Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Poisoned Well

So tomorrow, a judge will rule on the whether the Sonics can break their lease on Key Arena and decamp to Oklahoma City. And while the local media has been making hopeful, happy noises, I think the city is in big trouble, and Sonics fans will have to determine what stage of grief they are going to be in.

Here's the story so far: The previous Sonics management, consisting of a bunch of local investors headed by Starbucks guru Howard Schultz, sold the team to a group based out of Oklahoma City headed by Clay Bennett. The new owners immediately began to lobby for a new arena to replace the Key. Many expensive options were cast about, including building the most expensive venue in the NBA in Renton. Ultimately, it went nowhere, and Bennett's people turned their tear-stained eyes east to relocate the team to Oklahoma.

But then memos turned up that Bennett's boys were always planning on vamoosing to the heartland from the get-go, and the entire negotiation was just a scam - huge demands they never planned on being accepted. So the situation spiraled down to this point, where before a judge, the two sides have to show why the Sonics should be/should not be allowed to skip out on the last two years of their lease.

It seems kinda straightforward. The city needs to show the OK mob were negotiating in bad faith, and as a result their tender Okie feet should be held to the fire. I think everyone expected that Bennett's side would be on the defensive, trying to argue with their own emails.

Bennett's team, however, went in a different direction, attacking the city for themselves negotiating in bad faith and trying to force the new owners to sell out by forcing the team to stay in town, and then making it too hot for them to maintain ownership.

And the thing is, they've got a point, as it turns out. The city hired the prestigious K&L Gates law firm, which had on its team former Republican Senator Slade Gorton, who was notable for keeping sports teams in Seattle regardless of what people living there thought on the subject. Like him or not, he's generally regarded as being a sharp customer who was good to have in your corner.

Problem is, K&L is ALSO representing a group that was looking to buy the Sonics from the OK business team. This might be construed as a potential conflict of interest, and a wall would have to be erected between the two groups to keep everything on the up-and-up.

This didn't happen. Gorton was ALSO on the buyout team, along with Microsoft honcho Steve Ballmer, former Sonics president Wally Walker, real estate developer Matt Griffin, and former Republican senatorial candidate Mike! McGavick. And Bennett's side presented evidence that Gorton had a confidential meetings with the NBA, then reported back that info to the potential new buyers group.

Uh-oh. Well, at least they didn't leave an embarrassing smoking gun from these meetings. OK, Hang on there. Yes they did.

As part of the presentation for the potential new buyer's group, Mike McGavick prepared a PowerPoint representation titled: "The Sonics Challenge: Why a Poisoned Well Affords a Unique Opportunity". For local sports, this is probably the most on-the-nose named document since "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S". Now the "poisoned well" the document refers to was the existing bad blood as opposed to making a bad situation worse, but suddenly the city was the one on the defensive, parsing its words and declaring its innocence.

In terms of a relationship, its like accusing your spouse of cheating when said spouse had Polaroids of you polka-ing the night away with another partner. Making matters worse, the city's lawyer (from K&L Gates, again) was regularly overruled by the judge, who also instructed the lawyer (read: schooled him) in the finer points of law during the course of the trial.

So for the moment, I would say that things do not look good. While the basics of the case remain (do the Sonics have to honor their lease?), the OK boys have denied the city the moral high ground, and exposed a nasty little potential power play on the behalf of the city. or of at least its legal representation. I'm not a fan of the fast-talking smoothies from the heart-of-the-heart of the country, but I have to admit that they nailed our people to the wall.

We'll see what happens tomorrow. More later,