NBA Teams Sports Law

Sonics Trial Is Done Son

NoklahomaAfter six days of draining testimony, the heated trial between the Seattle Sonics owner Clay Bennett and the City of Seattle officially ended Thursday, just hours prior to the NBA Draft. Judge Marsha Pechman announced she will issue a ruling by Wednesday of this coming week. The Judge will take all the testimony and evidence into account when deciding if the team will be forced to honor the lease at KeyArena and stay in Seattle for two more “lame duck” seasons (according to Clay Bennett and his emails-evidence from the trial), or if Bennett gets his wish and can move the team to Oklahoma City.

Both sides battled hard during the long trial. Attorney Paul Lawrence and the City of Seattle tried to show the Judge how Mr. Bennett and his colleagues had the original intentions of moving the team in 2006, when he purchased the franchise from Starbucks tycoon, Howard Schultz. They also brought up the “specific performance” clause in the contract that supposedly binds the Sonics to a KeyArena lease for two more seasons.

On the flip side of that, Sonics lawyer Brad Keller and company accused  Seattle of comprising a “Machiavellian” scheme to bleed the new owner dry and force him to sell to local investors. They claimed that the poor condition of the leagues smallest venue and weak attendance numbers associated with negative revenue should allow them to move to Oklahoma and forget the final two years on the city’s lease.

According to the AP, the start of closing arguments came when Sonics lawyer Brad Keller displayed an electronic drawing of a human silhouette with a brain inside the skull. The left side of the brain was labeled “City’s litigation lawyers” and colored in green, while the right side was blue and was labeled “Griffin Group’s lawyers.” Apparently, the City and the Griffin Group devised the plan to try and force Bennett to sell the team to local investors, Safeco Corp. CEO Mike McGavick and Microsoft Corp. chief executive Steve Ballmer. The new investors would indefinitely keep the team in Seattle…or at least for another 41 years.

In his final closing remarks Keller explained the comical drawing and asked, “Are we to assume the left side wasn’t talking to the right side?  That defies logic. That defies common sense.”

Judge Pechman was forced to hide her smile from the digital brain drawings as she listened to Keller finalize the trial. She declared that she would try to finish a written ruling on the case by this coming Wednesday, July 2nd.

If the Judge rules for Brad Kelley, Clay Bennett and the Sonics, she must believe that it is in the best interest for the team to move, financially for the owner’s sake and physically and mentally for the Sonics players (with a new stadium and a happy welcoming city).  If this occurs, the teams colors of green and gold along with the mascot will have to stay in Seattle for a future Seattle NBA team.  This occurred when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens; the City of Cleveland later got a football team, the Browns, and used the previous teams colors.  Bennett and the SuperSonics would also pay the City a determined amount of money for breaking the “specific performance” clause in the lease with two years still left on the initial contract. The city’s lawyers have estimated that sum to be around $10 million dollars.

If the Judge decides to keep the Sonics in Seattle for the remainder of the contract, until the 2011 season, the new owner will be forced to either sell the team to local investors who would keep the team in Seattle permanently (like the Griffin Group planned), or try and find money to build a new arena to please the current players and ownership.

The last choice might be the worst possible scenario for Kevin Durant, UCLA star Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Seattle Sonics: The team would end up playing the final two seasons of the contract at KeyArena.  This is certainly a serious possibility. The Arena is the smallest in the league and has aging locker rooms and facilities.

The Sonics players deserve better facilities and would certainly get such treatment in another city. The exciting young team could fill a bigger arena and needs better practice facilities to compete with other NBA teams. Bennett or some Sonic groups and fans (“Save the Sonics” or the “Griffin Group”) should start fundraising for a new arena.  A new arena would instantly help the Sonics and the city of Seattle. It would have a huge impact on the deciding the future location of the team. This would make it harder for the new owners to try and move the team after the 2011 contract is up.

We now can only sit and wait for Judge Marsha Pechman’s ruling as the fate of the Seattle Sonics lie in the hands of a ninth circuit district court Judge. Read the previous article, Will the Sonics Stay in Seattle? to learn more about this case.

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