Seattle SuperSonics and Seattle Storm owner Clay Bennett has told Seattle business and civic leaders that Las Vegas, not his home town of Oklahoma City, could be a destination for the team, The Seattle Times reported.
Bennett's comments were made at a Wednesday board meeting of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau and comfirmed by a Sonics spokesman.
Team spokesman Jim Kneeland said while no firm plans are in place, the team is "looking really hard right now" at Las Vegas, the Times reported. That follows the Washington state legislature's rejection of public funding for a proposed $500 million arena in suburban Renton to replace KeyArena.
"He [Bennett] said, 'I'd still like to get a deal done here, but we're at a point where we have to start looking at other options,'" Kneeland said. The Sonics and Storm have a lease at KeyArena through 2010, but Bennett has said he may try to negotiate a way out of that deal after next season rather than play out the string.
The proposal could raise eyebrows across the NBA for two key reasons:
• It has been presumed since Bennett purchased the teams a year ago that he would move them to his native Oklahoma if he could not get a deal done in Seattle. Oklahoma City hosted the New Orleans Hornets for two NBA seasons in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the city's support for the team impressed league observers.
• Commissioner David Stern has long insisted that the NBA will not allow a franchise relocation or expansion to Las Vegas until the city's casinos ban betting on NBA games. The city's latest proposal to the NBA did not meet that demand, though Stern has announced he'll appoint an ownership committee to study the issue.
Bennett has repeatedly said he'd rather keep the teams in the Seattle area, since it's a larger and more affluent market than Oklahoma City.
But if market size and money are factors, then Las Vegas naturally becomes a desirable alternative, officials who attended the meeting said of Bennett's thinking.
"What I heard him say was that if he ended up having to move the team, Vegas would likely be a more attractive market than Oklahoma City," Steve Leahy, chief executive of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, told the Times.
Seattle City Councilwoman Jan Drago told the newspaper "It was about money -- they can't make a return on their investment in Oklahoma ... he really expected to end up in Vegas."
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire has said she will not call the state Legislature into special session on an arena financing plan, and state House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, is resolutely opposed to taxpayer funding for an arena.
"They already have a place to play. It's nice. There are no potholes in the court there. Every player has health care. They all had the opportunity to go to college. Let's get real here," Chopp told the Seattle Times editorial board. "If they want to [build a new arena], we're not stopping them. They can pay for it themselves."
Meanwhile, Lenny Wilkens said Thursday he has been promoted from vice chairman to team president and is no longer a candidate to replace Rick Sund as general manager or Bob Hill as coach. On Tuesday, Hill was fired and Sund was removed from his post. Sund will remain with the team as a consultant during the final year of his contract.