Clay Bennett walked into a restaurant in L.A.’s Staples Center three years ago. At the bar sat Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Bennett was on a tour to meet NBA owners, seeking approval from the board of governors to purchase the Seattle SuperSonics.
Buss, one of the most flamboyant men who run major-leagues sports, had a word of advice for Bennett: "I just want you to make damn sure you know what you’re getting into.” Three years later, and one year to the day when Bennett and Co. delivered the Sonics to Oklahoma City, only now is Bennett grasping the ramifications of his decision to join one of American capitalism’s most exclusive fraternities. The time demands. The loss of privacy. The exhilaration. The drive that can consume someone trying to get a basketball franchise up and running in a virgin market. Bennett said NBA Commissioner David Stern and his lieutenants, Joel Litvin and Adam Silver, talked to Bennett about the loss of privacy and the challenges of NBA ownership when he bought the Sonics, "but that did not get through, how difficult it would be,” Bennett said. "How demanding it would be. I certainly wasn’t ready for the national spotlight, which turned out to be intense and difficult.” Bennett spent Father’s Day 2008 in a Seattle high-rise, prepping for the federal trial in which the city had sued the Sonics, trying to force the franchise to play out its lease at KeyArena. He was Public Enemy No. 1 in a major U.S. market, and just because he wasn’t the first sports owner to feel such wrath — Art Modell, Walter O’Malley, Bob Irsay — didn’t make the notoriety any easier. Bennett traveled to Seattle that weekend with full-time, armed security. He stayed in a secret location, a condo outside the city, with guards in the hallway and guards in the lobby. The rest of the Sonics party from OKC stayed at a hotel under aliases. Bennett’s only link to normalcy was a couple of Father’s Day cards and little gifts he found as he unpacked his luggage. "Man oh man, has my program run off the rail,” Bennett thought. "It really shook me up. I was exhausted and worried I wasn’t going to be able to sleep a wink. "It was life-changing. Very, very difficult. It took the skill and compassion of our legal team, advisers, security team, family and friends to get me through it.” Over the next two weeks came a trial that seemed to tilt the Sonics’ way and a settlement agreement that allowed the franchise to move to OKC. From Public Enemy to Favorite Son. The scars from Seattle were soothed by the Oklahoma reception, from letters to pats on the back to cooperation on all fronts to the warmth and excitement and buzz in the air. "As difficult as all that was (in Seattle), it is now outweighed by how proud I am of what we’ve done as a city,” Bennett said, "and it’s just the beginning.” But Bennett remained changed.