SEATTLE — This city's mayor said Monday he's hoping the Oklahoma City-based owners of the NBA team here will sell the team if they're forced to honor the last two years of a lease at a city arena.
"I have a responsibility and that is to uphold the city's interest in the lease, and the owners are trying to move the team out of the region,” Mayor Greg Nickels said in federal court.
Nickels was the key witness in the first day of a trial that could determine whether the SuperSonics must play here for two more seasons or can move to Oklahoma City this year.
The mayor, who has insisted that the team honor the lease despite the fact that the limitations of the outdated arena are causing financial losses for the team, authorized the lawsuit against the Oklahoma City-based owners last year. The trial stemming from that lawsuit is expected to last six days. Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, who heads the Sonics ownership team, is expected to testify today.
A few hundred rowdy Sonics fans gathered in the public square outside the courthouse after testimony ended Monday afternoon. Dressed in team garb and waving signs at a rally organized by a group called "Save Our Sonics,” the fans made clear their disapproval of Bennett and the prospect of losing the team, which has played here for 41 years, to Oklahoma City.
"Hey Clay, No Way” they shouted at one point. After being told that Bennett had left through a back door, the fans shouted "Weasel, Weasel.”
The scene inside U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman's courtroom was far more sedate as testimony focused on sports economics, the politics of publicly financing sports stadiums and the relationship between the team and the city, which controls KeyArena, the Sonics' home since the 1995-96 season. There was also some discussion of the city's efforts to prevent Bennett from securing public financing for a new arena outside the city limits.
The owners contend Nickels and his administration have embarked on a strategy to bleed the owners of money and keep them in court, forcing them to give up in frustration. Besides the city's suit against the Oklahoma City owners, the former owner of the team has also filed a lawsuit here claiming the current owners didn't keep their promise and make a good faith effort to keep the team in the area.
The owners, who want to buy out the last two years of the lease with the city, announced last year that they wanted to move the team and the NBA has approved the move, pending court approval.
Brad Keller, an attorney for the owners, said Monday that the city has been involved in a "bleeding-to-sell strategy” since last summer.