Does Clay Bennett's 'sweet flip' exonerate him?

Here's an interesting mind game. What if the Oklahoma City owners of the Sonics have been behaving honorably all along? News today of an email that envisioned a "sweet flip" of the team, keeping it in Seattle, makes such a theory somewhat plausible. Suspend your media-whipped anger at the Oklahomans for a few minutes, and follow me on a shrewd tale of modern capitalism.

Here's an interesting mind game. What if the Oklahoma City owners of the Sonics have been behaving honorably all along? News today of an email that envisioned a "sweet flip" of the team, keeping it in Seattle, makes such a theory somewhat plausible. Suspend your media-whipped anger at the Oklahomans for a few minutes, and follow me on a shrewd tale of modern capitalism.

It's necessary, first, to keep a few factors in mind. Clay Bennett, chairman of the Oklahoma City group, is also chairman of the investment firm Dorchester Capital, wise in the ways of buying properties and flipping them to the next group at a handsome profit. That would have been the option had he been able to get a modern new arena for the team, something others have not been able to do. Second, Bennett is a good friend of NBA Commissioner David Stern, who might be expected to reward Bennett's Seattle cure by giving Oklahoma City a less-expensive team, likely the New Orleans Hornets.

Suddenly, under this conjectural theory, inconsistencies start to make sense. Why did Bennett & Co. spend so much money in the first year trying to get a new arena? Why did the Schultz group believe that they were saving a team for Seattle by selling to the out-of-towners? And why, when some local owners, led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, finally showed up, was Bennett not willing to sell?

If Bennett thought he could get a new arena built here, he had some leverage to support his hopes. Schultz couldn't threaten to leave town, so he couldn't budge the politicians to pony up to fix KeyArena. Nor could the Starbucks Man change his tune and favor a new arena, not at Seattle Center. Bennett could threaten to leave and spurn KeyArena, so he had a chance to solve that nagging NBA problem of Seattle's bad facility and worse lease. But he couldn't find a good site on the Eastside (fearful of traffic), and he couldn't get anywhere in Olympia.

Then, two other unforeseen events took place. The New Orleans Hornets started having a great year, greatly slowing their availability for Oklahoma City. And the Sonics lucked out in the draft and got a potential superstar in Kevin Durant, giving the Okies another reason to prefer the Sonics to the Hornets.

Time for Plan B: Move the Sonics to OC. Sale to the Ballmer group would no longer be at a premium (no arena solution), and the switcheroo in Oklahoma City, Hello Hornets, was not very doable.

Under such a construction, Bennett actually did act in good faith to keep the Sonics in Seattle, because he had real incentives to do so (making money and getting a team, at a discount, in Oklahoma City). We'll see how well this kind of storyline holds up in court, if we actually go to trial as the City tries to get more money from breaking the lease and an NBA promise to move the next team to Sonics-less Seattle.

It would have been perversely satisfying, in a way, if Bennett had pulled off his shrewd maneuver. The Schultz group would have sold too low. The Ballmer group would have paid too high. And the rubes from Oklahoma City would have administered a lesson in finance to the slickers in Smartyville. That would have made for an amusing civic banquet in honor of Seattle Citizen of the Year, Clay Bennett. Art Thiel would be the right toastmaster.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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