Stern supports SuperSonics owner


Despite the release of e-mails that SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett exchanged last year with partners about moving the team to Oklahoma City, NBA commissioner David Stern says he is convinced Bennett made a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle.

In related developments, a lawyer for Howard Schultz, the previous owner, said he was preparing a lawsuit in which Schultz will seek to regain ownership of the Sonics on the basis of the e-mails, and the club notified season ticket holders that no renewals will be accepted until the team's future is clarified.

Bennett and ownership partners Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward exchanged e-mails in April 2007 in which they discussed whether there was any way to avoid further "lame duck" seasons in Seattle before the team could be relocated.

Bennett, who had promised to negotiate with Seattle for a full year before deciding whether to move the Sonics, responded: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys."

"I haven't studied them but my sense of it was that Clay, as the managing partner and the driving force of the group, was operating in good faith under the agreement that had been made with (previous owner) Howard Schultz," Stern said on a conference call Monday. "His straight and narrow path may not have been shared by all of his partners in their views, but Clay was the one that was making policy for the partnership."

Stern fined McClendon $250,000 last August after he told an Oklahoma City newspaper that "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here." The e-mails released last week as part of the city of Seattle's efforts to enforce the SuperSonics' lease at KeyArena shed further light on the ownership group's thought process prior to Bennett's self-enforced Oct. 31 deadline to determine the team's eventual home.

Richard C. Yarmuth, a lawyer for Schultz, said that because of the e-mails he had been directed to sue Bennett's Professional Basketball Club within two weeks, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported today.

"The damages that are being sought is to rescind, unwind the transaction," Yarmuth said. "It's not money damage, it's to have the team returned.

"The theory of the suit is that when the team was sold, the Basketball Club of Seattle, our team here, relied on promises made by Clay Bennett and his ownership that they desired to keep the team in Seattle and intended to make a good-faith effort to accomplish that."

Yarmuth did not say in what court he would bring the case.

Bennett's spokesman, Dan Mahoney, and NBA spokesman Tim Frank could not be reached by The Times for comment Monday night.

Meanwhile, the Sonics sent a letter Monday to season ticket holders that read in part: "With the current uncertainty surrounding the team's status about playing in Seattle for the 2008-09 season, we feel the prudent course of action is to wait until this matter is resolved before presenting you with renewal information."

After purchasing the team from Schultz in July 2006, Bennett promised to spend one full year after the purchase was approved to seek a viable home for the Sonics in Seattle. The NBA approved the sale of the Sonics in October 2006.

Stern repeatedly has said that Seattle's KeyArena is not a suitable home for the Sonics, and rejected a recent attempt led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to renovate the arena to keep the team in Seattle. That effort subsequently fell apart when it wasn't backed by the city or the state legislature.

Stern said it's too late at this point to seek other owners who would keep the Sonics in the city where they've played the past 41 years.

"I think it's fair to say that extraordinary efforts were made to seek ownership interests when Howard sold the team, including from people who became involved in the effort &

the recently unsuccessful effort &

to get the state to extend the sales tax for the purposes of retiring the arena debt," Stern said.

"It happened already. There was no one who was interested in buying the team, including the very people who stepped forward at the last minute."

NBA owners will vote Friday on Bennett's proposed relocation to Oklahoma City. A subcommittee of three owners visited Oklahoma City last month and recommended league approval.

During that visit, Stern suggested that Oklahoma City &

when combined with the presence of Tulsa less than 100 miles away &

could be a viable market even though Seattle has a higher population and television audience. On Monday, he downplayed Seattle's role as an entry into Asia.

"I would say that we don't ever like to leave a city," Stern said. "We don't like to leave a city as robust as Seattle, but the Asian cities that we're tending to focus more on have names like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

"It's disheartening simply to leave the city, as it would be to leave any city."

A June trial is scheduled concerning the city of Seattle's lawsuit to enforce the lease and keep the team at KeyArena through 2010.

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