Fate can be cruel at times, like adding salt to an open wound. Mere hours after learning a buyer from Oklahoma City had purchased the Sonics and Storm on Tuesday, Storm coach Anne Donovan boarded a flight to Charlotte, N.C. - site of another ownership debacle she’d endured four years before. “It’s very ironic,” she said Wednesday. “To go through this not once, but twice, is disappointing.” In 2002, the sale of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets thrust Donovan and the Charlotte Sting into a mire of uncertainty. While the Hornets relocated to New Orleans, the Sting endured rejection. “We were left not having any idea what our future was,” Donovan recalled. “This is different in that we’re included in the deal with the Sonics. That’s a good thing. It’s nice to be seen as a viable product.” But the future of the Storm remains very much in question. Will the turmoil sour negotiations with Sue Bird when the All-Star guard’s contract expires at the end of this year? Would Australian superstar Lauren Jackson honor the remainder of her deal through 2008 if the team moved from her beloved Seattle? Could Oklahoma City even support a WNBA franchise? The Storm (11-11) will seek to set aside such questions as it returns to the court today trying to reverse a slump of three losses in the past four games. Playing the Sting might well provide a measure of solace, proving that organizational mayhem does not necessitate team-wide dismantling or geographic relocation. Of course, since its ordeal in 2002, the Sting has a combined record of 46-80 and has lost one of the most decorated coaches in the history of women’s basketball. Donovan left because “nothing was in stone.” She said the situation in Seattle is too fresh to consider jumping ship, and her primary focus remains with collecting victories. Still, distractions will abound over the final three weeks of the regular season and into a potential playoff appearance. And no amount of winning will erase the difficult questions ahead. “It would be a very dark day if the teams were to leave Seattle,” Donovan said. “Oklahoma City supported the NBA very well with the Hornets playing some games there, but I don’t know if it’s viable to think they can support the women’s team.” Clay Bennett, leader of the new ownership group, said Tuesday that Oklahoma City would be thrilled to have a WNBA team. Should the Storm move, however, it would face considerable challenges retaining its two brightest stars. Bird and Jackson own their respective residences in Seattle and both have frequently dubbed the Emerald City a second home. “With Sue, this is where she wants to be,” Donovan said. “We’ll do our best to sign her for three years and put away the concerns. If the team stays in Seattle, it’s a no-brainer. If the team were to move, that would be difficult for me to predict.” Bird is taking a wait-and-see approach, expressing little surprise at the news and little consternation over the current uncertainty. “There are so many different scenarios that can play out that it’s just not even worth stressing about or thinking about,” she said. “If this is a group of people that are really excited about buying the Sonics and Storm and want to move forward, then I’m excited about that. “I’m all for having a successful franchise. Right now we’re in Seattle, so that’s where my focus is.” Bird said she would be sad to leave the city, but that getting to play basketball for a living is too great an opportunity to complain about location. Jackson, on the other hand, is feverishly loyal to Seattle. This past April, the former league MVP departed from a previous pattern of one-year deals to sign for three years with the Storm, naming the city as a primary factor in that decision. Her comments suggested a move elsewhere would end her WNBA career. “I’ve got no desire to play anywhere else in America,“ she said at the time. “If it so should happen that I get traded or anything like that, then I’d pretty much have to say I wouldn’t come back.” Jackson could not be reached Wednesday. The Storm would likely retain most of its other players in a move to the Midwest, including second-leading scorer Betty Lennox, who is from Oklahoma City. But the potential losses could necessitate a massive rebuilding effort, a difficult proposition in an untested market. For fans in Seattle, the loss would represent the second departure of a professional women’s basketball team in the last decade. The Seattle Reign folded in 1998 with the economic downfall of the American Basketball League. Donovan also endured the collapse of an ABL team, her Philadelphia Rage suddenly closing its doors without even notifying the staff. For 10 years, the WNBA has replaced such chaos with considerable stability. Commissioner Donna Orender has called Seattle a model market for the league - solid fan base, quality product, committed ownership. Those elements are now in doubt. “In Charlotte, the ownership group did not believe in the product,” Donovan recalled. “It was a constant feel of slim pickings and had a stepsister kind of feel to it. “Seattle has been so opposite. That’s a huge selling point for me when we talk to free agents. Hopefully, the new ownership group brings as much positivity.”
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