Mayor Nickels, the unlikely new captain of the save-the-Sonics team

The politicians keep changing the lineup and throwing elbows. Here's a look at the newest team and its prospects for keeping pro basketball at KeyArena.
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KeyArena in Seattle, home of the SuperSonics and Storm. (Kyle O'Brien / Flickr 'ꀔ Creative Commons)

The politicians keep changing the lineup and throwing elbows. Here's a look at the newest team and its prospects for keeping pro basketball at KeyArena.

There as many changes in the lineup of the team trying to save the Seattle SuperSonics as on the basketball team itself, which is about to execute a three-team, 11-player trade. But maybe the team-savers are starting to find a game plan, and a winning combination, to keep the team in town. Maybe.

Mayor Greg Nickels, new team captain and lead rebounder. Nickels is a surprise, since he seemed to be sitting at the end of the bench, brooding and looking for the game to end early. He got taken out of the lineup some years back when the Seattle City Council tied his shoelaces together, telling him he could not, underscore not, go down to Olympia and try to work on a deal that would keep the Howard Schultz Sonics in town. When the new owner, Clay Bennett of Oklahoma City, came calling, Nickels frosted him out. Call the governor, he'd say. Go away, I'm busy.

Yet now here's Nickels, the man with a plan. He seems suddenly earnest about trying to press Bennett to give up a team with years of losses in Seattle and settle for the New Orleans Hornets, now that the National Basketball Association seems to have engineered a public relations strategy for extracting the team from hurricane-diminished New Orleans. So Nickels went out and hired scary lawyer Slade Gorton, the former senator, to thump the Okies in court and (probably, this being a Gorton specialty) come up with local owners who can get a little better bargain when the Okies cry for mercy. Assuming a white-knight group emerges, Nickels may have the political courage and cover to put up some public money.

Another critical part of the game plan is to fix up (again) KeyArena. Three new factors make that more likely, if expensive. First is the popularity of the Seattle Storm, the WNBA team that would play there. Another is the decision by Seattle University to field a front-rank basketball team, again, and they could play at a new Key. Third factor is that putting the KeyArena renovations under the flag of a Seattle Center renewal levy would get around restrictions on spending city money for pro sports, per onerous Initiative 91, passed in 2006. And remember, if the deal does not make KeyArena whole, help the finances of Seattle Center, and save all those union jobs there, the mayor and the council will both bail – preferring in this case that the Sonics leave the region entirely.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, enforcer. He comes in, when needed, to inflict some ugly fouls on the other side, as when NBA Commissioner David Stern last week violated security arrangements and revealed that the Oklahoma group had offered $26.5 million to buy out the lease and leave town. A power move by Stern, since it roused the appetites of the City Council for that chunk of change. Ceis started throwing elbows, hard.

Nick Licata, whiner in a slump who loves to badmouth the team to the press. The City Council, fearful of all the cuts in popular programs they may have to make as the economy sours for next year's budget, rather likes the cash deal. Some, like new Parks and Seattle Center committee chair Tom Rasmussen, worry that the Sonics might decide to take their lumps in court, play for two more years, paying the rent, and then leave the city holding the bag for about $15 million still owing on Key Arena renovations. A buyout would be "attractive," Rasmussen told me this week.

The council, led by Licata and with an ally in state House Speaker Frank Chopp, has been most eager to show the Sonics the door, scoring points with populists and billionaire-bashers in the process. Now they see a way to hold the door for the departing Sonics (accepting a very nice tip as they do so), but they fear being blamed for losing the team. It will be a test for new council President Richard Conlin to see if the council can work with Capt. Nickels toward a unified city plan.

Ron Sims, the benched three-point-shooting star. The King County executive has long been a partner in Olympia with the Sonics, hoping to divvy up county-based hotel-motel tax revenue and other funds for King County arts, for fixing the roof at Safeco Field some day, and for Sims's parklands scheme for Seattle Center. But Sims is diagramming his own plays these days, and the other players aren't keen on working with him, at least not yet, after his defection on transportation Proposition 1. Still, he'll have to come in, late in the game.

Slade Gorton, the sixth man. Gorton got the city one team, the Mariners, by suing Major League Baseball for spiriting the Pilots out of town (to Milwaukee), and then he saved the team again by rustling up new owners, led by Nintendo. He's a game-changer when he comes onto the court (legal or otherwise), and now he's leading the city's legal strategy of holding the Oklahoma City owners to the lease at the Key. If the city wins this round, and it has home-court advantage (pun intended), it may then be time for summit talks with Oklahoma, the NBA, and New Orleans, cutting a deal where the NBA does not lose one major market while gaining two small-city teams.

That's probably all doable. What is harder to imagine is the city and Olympia coming up with the public money that would have to be part of the deal. The howling from the stands will be something awful, and our local players may get so rattled that they miss the key final shots.

Chris Gregoire, the rookie. For a while, the governor was the only public official (aside from reliable sports booster Pete Von Reichbauer of the King County Council) willing to work the problem actively, meet with the forlorn Okies, try to find a site. None of these balls were going into the net. The big, bad intimidator on the team, House Speaker Chopp, kept stepping in the lane anytime Gregoire broke to the basket, and she lost her confidence. Benched, for now.

Chris Van Dyk, mascot in the gorilla suit. Van Dyk has built a career by opposing subsidies to sports teams, and it's hard to imagine that he could resist an encore, even if a local good-guys group of owners appears, willing to put up more money than Schultz or Bennett offered. A lot depends on framing the new Sonics deal as being about the Storm, the Seattle U. team, rock and roll shows at the Key, and maybe some other non-basketball goodies. (NHL hockey? National conventions? Really good hot dogs?) Similarly, the more ogre-like the local sportswriters are able to make Clay Bennett and his rube co-owners, the more heroic will seem the band of too-rich local guys who ride into town, flashing a wad.

Could happen. And remember, around here we only rescue sports teams when it's too late to do it right.


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