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How Seattle lost the SuperSonics

Seattle SuperSonics.

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.

Under cross-examination, Mayor Nickels proved to be contradictory witness, conceding afterward that if Keller’s job “was to make me look feeble … I would say he did a pretty good job.”

Thiel, Jerry Brewer, a sports columnist for The Seattle Times, and practically every other pundit in town agreed that no one had clean hands, including the vainglorious NBA. Both, however, singled out Gorton. His e-mail had allowed the Oklahomans to drag Seattle into “that dark, nearly irresistible place of prevarication, dissembling, and obfuscation where powerful men see their reputations implode,” Thiel wrote. Brewer concluded that Gorton had “entangled the city in a vile conflict of interest.” All things considered, however, “there are no victims in this trial. There are only villains … plaintiffs, defendants, everyone — wearing sullied suits, looking like rivals after a schoolyard brawl.”

Gorton was furious to have his integrity impugned but constrained from comment at the time. Here is his side of the story:

“At the time at which the mayor asked me and K&L Gates to represent the city, I was already involved with Mike McGavick and Wally Walker in trying to find a purchaser to keep the team here. The only potential buyer was Steve Ballmer, whom both Wally and Mike knew well. It took very little persuasion to get Steve to offer the city $150 million to pay half of the cost of remaking KeyArena into a satisfactory venue for the NBA. In her usual lackluster fashion, Gregoire supported the idea of authorizing the city to extend the Safeco Field taxes but Speaker Chopp killed it. If it had not been for Frank Chopp, the Sonics would still be here.

“The NBA was right in its position that the present KeyArena is vastly inadequate. However, it would have had to agree that the remodel would make it OK, and the Oklahomans didn’t want to sell. They wanted to move. We could only retain the Sonics by persuading the league to reject their application and that required an unequivocal commitment to the changes and to a new purchaser — Ballmer. Of course we played hardball, the only game a sports league would understand. Once the Legislature failed to act, the league was certain to approve the move to Oklahoma City. The city was left with only a lawsuit to keep the team here for two more awful years or to get as large a settlement as possible.

“The meeting I had with the NBA in New York was set up by Wally Walker, whom the NBA knew and liked. He and McGavick and Ballmer were the team to save the Sonics that preceded my representation of the city, so of course they were told about its results, and properly so. But during the course of the trial, when Keller made his charges, Lawrence failed to defend me or to allow me to do so myself — during or after the trial, probably because the settlement negotiations were at a crucial point. Whatever, I was furious and seriously considered leaving the firm. I’m still unhappy today.”

The city and the Oklahomans settled out of court for $45 million in the summer of 2008, just before Pechman was set to release her ruling. Seattle kept the Sonics’ name. Oklahoma City gained a young team rechristened the Thunder. Seattle stood to receive another $30 million on two conditions. The first was the linchpin: The Legislature in 2009 had to approve funding to renovate KeyArena or build a new venue. If that happened and the city failed to land a new NBA team by 2013, the Oklahomans had to write the second check. Stern said the NBA “would be happy to return” to Seattle at a future time.

The Legislature balked once again. In his bid for a third term, Nickels was defeated in the 2009 primary — the loss of the Sonics adding to the voters’ general dissatisfaction with City Hall.

“The settlement was highly favorable,” Gorton maintains, “yet still denounced by the sporting press and others. They wanted what we couldn’t get – a permanent team. So it ended up hurting Greg Nickels, the only politician who really had the courage to do something positive.”

So far, Seattle has no replacement team. Even more gallingly, Kevin Durant, the Sonics’ blue-chip 2007 draft pick, emerged as a superstar. The Thunder made the playoffs in its first season. By 2011 it was a contender.

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