Ten years later, Nickels remembers the July 18, 2006 sale of the city’s NBA team by Howard Schultz and the Basketball Club of Seattle to an out-of-state investment group as ‘a total surprise.’
Ten years ago on Monday, the Seattle Sonics died.
That’s how former Mayor Greg Nickels remembers July 18, 2006 — the sale of the city’s NBA team to an out-of-state investment group.
“The day that they were sold to the folks from Oklahoma City, they were gone,” he said. “There were a lot of efforts by the city, state and county to try and figure something out, but it was very clear that the new owners were intent to take them away.”
Nickels had been working with the previous Sonics owners on a deal to renovate the team’s home at KeyArena when news of the transaction broke on a Tuesday summer morning.
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“It was a total surprise,” he said. “We got maybe a few minutes heads up before the press conference. That was it.”
That afternoon, the team organized a news conference at its Furtado Center training facility to announce the $350 million sale of the Sonics and WNBA’s Storm by Howard Schultz and the Basketball Club of Seattle to Clay Bennett and the Professional Basketball Club LLC based in Oklahoma City.
The Sonics’ 1979 NBA and the Storm’s 2004 WNBA title trophies sat on opposite ends of a dais while green and gold balloons were tied to sneakers.
They dressed up the day to make it feel like a celebration, but for Sonics fans it felt like the death of the beloved franchise with deep roots to the city dating to 1967.
“It was uncomfortable,” said Wally Walker, former Sonics president and minority owner. “Not because anything that anybody said or that wasn’t right at that time — it seemed like all good intentions — it just didn’t feel right. There was a gut feeling that it wasn’t right.
“Everybody was trying to do what they thought was right. But it wasn’t the right setting. Of course we know that now.”
The previous week, Walker had been enjoying a family vacation in France when negotiations finalized on the sale of the Sonics and Storm. He was among the dissenting group on the nine-member executive board of the Basketball Club of Seattle that voted 5-4 to sell.
Three days later, the team made the announcement public.
“We had a meeting with employees that morning … then there was a press conference in the afternoon,” Walker said. “Again surreal is a fine description of it. The announcement was made and the reaction was as I expected.
“The local team gets sold to out-of-towners, (and) you can’t help to not be skeptical and suspicious. That’s justified in hindsight.”
The day Bennett, who did not return messages seeking comment for this story, took possession of the Sonics and Storm, he expressed a commitment to keep the teams in Seattle.
Many were skeptical.
“I never thought for a second that Oklahoma group was committed to keeping the team in Seattle,” former city councilman Peter Steinbrueck said. “And I wasn’t the only one who took that view. The guy (Bennett) was dubious in character in the first place and didn’t seem to be a straight shooter.
“And why would (someone from Oklahoma City) want to keep the team in Seattle? It didn’t make sense then, and looking back now you still ask the same question — why did (the Schultz-ownership group) sell to guys from out of the state?”
On his last day as Sonics majority owner, Schultz ceremoniously handed Bennett a No. 1 Sonics jersey before citing the difficulties in securing an arena-upgrade deal as reason for the sale.
“In the last two years, it has become very obvious that despite all our individual and collective efforts, we were not able to get to a solution,” Schultz said amid boos from a smattering of angry fans in an audience that included solemn team employees and media. “I honestly believe this group wants to stay in Seattle. Moving the team is not their intent.”
The Starbucks CEO sounded deflated and defeated, which was a stark contrast to the energetic and enthusiastic Sonics fan-turned-owner who often called Seattle’s NBA team a public trust.
In 2001 when he bought the Sonics from Barry Ackerley for $200 million, Schultz fantasized about changing the NBA’s business model and bridging the gap between the sport’s million-dollar players and working-class fans.
However, five years later he’d grown weary of pro sports after acrimonious contract negotiations with star players Gary Payton and Rashard Lewis and the team’s inability rekindle the heydays of the 1990s and the ’79 championship.
Schultz, who did not return messages seeking comment for this story, had also been dismayed by the resistance from Seattle voters, the city council and state legislature against the team’s push for a $220 million KeyArena renovation largely financed by the public.
Schultz and his group of owners claimed to have lost $60 million and blamed their lease deal, which required the team to split luxury-suite and concession revenue with the city.
With two years remaining on the lease, Schultz sold the teams for a reportedly $80 million profit.
“I thought it was a bad move,” said former Seattle Council President Nick Licata, who angered Sonics fans with statements that the team’s departure would have little impact on Seattle. “He was selling the team based on a very narrow profit advantage.
“Everything that the people of Seattle said is, ‘Hey we’ll loan you the money, and all we’re asking for is a very low rate from what we would earn on federal bonds.’ He would have made off like a bandit. I have a feeling there was something else in play. Maybe he just didn’t like to be told he couldn’t have his way. I don’t know.”
Licata, one of the founders of Citizens for More Important Things, had been a staunch opponent of publicly financed stadiums after Seattle helped finance the construction of $517.6 million Safeco Field, which opened in 1999, and $430 million CenturyLink Field, which opened in 2002.
He helped author the voter’s guide statement for Initiative 91, the proposal that received 74.1 percent of the vote in November 2006 and requires any sports facility built with city financing to return an investment equal to a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond.
The passage of I-91 was preventable, said David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union 775, which bankrolled the I-91 effort.
He said the Citizens for More Important Things group would have been open to a deal with the city and Sonics owners on a KeyArena renovation deal that included an infrastructure package.
“Our perspective was the state, county and city should not be subsidizing billionaire-owned for-profit businesses that employ millionaires while other critical public needs were being ignored,” Rolf said. “We never got to a renegotiation. … My phone never rang.”
In essence I-91 thwarted plans to renovate KeyArena, which led to talks of building a $530 million arena in Renton that gained little traction.
“In some ways I’m surprised we didn’t get a check for the I-91 campaign signed by Clay Bennett,” Rolf said. “It was clear he was looking for a ticket out of town as soon as possible.”
A little less than two years after the sale, Bennett returned home to Oklahoma City like a conquering hero with the Sonics that included young stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The team, renamed the Thunder, has made six playoff appearances, including a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals, during the eight years in Oklahoma City.
Bennett’s group, which sold the Storm to local investors in 2008, paid $45 million to end the city’s federal lawsuit that could have kept the Sonics at KeyArena until 2010.
The settlement, which was reached hours before the scheduled release of the trial’s verdict, drew jeers from Sonics fans hoping for a favorable court ruling.
Still, Nickels has no reservations.
“We had a weak hand,” he said. “We played that hand as hard as we could, and as a result of that we were able to make the taxpayers whole.
“But in reality, the day that the team sold was the day the Sonics were gone.”