Editor's note: What follows is an excerpt from a new biography, "Slade Gorton: A half century in politics," by John C. Hughes, published by the Washington State Heritage Center. The book and others in the series are available free online or through Amazon.com. The book recounts Gorton's rise in local politics, advancing from being a key state legislator in the 1960s Republican ascendency in Olympia, his roles as Attorney General, three-term U.S. Senator, and important national statesman.
One of Gorton's celebrated contributions was finding a new ownership group, headed by Nintendo, to save the Mariners for Seattle. A similar drama played out when the SuperSonics were sold in 2008, and once again Gorton was at the center of the action. This time the team got away. In this excerpt recounting that epic struggle, Gorton for the first time gives his side of the story and pins the blame for losing the team squarely on House Speaker Frank Chopp.
Slade Gorton had saved baseball for Seattle in 1991, finding new owners for the Mariners, but he couldn’t come up with a buzzer-beater for basketball. By the end of a bruising game, in fact, he was charged with a technical foul that complicated the city’s case and called into question his ethics.
Three decades after their stirring championship season of 1979, the SuperSonics were less than super. The arena where Lenny Wilkens, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Shawn Kemp, and Gary Payton once packed them in was now the smallest in the National Basketball Association. Despite a $100 million remodel in 1995, it also lacked the requisite luxury boxes, plasma screens and sushi bars.
It was soon clear, as many feared from the outset, that when Clay Bennett’s Oklahoma-based group purchased the team from Howard Schultz in 2006 it had one goal in mind: Moving it to Oklahoma City. Absent a new arena, Seattle was a money pit, Bennett said, asserting that the team stood to lose $60 million if it was forced to stay until its KeyArena lease expired in 2010.
See you in court, said Mayor Greg Nickels. A lease is a lease.
The city retained K&L Gates, Gorton’s law firm, and filed suit in U.S. District Court. Hoping to duplicate his success with the Mariners, Gorton was already working his Rolodex to find a local buyer. Former aide Mike McGavick, a basketball fan now between jobs, volunteered to help. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer soon emerged as the leader of a local investment group that committed half of the $300 million it would take to renovate KeyArena, as well as the money to purchase an NBA franchise. Bennett insisted the Sonics weren’t for sale. The city said it would contribute $75 million, and lobbied the Legislature to authorize the remainder by extending the King County car-rental and restaurant taxes paying for the Mariners’ Safeco Field.
At the beginning of 2008, Bennett offered the city $26.5 million to drop its lawsuit. The mayor stood his ground, but it was liquefying. Ballmer withdrew his group’s offer after the Legislature balked. With the NBA’s Board of Governors poised to approve the move, Seattle had lost its leverage to keep the team or land a replacement. Gorton criticized the governor and legislative leaders for “a failure of both imagination and courage.” The board voted 28-2 to send the Sonics to Oklahoma City.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, livid that the city persisted in taking its case to trial, accused Gorton of waging a “scorched-earth” campaign. If Gorton and the mayor persisted in attempting “to exact whatever pound of flesh is possible here,” Stern warned, they might jeopardize Seattle’s chances of landing a replacement team anytime soon. Gorton replied evenly that the city would be pleased to negotiate an exit settlement with Bennett if Seattle was guaranteed a replacement team.
“My goal from the very beginning has been to have a team,” Gorton said. “Revenge, I’m not interested in, as such. The city has a financial stake in all this. The mayor and I are in complete accord that what we want is a team. … Whatever David Stern said about me, my principle unhappiness is not directed at David Stern. At this point, we have not given him a plan with an arena adequate for the NBA in the 21st century. If we do and he doesn’t respond, my attitude will be different. But at this point, we haven’t given him that chance.”
When the case went to trial in U.S. District Court in Seattle, dueling tales of duplicity unfolded. Unsealed e-mails, memos, and PowerPoints yielded juicy quotes. Sonics attorney Brad Keller, for starters, charged that the city had “unclean hands.” Gorton, McGavick, Ballmer, and former Sonics CEO Wally Walker were part of a strategy to bleed Bennett’s group into submission, Keller said.
Walker, like Gorton, was a contracted consultant to the city when the group met at his home in the fall of 2007. They reviewed a presentation developed by McGavick. “The Sonics Challenge: Why a Poisoned Well Affords a Unique Opportunity” was duly entered into evidence. The section labeled “making them sell” described a “pincer movement” to boost the Oklahomans’ costs “in an unpleasant environment while increasing the league’s belief that an alternative solution gains it a good new owner and keeps it in a desirable market.” The role of Gorton and the others would be to “increase pain” of trying to leave.
Paul Lawrence, one of Gorton’s K&L Gates colleagues, told the court the pain was self-inflicted. Bennett and the other Oklahoma investors were “all sophisticated businessmen who know what it means to sign and assume a contract.” That the Sonics had been losing money at KeyArena they knew full well. They assumed that risk when they bought the franchise and assumed its obligations. The city was merely holding the team to a valid lease.
The poisoned well wasn’t “as nefarious as the title seemed,” Art Thiel noted in the Post-Intelligencer, since it “referred to how much Bennett had fouled things, not that Ballmer was dumping Drano in Oklahoma City’s water supply.”
There was plenty of hemlock to go around. Among the documents reviewed in court was a Gorton e-mail summing up an underwhelming meeting he’d had with Gregoire, County Executive Ron Sims, and House Speaker Frank Chopp: “Not one of them has a stake in the Sonics’ loss or retention at the present time. None of them can be effectively blamed for a loss which, to the extent that if blame can be laid at anyone’s feet, belongs to (former owner) Howard Schultz. Nor does any one of them see much personal glory in a win on our terms except for the mayor, who will deserve credit for any success. He owns KeyArena and the (Seattle) Center and sees the viability largely dependent on the presence of the Sonics.”
“Say what you will about Gorton,” Thiel wrote, “he nailed that assessment. In the run-up to the litigation, many in the community were furious with political leadership for not stepping up with a comparatively small contribution.”
Keller’s closing arguments focused on portraying Bennett as the victim of a full court press that had morphed into conspiracy. “[T]he end does not and never will justify the means,” Keller said. A new piece of evidence was an e-mail from Gorton to Ballmer, McGavick, and Walker describing a meeting he and Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis had in New York with an NBA official and two of Bennett’s attorneys. Gorton, who was representing the city, had signed a confidentiality agreement. “What is he doing turning around the next day and violating the city’s [confidentiality] promise?” asked Judge Marsha Pechman. Lawrence called the e-mail a “major misstep” but denied Gorton had sent it on behalf of the city.
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