AP Interview: Bennett Torn As His Team Visits His Hometown

Tuesday, April 3rd 2007, 8:03 pm

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The return of the NBA to Clay Bennett's life came under less than glamorous circumstances.

As Bennett was preparing to watch his beloved Oklahoma football team play, NBA commissioner David Stern called and asked him to find a place where he could talk.

``I retreated from the suite and found a cleaning, utility closet,'' Bennett said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. ``It was me and the big thing you roll around with the bucket and the mop in it and a shelf of cleaning supplies.''

Twisting to find reception for his cell phone in a cramped closet, Bennett began a process that will culminate Wednesday night when the NBA team he owns _ the Seattle SuperSonics _ visits the team taking up temporary residence in his hometown.

Bennett, who will watch from a courtside seat as his Sonics visit Oklahoma City for the only time this season, said he would be ``probably rooting a little bit for both teams.'' Beginning with Stern's phone call, the Oklahoma City businessman played a key role in helping the New Orleans Hornets find a temporary home, then he sought a minority stake in the team before buying the Sonics last July.

``Clearly the Hornets have been very special here, and I've grown to appreciate the players and coaches and know them now personally and like them very much. There's a real connection there, and I support them,'' Bennett said. ``At the same time, I certainly am going to support Sonics. I hope for a good competitive, enjoyable game.''

Bennett couldn't have seen this day coming. When Gaylord Properties Inc. ended its run as a shareholder in the San Antonio Spurs in 1997, Bennett's run on the team's board did, too. He thought at that point his chance to be involved in the NBA _ and possibly pro sports altogether _ might have run its course.

Bennett led a group that sought to own an NHL franchise based in Oklahoma City, but that bid failed in 1997 after the city had become one of six finalists.

It had been Bennett's childhood dream to own a sports team _ although it didn't start out with hockey or basketball.

``I wanted to own the Dallas Cowboys,'' Bennett said. ``I'm not sure how I got there. Some wanted to be firemen and doctors and lawyers, but that's for whatever reason what I was interested in. I just have always been taken with the business of sports.''

Perhaps it was only natural with the combination of sports and business in his life growing up.

Bennett's father, Ike, would take him to watch Oklahoma football, the Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, and ``all kinds of sporting events'' as a kid, Bennett said. He then gained hands-on experience working at his father's company _ a manufacturer and supplier of building products.

``I really learned a great education and understanding through the environment of the small business what the core and infrastructure is of every business,'' Bennett said.

His first big step in the sports arena came in 1989, when he took charge of the U.S. Olympic Festival in Oklahoma City. He started Dorchester Capital, his private investment firm, the following year and continued to be active in the sports scene.

He began a five-year stint on the Spurs board in 1992, and that helped foster thoughts of owning an NBA franchise.

``My first love is college football, but there was certainly magic to witness the caliber of this competition, this level of athleticism and the competitive nature of NBA play,'' Bennett said. ``A full house in a close game with great players on the court is pretty energizing.''

He also got involved with the Oklahoma Sports Commission, helped lead efforts to bring top-notch amateur sporting events to the state and later led a group of owners that made sure the city's Triple-A baseball affiliate wouldn't leave.

He's also been chairman of the Oklahoma State Fair, keeping world championship horse shows in the city, and guided development of Gaillardia _ an Oklahoma City golf course community that hosted the 2002 Senior Tour Championship.

That's on top of civic involvement that has included runs as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. and the Oklahoma Heritage Association, and a leadership role with the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

For the most part, Bennett has tried to remain behind the scenes. That's no longer possible as the leader of the Sonics' new ownership group.

That position has put him in front of the Washington Legislature, asking for funding for a state-of-the-art facility to house the Sonics and the WNBA's Storm, which he also owns. He said he remains optimistic a positive step will be made before the Legislature adjourns later this month.

He called his role as leader of the ownership group ``exponentially more demanding'' than any other sports endeavor he's undertaken.

``Certainly this team is a contradiction of so many things that I try to direct myself into,'' Bennett said. ``One is to be private, to not have partners, to not be in public/political settings that are in large degree out of my control. I've tried to work towards privacy and making my own decisions and keeping out of the public forum, and this is really a contradiction in every way.

``I think the other side is that we all end up where we end up for whatever reason, and it has been an extraordinary personal journey for me.''

The last few twists and turns find two NBA teams, both with ties to him, playing in the hometown he's advocated as a ``major league city'' for years.

``Certainly it's a very unusual situation, but one that I would imagine he's looking forward to,'' Hornets owner George Shinn said. ``Clay has done so much for Oklahoma City, and I believe that he takes great pride every time an NBA game is played here.''

Shinn said Bennett helped him become comfortable with the relocation to Oklahoma City, and he thought having the Hornets in town might have fueled Bennett's desire to own his own team.

``It's just been such an extraordinary series of events over a short period of time,'' Bennett said.

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