Wednesday April 30th, 2008

If you're from Seattle, you're not going to want to read this. You're not going to want to read that the city's oldest professional sports franchise is as good as gone. You're not going to want to read that your efforts to keep the team, while valiant, are a case of too little, too late. You're not going to want to read that the NBA considers the lawsuit you filed to try and force the Sonics to honor their lease at KeyArena (which runs through the 2009-10 season) little more than a nuisance. You're not going to want to read that you're not going to win, that hitching your wagon to a series of leaked e-mails that may or may not prove that Sonics owner (and Oklahoma City native) Clay Bennett intended to move the team from the start -- which would violate the sales agreement -- isn't much of a case. And even if you win, you're only prolonging the inevitable. You're not going to want to hear that you should just accept Bennett's $26.5 million settlement offer and move on.

You're not going to want to hear any of that. But unfortunately, all of it is true.

Monday's ruling by a New York federal court judge that NBA commissioner David Stern could not be deposed as part of Seattle's lawsuit against the Sonics dealt another body blow to the city's desperate attempts to keep the team in the Pacific northwest. By deposing Stern, the city was hoping to prove that Bennett violated the "good faith" stipulation in the sale agreement that required Bennett to allow the city one year from the date of the sale to come up with a new arena plan to replace the outdated KeyArena. Yes, the judge did rule that the NBA must provide internal documents relating to the Sonics' relocation to the city during the discovery process and city attorneys will have the right to question NBA president of basketball operations Joel Litvin. But the court rejected Seattle's request for financial records for the league's other 29 teams, calling it "intrusive."

It's unfortunate that it has come to this. Seattle is a city rich in basketball tradition and many Sonics fans have witnessed a 1967 expansion team grow up and win an NBA championship in 1979 and come within two games of winning another in '96. This isn't the Hornets moving out of Charlotte or the Grizzlies escaping Vancouver. This is an entrenched NBA franchise about to start anew.

It's sad. I think everyone will agree with that. But it's over.

The NBA knows its over. Earlier this month the Board of Governors approved the relocation by a 28-2 vote. No one in the NBA's Olympic Tower offices is concerned that the two lawsuits, one filed by the city and one filed by former Sonics owner Howard Schultz, who is seeking to void the 2006 sale of the team, to be a threat to the move. Least of all, Stern.

"If you follow the arc of this, you see that [Bennett's group] went to the state legislature with a viable plan," Stern told last weekend. "They spent money on an architect, got an option on land; and as we stand here to date there's still no plan. There's just an attempt [by the city] to be as difficult as they can, which I understand, and an attempt by the group that sold to them to save face. It's not a pretty picture, but it will be what it will be. I think that at a certain point it will be demonstrated that they did use their best efforts and at a certain point when -- actually I was going to say when it becomes impossible, but even when it became impossible to get through what they wanted to get through, I think that Clay Bennett continued to meet with parties to say come on, give me your best shot. Is there a private thing? Can we work with the Indian tribes? The private developers? And [can] the mayor do something else? Is there some other proposal? And it just didn't appear that it was to be.''

Sure, there is plenty of mudslinging to be done. Blame Bennett for perhaps not operating completely honest, as his April 2007 e-mail exchange with minority owners Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward seems to indicate. In the e-mails, which were sent seven months before the deadline Bennett had publicly supported for the city to put forth an arena plan, Ward asked Bennett if there was "any way to move [to Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?" Bennett's response: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can." The questions about whether or not Bennett ever really wanted to keep the team in the city are legitimate: was he sincere in his dealings with state and city officials or was it all just a dog-and-pony show? Would he really have been satisfied had Seattle stepped up and given him the funding he asked for? Or would he have found another reason, another out to get the team to Oklahoma? Only Bennett and his closest confidants know the answer to that.

Blame the city or the state, both of which have inexplicably refused to put forth any proposal that includes significant public financing for a new arena. The day before Bennett's now infamous e-mail, the Washington Legislature declined to vote on a $500 million, publicly subsidized arena plan. Bennett, who offered to put up $100 million of his own money, was asking the state of Washington to authorize King County tax dollars to pay for $278 million of the building. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City voters approved a sales-tax extension to fund $121.6 million in improvements to a downtown arena and build a practice facility. Granted, Seattle's elected officials are still reeling from signing off on tax dollars to build Safeco Field for the Mariners and Qwest Field for the Seahawks. But sometimes that's just the price you pay to have professional sports.

You can even blame Stern, though I would be careful how harshly you criticize. Officials from the mayors and governors offices have been overwhelmingly critical of Stern in recent months. But Stern, who has a $10 million per year contract and hasn't dropped even a Dikembe Mutombo-type hint at retirement, will probably decide whether or not the city of Seattle will have an NBA team again. And we're talking about the man who can recite the names of 1950's Knicks the way most of us can name siblings. He has a very, very long memory. And he has chosen his side.

"In my mind, subject to all lawful orders of the court, the Sonics are moving to Oklahoma City whether at the end of this season, the end of next season or the end of the season after that," said Stern. "Could I imagine circumstances without precedent where some court does something? It would be hard to imagine that there would be any circumstances legally that would preclude the Sonics from moving at the end of their lease, whether the court decrees that to be this season with two more seasons to be played, or after two seasons with the requirement that they play it out. I think that ultimately, despite the novel and face-saving attempts to construct causes of action, that the Sonics are moving to Oklahoma City."

So get angry, Sonics fans. Get frustrated. It's only natural. Throw out your Sonics mugs and skip over the team every time you're watching NBATV. But the time has come to accept reality. The Sonics are gone. And they are not coming back.

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