Sonics Owner Says He's Moving Forward To Oklahoma City

Friday, November 2nd 2007, 7:54 pm
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ Clay Bennett says he's done fighting in Seattle, which likely means an end to the SuperSonics' four decades of history in the city.

``We have to move forward,'' he said Friday.

Next stop, Oklahoma City.

After a year filled with arena proposals, legislative hearings, court cases and dead-ends, the owner of the Sonics announced to no one's surprise that he plans to relocate the franchise to his hometown, pending league approval.

How soon the oldest professional franchise in the Pacific Northwest heads for the Midwest will be determined by the courts. The Sonics could leave after either of the next two seasons, if they can escape from their lease, or in 2010 when the lease expires, depending on legal proceedings.

About the only glimmer of hope for Seattle fans would be a new arena proposal suddenly developing.

No matter the wait, Bennett is set on taking his prized possession back home.

``There is a new path that we have to work on and that begins today,'' Bennett told The Associated Press on Friday afternoon after arriving back in Oklahoma City.

NBA spokesman Tim Frank confirmed the league received notice and is referring the matter to the owners' relocation committee.

Bennett's resolve to move the team to Oklahoma City is solid, as is his intention not to sell. On Friday morning a group of Seattle businessmen, headed by Dennis Daugs _ a former minority owner of the Sonics _ stated their hope to purchase the Sonics from Bennett and keep the franchise in Seattle under local ownership.

That offer was met with a strong rebuttal. Bennett spokesman Dan Mahoney said the ownership group had no comment on Daugs' offer, other than to say that the ``teams are not for sale.'' Bennett's group also owns the WNBA Seattle Storm.

Added Bennett, ``We are not at all interested in selling the team.''

The Sonics played their 41st, and what could be final, home opener on Thursday night, before an announced sellout crowd, which spontaneously started chanting ``Save Our Sonics'' at various points of the game.

Bennett sat in his owner's suite, chatting with Hall of Famer Bill Russell, while fans held signs saying ``Trade Bennett'' and ``OKC is not OK.'' Wednesday was Bennett's original deadline for having a new arena proposal, otherwise he was going to file for relocation.

He backed off as to not distract from the season beginning and the debut of rookie Kevin Durant. But only slightly.

``I was troubled. I understand the connection the team has to the community, the history. There are some very passionate loyal fans and friends of the organization, people who have worked hard for us,'' Bennett said of the opener. ``It was personally disappointing. ... I certainly have mixed feelings.''

Bennett, a successful Oklahoma City-based businessman, formally became owner on Oct. 31, 2006. He bought the Sonics from a local group led by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz for $350 million.

Back in Bennett's hometown, there was cautious optimism about Friday's announcement. Oklahoma City embraced the Hornets for the two seasons they were displaced from New Orleans by the devastation from Hurricane Katrina.

But even when the Hornets returned to the Crescent City this year, there remained hope in Oklahoma City that the support shown for that team would someday pay off.

``I felt all along that we were going to get a team,'' said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. ``I have believed for two years now that we were going to wind up with an NBA franchise. I didn't know which franchise it would be or what season it would be.''

If Bennett gets his way, the Sonics will be in Oklahoma City next season. He claims that KeyArena, the smallest venue in the NBA, is outdated and unprofitable, hamstrung by an unfavorable lease with the city. Bennett said his group lost $17 million last year in its first season of ownership.

Bennett sought arbitration to void the final two years of the lease, which runs through the 2009-10 season. A federal judge earlier this week blocked the team from seeking an escape through arbitration, keeping alive the city's attempts to gain a court order forcing the Sonics to play in Seattle.

``Mr. Bennett's announcement today is a transparent attempt to alienate the Seattle fan base and follow through on his plan to move the team to Oklahoma City. The deadline for notifying the league of his intent to move is March 1,'' Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said. ``Making this move now continues the current ownership's insulting behavior toward the Sonics' dedicated fans and the citizens of the city.''

In the past, Bennett has stated the Sonics and Storm would not be separated. He seemed to hedge on that statement Friday, saying there has been ``significant'' interest in keeping the WNBA team in Seattle, perhaps under different ownership. The Storm will play the 2008 season in Seattle.

The Sonics' situation reached this point because of a stalemate surrounding Bennett's desire for a new arena. Claiming KeyArena would never be profitable, Bennett championed a proposed $500 million-plus arena in suburban Renton last year. The state Legislature balked at taking action on the proposal, which called for about $300 million in public support.

``Generally I have little confidence in the notion that public money will find its way to this project,'' Bennett said. ``If something tangible and binding would work for us, we're certainly willing to engage in that. Now we have to move forward in Oklahoma City.''

Gov. Chris Gregoire remained slightly optimistic on Friday, saying the latest development was ``no surprise'' and the state will ``continue to work with others on the arduous process'' of keeping the Sonics and Storm.

``This town loves the Sonics and Storm,'' Daugs said. ``We have a genuine appreciation of the fan base. We respect the many loyal fans and we want to build a populist movement to keep the teams here. We believe there is strong local support for the Sonics and Storm.''