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Friday, April 18, 2008
As owners OK Sonics move, Stern offers little hope to Seattle

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

David Stern
Stern is an apt description for the commissioner's demeanor at his press conference Friday afternoon.

NEW YORK -- Levity was in short supply at the moment Friday afternoon when NBA commissioner David Stern responded to a Seattle television reporter who made the mistake of interrupting the commish.

"Believe or not, I don't like to be interrupted, and I'm not going to interrupt you. So why don't we just go to the next question," Stern said through clenched teeth.

The Stern who sometimes refers to himself as Easy Dave was nowhere to be found as he announced that the NBA board of governors had approved the relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. The vote was 28-2 in favor of the Sonics (Dallas and Portland opposed), but the club will remain in limbo until a federal court case challenging the move goes to trial in mid-June.

Speaking in the low, deliberate tone he saves for his most aggrieved moments, Stern could barely conceal his disdain each time he referenced the Washington state legislators and local politicians in Seattle who, in Stern's opinion, have stonewalled every attempt (sincere or not, depending on whom you believe) by owner Clay Bennett and previous owner Howard Schultz to build a new arena or secure funds for the renovation of KeyArena.

The only thing keeping the moving trucks from pulling up and emptying the Sonics' offices is an arena lease, which Stern has called the worst in the league. (The Sonics receive zero revenue from parking, just 40 percent of revenue from suite sales and concessions, and just 60 percent of the revenue from a large swath of thousands of $105 seats in the lower bowl.) The city and the team have a June 16 court date to see whether the Sonics will have to honor the final two years of the lease.

Bennett has offered to pay the city for the 82 dates (41 home games per season) the arena would be occupied and to pay the remainder of the debt on KeyArena from a refurbishment in the 1990s. That offer totals $26.5 million, and Bennett has made it clear he is willing to up his offer (and fork over the $30 million relocation fee) to gain his freedom if the sides can agree to engage in a meaningful, civil divorce dialogue, something that seems farfetched at this point given their polarized positions.

Stern seems certain that Bennett's franchise will eventually leave Seattle, whether this summer or one of the following two summers, and he left the door only slightly ajar for a possible NBA return to Seattle in the years ahead.

A source who attended the board of governors meeting said there seemed to be little enthusiasm among the owners to move forward with any kind of an expansion plan, even though the addition of two new franchises -- which could be based in Seattle and Las Vegas if the NBA wanted to go into the two largest unoccupied markets -- would allow the 30 present owners to divide approximately $800 million in expansion fees.

"If someone wants to come in a year from now and pay $1 billion to put a team in Vegas, their opinions might change. But right now the owners don't want to reduce what amounts to each of them having 3 percent equity in the league as a whole," a source who attended the board meeting told ESPN.com on the condition of anonymity.

One striking difference between this news conference and the one Stern held in the same room at the St. Regis Hotel several years ago to announce the move of the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans was the lack of any hopeful words for the fans of Seattle who are about to lose a civic asset that has been around for 40 years.

When Stern was announcing the Hornets' move, he left the clear impression that the NBA was eager to return to a city where the Hornets had enjoyed several years of sustained success and drawn record-breaking crowds. That led to the fast-tracking of the birth of the Bobcats.

But there were no similar words of encouragement this time, a difference the commissioner was asked to explain.

"Well, at the time, I was reflecting what the view of the board was, that on the way out, there had been a meeting with leaders of the Charlotte community who wanted to talk about their understanding of why things didn't work, how they very much wanted to move lots of mountains to make them work in the future, and the board felt that it would be a good thing to leave open the door and be very encouraging of that," Stern said.

"I'm trying hard to on the one hand not close the door, but I'm giving this press conference in the face of a scorched-earth policy that has been announced by the former senator who is leading the charge in the state of Washington to inflict as much possible injury on our team as he possibly can engender, and that didn't move the committee to be similarly inclined with respect to the state of Washington at this time."

In other words, when the moving trucks finally pull up and then pull away, and when the city of Seattle is left without an NBA franchise, somebody from the state of Washington or the city of Seattle is going to have to try to make amends with Stern if the NBA is ever to return.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.