums for the Seahawks and Mariners.

A few important politicians have killed every proposal, while the leverage Bennett thought he held was used against him politically. The original premise was that Bennett -- rather than the previous owner, Howard Schultz -- would have a better chance of negotiating for a new arena because legislators would believe his threat to move the team. I have talked to several league people involved in the process -- including some no longer associated with the Sonics -- who are convinced that Bennett's original intention when he bought the team in July 2006 was to keep it in Seattle. For that he deserves little credit. The most generous thing that can be said of Bennett is that he inherited a difficult situation not of his making, and that he responded by negotiating poorly and giving up prematurely. Either that or else he was acting in bad faith all along.

In either case, the NBA had to back him after his Oklahoma group paid an exorbitant $350 million to buy the Sonics, because that's how the league measures its growth, rather than by annual profits and losses. It would be a bad precedent for future owners if Bennett was held accountable for cleaning up a mess in Seattle that he quickly realized was not agreeable to him or his partners. The league wants new owners to buy in, after all. And so 41 years of goodwill has been trashed.

The naïve hope that another team will move into Seattle is absurd. Local government and taxpayers are going to suddenly turn about and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in an arena project on behalf of the NBA? The people in Seattle who loved the NBA for 41 years are going to hate the NBA when it leaves. They are going to feel betrayed by Bennett and commissioner David Stern, and what had been a point of foundation for the NBA will become a radioactive wasteland. Other leagues may prosper in Seattle, but for the NBA it will be Chernobyl.

So this is how it ended. The Mavericks were winning by six points with three minutes to go when something happened. A three-point play by Collison, a jump shot by French center Johan Petro and then, with the crowd on its feet roaring, a dribble into space followed by a fully extended Durant jumper to give Seattle a 96-95 lead with 41.6 seconds remaining.

Jason Terry, born in Seattle, missed one of the eight shots Dallas failed to make in the last three minutes, and Durant leaked out for a triumphant dunk. It will never be louder in Oklahoma City, and never so loud again in Seattle, where it was the saddest of all the happy nights this team has known.

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