Share “Clay Bennett questioned in Seattle”

By Chris Casteel Modified: June 17, 2008 at 3:10 pm •  Published: June 17, 2008
SEATTLE -- Oklahoma City investor Clay Bennett was grilled in federal court this morning about whether he knew he was buying a money-losing NBA team in 2006 and whether he was serious about keeping the 41-year-old franchise in this area.

Bennett, a principal owner in a group that includes other Oklahoma City businessmen, acknowledged that he was aware of the financial troubles of the Seattle SuperSonics and that he knowingly assumed a lease with an outdated arena that is one source of the team’s money woes.

“We knew there would be risks,’’ Bennett said of the ownership group’s decision to buy the team.

Bennett’s testimony came on the second day of the trial that could determine whether the Sonics can buy out the lease and move to Oklahoma City this year or must play out the last two years of the lease with the city-controlled KeyArena. The city filed a lawsuit last fall aiming to force the Sonics to play in KeyArena until the lease expires in September 2010. U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman is hearing the case without a jury.

This morning, through testimony with the former manager of the KeyArena, and on Monday with other witnesses, the owners’ attorneys sought to show that KeyArena was no longer an NBA-worthy site and argued that forcing the team to play there would guarantee further financial losses.

Paul Lawrence, the lead attorney for the city, countered, through Bennett, that the Oklahoma City owners knew they were getting what the NBA considered one of the worst leases in the 30-team league at an arena that didn’t have the space or the amenities of newer NBA facilities. The circumstances at the time of the purchase were so dim that the NBA told the Oklahoma City investors that they needed to put up at least $28 million above the $350 million purchase price to cover potential losses, according to evidence presented today.

“You were aware that the lease had been characterized as the most unfavorable lease in the league,’’ Lawrence told Bennett.

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