Former Sonics exec Wally Walker, not exactly a fan favorite, has been a key player in attempts to keep the team here, the trial reveals.
Bad penny or guardian angel? It’s tough to tell with Wally Walker.
“Maybe it’s time we stopped demonizing him?” asked a basketball fan, who watched the former Sonics player and executive testify Friday in the team’s trial.
Through good times and bad times, Walker has been a polarizing figure for the Sonics.
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During his testimony in the case of the city trying to force the Sonics to honor the last two years of their KeyArena lease, it became obvious Walker has remained busy since the team forced him to resign in October 2006.
After Sonics chairman Clay Bennett filed for arbitration in an attempt to break the lease and the city filed its lawsuit last year, Walker reached out to the city’s power brokers.
He had done this before, though the circumstances hadn’t been as dire. In 2001, then-Sonics owner Barry Ackerley was looking to sell to out-of-town owners before Walker convinced Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to lead a group and buy the Sonics and Storm for $200 million.
That’s Walker’s gift: deal-making.
On Oct. 7, 2007, Walker arranged a meeting at his house that included former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer, Seattle real-estate developer Matt Griffin and former Safeco president Mike McGavick.
Each served a key role. Gorton’s law firm, K&L Gates, had recently been hired by the city to fight Bennett legally. Ballmer had the financial resources. Griffin is an architectural whiz. McGavick authored a PowerPoint plan dubbed: “The Sonics Challenge: Why a Poisoned Well Affords a Unique Opportunity.”
And Walker connected all of the dots. He knew KeyArena and the NBA better than anyone. He frequently conversed with Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis and Joel Litvin, the NBA’s president of basketball operations.
Sonics attorneys characterized Walker as the brains behind an operation that conspired to try to force Bennett to lose millions over the last two years of the lease that expires in 2010 and make him sell the team to Ballmer.
Walker denied the accusation, but there’s no denying his involvement or the irony that one of the most unpopular figures in team history is one of the team’s most passionate fans.
In Friday’s testimony, he talked about a 30-year love affair with the Sonics.
Walker was a reserve on the team that played in the NBA Finals in 1978 and won the championship the next year. He served as president and general manager on a team that lost 4-2 to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the ’96 Finals.
When asked Friday why he’s interested in keeping the Sonics in Seattle, Walker said: “Beside my own personal history … because of my number of years being able to observe the impact the Sonics have had on the community, all kinds of people bring together diverse groups, joy, inspiration. It’s a unique asset.”
Still, Walker is despised by many because of mistakes during his 12 years in the front office.
He inherited a championship-contending team and is held responsible as the man who disassembled it. He has been characterized as a villain. He lost fan support when he publicly bickered with George Karl, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. And he’ll forever be linked with free-agent bust Jim McIlvaine, who signed a $35 million contract.
Walker symbolized the Sonics’ internal conflict. He spoke for a dysfunctional ownership group of 58 investors. He was booed at team events. Airplanes flew over the city with banners demanding his dismissal.
Despite his acrimonious relationship with Sonics fans the past decade, Walker’s commitment to the team never wavered. He put into motion a plot to save the team that nearly worked.
“I betcha he’ll get booed for this, too,” the basketball fan said.
Bennett’s attorneys say the city shouldn’t profit from Walker and his group’s “poison well” plan. They say District Court Judge Marsha Pechman should allow the team to pay the balance of the lease and move to Oklahoma City next season.
Walker maintains his motive “certainly wasn’t sinister.”
In an interview Friday after his testimony, he said: “All we’re trying to do is have a plan if current ownership doesn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity here.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com