With e-mails, Sonics turn tables on city of Seattle

SEATTLE -- Turns out, Seattle leaders have some issues with e-mail, too.

After months of enduring bombshell releases of incriminating messages that seemed to doom their case, the SuperSonics have produced damning e-mail from Seattle power brokers in the trial that will determine whether the team will move to Oklahoma City or be forced to play the final two years of its lease at Seattle's KeyArena.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman will hear closing arguments Thursday to end this six-day trial.

The Sonics lawyers introduced evidence last week showing the former U.S. senator whom the city hired to lead its effort to keep the team was involved in a "poisoned well" plan to force Sonics owner Clay Bennett -- the supposed villain in this civic drama -- into losing so much money he would sell the team to local buyers.

But how much will that matter?

Pechman will be focused on the case's fundamental issue: Exactly what does the Sonics' lease require? And what is the appropriate remedy for the final two seasons of it, which Bennett's Professional Basketball Club LLC wants to buy out so it can move the Sonics to the owners' hometown for the 2008-09 season?

Seattle's Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, who may testify Thursday if Pechman grants the city a rebuttal witness, gushed after last week's testimony.

"We're very, very pleased with how the case has gone," Ceis said, "and we're looking forward to having a good conclusion."

Seattle's attorneys have presented the e-mail messages that got much fanfare before the trial, showing Sonics owners appearing eager to move the team to Oklahoma soon after they purchased it in 2006.

The city has emphasized Bennett and his partners knew the Sonics were losing $20 million per season before they bought the team, so owners' estimates that they will lose more than $60 million if forced to stay two more seasons in Seattle shouldn't matter.

In an attempt to show the Sonics have unique civic value that can't be equated with a lease buyout, the city has brought in sports economic experts plus award-winning author Sherman Alexie. Alexie, a season-ticket holder, provided the tedious trial with comic relief last week when he breathlessly testified "I want two more years of the great gods" of the NBA and "the great thing about basketball is they're barely wearing any clothes."

The rest of the city's week wasn't so funny.

Friday, the Sonics produced e-mail messages and a slide presentation discussed by a Seattle group, including former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, whom the city has retained to lead its efforts to keep the Sonics. The documents outline a plan of inflicting enough economic pain on Bennett that he may want to sell the team to local investors.

The city's position on the lease is that the agreement requires the Sonics' "specific performance" of playing in KeyArena through the 2009-2010 season.

The Sonics maintain this is a garden-variety disagreement between tenant and landlord, so specific performance should not apply and they should be able to fulfill the final two seasons of the lease with rent payments.

"Specific performance has been the city's weapon of choice to try to inflict undue economic hardship on PBC to force it to sell," Sonics attorney Brad Keller said in his opening statement.

Bennett testified he intended to remain in Seattle, with his team playing at a profitable new suburban arena in Seattle's dynamic economic market -- but that city and state leaders rejected his effort. That left him with an economically obsolete KeyArena and forced him to apply for relocation, which the NBA overwhelmingly approved.

"I never envisioned me sitting here today, because I believed we'd build a building [or] we'd negotiate the lease -- and we'd move on," Bennett said last week.

Many legal experts never expected this trial, either. They thought the case would be settled before the trial began June 16, amid a rally of thousands of fans chanting "Save our Sonics!" Others saw this three-day break before the trial resumes Thursday as fertile ground for a settlement.

But Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has already rejected Bennett's offer of $26.5 million to settle.

Fred Nance, a negotiator for the city of Cleveland when it reached a settlement with the NFL for a future team when it lost the original Browns, says the NBA must be part of any deal so Seattle can be assured of a replacement team.

Yet the league and city remain disconnected over what NBA commissioner David Stern has criticized as a "scorched-earth policy" by Seattle leaders.

Two cities, their fan bases and the NBA await Pechman's ruling. She will announce Thursday when she will issue it.

"It's a shot in the dark," Nance said when asked to predict the result in Seattle. "The stakes are so high."