Seattle’s best case
I’ve sat around wondering how Seattle possibly could keep the Sonics, came up with no ideas, and then Mister Coffee provided me an answer. Starbucks czar Howard Schultz, who sold the Sonics to Clay Bennett’s ownership group two years ago, says he is filing a lawsuit to rescind the sale of the Sonics. He wants the franchise back.
Now, it’s possible that Schultz’s declaration is pure publicity stunt, of which there have been quite a few in Seattle lately. When the smoke clears, the Sonics are in Oklahoma City and the good basketball fans of Seattle start looking around at the real guilty parties in the exodus of their team, they will refocus their disgust away from Bennett.
The guilty will remain in Seattle. Schultz suddenly would be fingered as the guy who sold the franchise to the Oklahoma City carpetbaggers. Shouldn’t he have known that Bennett and the boys would pilfer the franchise off to OKC? Well, yes, without a quick resolution to the arena problem. It wouldn’t be a blow to Schultz’s Starbucks empire — he’s got dazed customers addicted to paying $3.95 for a cup of coffee, not just in Seattle but across the globe, including The Oklahoman’s very own sports staff. But it would be a blow to Schultz’s social standing. Long after Kevin Durant is an NBA all-star in OKC, Schultz would become the goat of this story. Can anyone say, uncomfortable cocktail parties?
And NBA commissioner David Stern himself this week pointed the finger — a different finger — back at Seattle, reminding the city that when Schultz put the team up for sale, no one from that corner of the country wanted the Sonics. Not Steve Ballmer, the Microsoft CEO who recently expressed interest in buying the franchise and developing a renovation plan for KeyArena. Not anyone. Hey, said Stern, where was everyone two years ago?
Now that the move of the Sonics seems imminent, the guilty in Seattle — which includes government leaders — are scrambling to save face.
Of course, this could be beyond publicity stunt. The crux of the question revolves around, who owns the team? Without the lease — which expires in 2010 — an owner is free to move wherever the league will let him, so either now or in 2010, the Sonics are doomed for Seattle so long as Bennett owns the franchise. Even if you accept that Bennett ever was interested in working out a Seattle arena deal, we know now that no way would he ever want a business in that city.
So Seattle’s only hope is that someone else owns the team. Seattle already has tried an offer, or at least put together a group that yapped about making an offer. But Bennett and Aubrey McClendon aren’t interested in selling. That seems clear.
The last-ditch hope is that Bennett’s ownership of the team be rendered fraudulent. And Schultz has an argument, thanks to the damning emails in which Bennett’s partners ask, in April 2007, if there’s any way for the team to come to Oklahoma City immediately, and Bennett responds with “I am a man possessed! Will do everything I can…”
Bennett will argue in court that while his partners obviously wanted to move, he did not, that he wanted a Seattle arena deal and that was his reference in the email reference. I don’t know who will believe him in Seattle, including the judge, but I know that Bennett will be the most uncrackable witness you’ve ever seen.
This is Seattle’s best hope, though. Only hope, really. Get ownership back. Try to prove the sale a fraud and start over. I don’t blame Seattle. This is big-stakes stuff, and when negotiations and dialogue don’t work, you start scratching and clawing. And if such an effort saves face for some of the people who created this mess in the first place, all the better for Mister Coffee.
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