Sonics’ cross-over dribble tags governor race

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

Over the past few years, the worlds of sports and politics have become so intertwined that it’s often hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Recently, the Seattle Sonics basketball litigation unexpectedly crossed over into the governor’s race in an unusual way.

Here’s a little background. Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett and some of his friends bought the Sonics basketball team and said if political leaders of our state and region didn’t build him a $500 million arena, he would move the team to Oklahoma City. Former owner, Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz, had only asked for about $300 million. Even though Schultz had gotten Bennett to commit to a one-year “good faith effort” to keep the team here, most observers and political leaders simply didn’t believe Bennett.

Publicly, they tried to take him at his word.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Gov. Christine Gregoire tried to no avail to broker a deal with the Legislature.

Eventually, Bennett petitioned National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner David Stern and other league owners to move the team.

Seattle and Mayor Nickels sued Bennett to enforce the lease and keep the team two more years. The issue got really interesting after some embarrassing e-mail turned up that suggested Bennett had wanted to move the team all along. Nickels and the Seattle city attorney hired former Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton to work on the litigation on behalf of the city.

Gorton pursued what NBA commissioner Stern called a “scorched earth policy.” Gorton, apparently feeling that Stern might know more than he was telling publicly, wanted to depose him. That clearly annoyed the commissioner.

At the same time, Howard Schultz read some of the Bennett e-mails and concluded Bennett hadn’t been fully honest with him. Schultz wanted the sale of the team voided so he could re-sell the team to a local group headed by Microsoft executive Steve Balmer.

The combined pressure of lawsuits from Nickels and Schultz put Bennett in a very difficult position — one the NBA commissioner may want resolved. The NBA owners then voted 28-2 to approve the move to Oklahoma.

But here’s where the story gets interesting.

After the vote by the NBA, King County Executive Ron Sims and King County Council member Pete von Reichbauer publicly suggested that it was time to negotiate. Nickels and Gregoire were likely already working on that concept behind the scenes.

The ultimate goal is to have a team in the region. Only the NBA and Commissioner Stern can make that happen — and they neither live here nor are very fond of us at the moment.

In a news conference, however, Stern seemed to open the door for discussion. Gorton countered he would be interested in those discussions if the governor and the Legislature came up with a plan for the arena. Gorton seemed to be positioning himself as the negotiator.

However, Gorton’s aggressive tactics, while good preparation to litigation, are bad for negotiation. More importantly politically, Gorton had been critical of Gregoire and other Olympia Democratic leaders for previously not getting a deal on the controversial and expensive arena, and for not calling a special session of the Legislature.

Since the primary beneficiary of Republican Gorton’s criticism is Gregoire’s Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, the governor’s staff was not amused by his comments.

The current strategy appears to be to keep the pressure on through the lawsuits, tone down the criticism of Stern and work behind the scenes for a solution to get the region a team either by expansion, sale of a team from another region, or a trade of teams that gets Bennett another team to move. Also, Gorton has been or will be told to stop criticism of Gregoire and other Democrats while he’s on Democrat Greg Nickels’ payroll at more than $600 an hour.

Lastly, to make a deal, Gorton will have to be eased out of any negotiations and quietly replaced by a “closer.” This improves the possibility of a deal, but also ensures if one is made, the logical recipients of the credit are Nickels and Gregoire, who have been doing all the work — not Rossi supporter Gorton.

In this one, you’ll have to read between the lines to follow the story.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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