Oh man, this lawsuit attempting to force the Sonics to honor their Key Arena lease is gonna be a lot of fun, as city attorneys use the discovery process to reveal the dishonest dealings we all assumed were going on behind the scenes, but our sports-page-hawking editorial boards refused to acknowledge. And it looks like I’m going to get the opportunity for some delicious gloating.
For example, today the Seattle PI reports on recently uncovered emails between Clay Bennett, his fellow Sonics owners, and NBA Commissioner David Stern, that establish once and for all what an unrepentant bald-faced liar Bennett has always been. “I so cherish our relationship,” Bennett breathily wrote Stern on August 17, 2007, after co-owner Aubrey McClendon frankly told Oklahoma City’s The Journal Record that “we didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle.” In what can only be described as a digital blowjob, Bennett described Stern as “just one of my favorite people on earth,” attempting to reassure him:
“I would never breach your trust. As absolutely remarkable as it may seem, Aubrey and I have NEVER discussed moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City, nor have I discussed it with ANY other member of our ownership group. I have been passionately committed to our process in Seattle, and have worked my ass off.”
Uh-huh. Yet only four months earlier, during an April 17 email exchange, Sonics co-owner Tom Ward bluntly asked Bennett if there was “any way to move here for next season or are we doomed to have another lame-duck season in Seattle?”
Bennett’s reply: “I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!”
Ward: “That’s the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here (in Oklahoma City) next year.”
McClendon: “Me too, thanks Clay!”
Those e-mails came during the one-year grace period supposedly earmarked for good-faith efforts to keep the team in Seattle.
Isn’t legal discovery fun? In fact, just two weeks after purchasing the team, Bennett’s co-owners made their intentions absolutely clear :
Corresponding after one partner had dropped out of the group, apparently after deciding a move to Oklahoma wasn’t certain, Ward told McClendon on Aug. 2, 2006, that Bennett was angered by the defection.
“I don’t think that you and I really want to own a team there either, but we are better partners,” Ward wrote.
Shocking, huh? Well, I assume it is to the grownups on the editorial boards at our two dailies, who repeatedly vouched for Bennett’s character and intentions throughout the entire sham arena process. On February 15, 2007, the PI naively insisted that “Clay Bennett deserves credit for sincerity in his efforts to work out a deal that keeps the team in the Seattle area,” while on May 2, 2007 the wise old folks at the Seattle Times went so far as to chide cynics like me for suggesting otherwise:
There have been whispers and shouts that SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett is only buying time until he can move the teams to his home state of Oklahoma. This is an unfair claim. Bennett has done nothing to suggest that moving the teams is a foregone conclusion.
“Nothing to suggest that Bennett is being insincere?” I responded at the time…
Um… how about seeking $400 million in taxpayer subsidies on a $500 million hoops palace, just weeks after 74-percent of voters rejected $200 million in subsidies on a $220 million Key Arena renovation? If that’s sincere, it’s sincerely stupid.
And it’s not like I’m puffing up my analysis with the benefit of hindsight. Our local media reliably reported Bennett’s pronouncements at face value, refusing to read between the lines while excoriating those of us who did. But I never believed Bennett ever intended to keep the team in Seattle, and the basis for my cynicism seemed obvious:
Even the most casual observer of Washington politics could have told Bennett that his $530 million hoop dream would be D.O.A., so I can’t help but view it as a disingenuous con game intended to fill Key Arena with gullible fans until the lease expires in 2010.
I’ve never believed that Bennett ever seriously wanted to keep the Sonics in the Seattle area, but rather has always intended to move the team back home to Oklahoma City, where he will be welcomed as a conquering hero. In that admittedly cynical scenario the arena proposal must be just believable enough to keep gullible fans (and editors) in their seats until the Key Arena lease runs out in 2010, but outrageous enough to make the deal politically DOA.
And what if I was wrong, and state lawmakers actually caved to Bennett’s unreasonable demands and gave him his taxpayer funded hoops palace? Well, I always believed Bennett and his partners had that angle covered too:
See, if as expected, taxpayers (and the lawmakers representing them) rejected his extravagant proposal, he could claim he made his “good faith effort,” and then pick up and move the team to Oklahoma City, where he’ll be greeted as a local hero. But if we foolishly caved to his demands, well, he still might end up with an Oklahoma City team… just not the Sonics.
The Renton deal would dramatically increase the value of the team, allowing Bennett and his partners to sell out, taking a couple hundred million dollars in profit… money which could defray the cost of buying a smaller market team, like the Hornets, and moving it to Oklahoma City instead. In that scenario, Washington taxpayers would indirectly subsidize professional basketball in Oklahoma. Sweet.
Yeah, I know, it sounds a little too devious. But the fabulously wealthy generally don’t get that way by being artless and uncalculating.
Which brings us back to those emails, where Ward wrote to McClendon about just such an eventuality:
“I assume that I will be ready to sell there and work on a team here if they build a new arena, but we shall see.”
Bennett and his partners never intended to keep the Sonics in Seattle, and never negotiated in good faith; that not only should be obvious by now, it should have been obvious the day they purchased the team. As McClendon bragged to that Oklahoma City paper:
“We started to look around, and at that time the Sonics were going through some ownership challenges in Seattle,” McClendon told the newspaper. “So Clay, very artfully and skillfully, put himself in the middle of those discussions and to the great amazement and surprise to everyone in Seattle, some rednecks from Oklahoma, which we’ve been called, made off with the team.”
They certainly did. And in the process they played our local media for fools.