OKLAHOMA CITY -- Mayor Mick Cornett expressed cautious
optimism Friday after the Seattle SuperSonics' ownership group
announced plans to relocate the NBA franchise to Oklahoma City.
Cornett called the announcement "a significant step forward"
toward securing the Sonics but quickly noted that "I'm reminding
people it's not the final step of the process."
Litigation is still pending over the team's lease agreement in
Seattle and the league's Board of Governors would have to approve
any franchise move.
"The history of sports is littered with franchises that
intended to relocate, said they would relocate and for whatever
reason didn't relocate," said Cornett, a former television
sportscaster. "Things change. I don't anticipate anything
changing, but things do change."
Cornett noted that in November 2005, NBA commissioner David
Stern -- impressed with the city's immediate and strong support of
the New Orleans Hornets -- said Oklahoma City was at the top of the
league's relocation list.
"This is the first time since then that a team has filed for
relocation, so it shouldn't surprise anybody that we're at the top
of the list," Cornett said.
Paul Sund, a spokesman for Gov. Brad Henry, said the governor
had no comment about the Sonics' announcement.
Oklahoma City never had been home to a major-league franchise
until the Hornets -- displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina
-- took up residence in the city during the weeks before the 2005-06
season. That season, the Hornets sold out 18 of their 36 games at
the Ford Center, where they had an average attendance of 18,717.
The Hornets opted to remain in Oklahoma City for a second
season, averaging 17,954 fans a game and recording 12 sellouts at
the Ford Center.
"We know firsthand that Oklahoma City is a viable NBA market,"
Hornets owner George Shinn said in a statement. "We appreciate
their tremendous past support and wish Mr. Bennett and his group
nothing but success."
Even an owner without a vested interest in the matter has noted
Oklahoma City's major-league potential. During a visit to the city
Thursday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he understood the
desire medium-sized markets like Oklahoma City have for major pro
"While large markets become more obvious, there's a lot of
success in smaller markets, relative to the larger markets," Jones
said. "I've never thought of Oklahoma City, in any way, being a
small market. ... Oklahoma City's passion for sports can suit,
certainly, an NBA team, in my judgment."
Despite the Hornets' success, Cornett never actively campaigned
to keep the team in Oklahoma City, understanding the Hornets always
had planned to return to New Orleans.
Even after an Oklahoma City-based ownership group, led by
businessman Clay Bennett, bought the Sonics last year -- spurring
talk of a possible move to Oklahoma -- Cornett has been careful not
to publicly discuss that possibility.
"I felt all along that we were going to get a team," Cornett
said Friday. "I have believed for two years now that we were going
to wind up with an NBA franchise. I didn't know which franchise it
would be or what season it would be."
When the Sonics might arrive in Oklahoma remains in question.
The team has committed to play this season in Seattle's KeyArena
but wants to buy out the final two years of its lease agreement.
The city of Seattle is trying to hold the team to that agreement,
which runs through the end of the 2009-10 season.
A federal judge in Washington state ruled this week that the
dispute may not be resolved through arbitration, as the Sonics had
hoped. The decision means officials may continue to seek a court
order forcing the Sonics to play the next three seasons at the
NBA's smallest venue.
The Sonics' statement Friday said "we intend to relocate the
Sonics to Oklahoma City if we succeed in pending litigation with
the City, or are able to negotiate an early lease termination, or
at the end of the lease term."
Cornett previously has said that "if you're dealing with an NBA
team, there is going to be an expectation of a [publicly funded]
practice facility," calling it "an entry-level part of
negotiation" of any potential lease. He also has said city
officials foresee a time when the Ford Center, which opened in June
2002, will need to be replaced with a newer facility.
He said Friday afternoon that he had not discussed the Sonics'
announcement with Bennett and that he would seek guidance from NBA
officials about when the timing would be appropriate for Oklahoma
City to negotiate a lease agreement with the team.
"Becoming an NBA city is a choice," Cornett said. "I am
convinced our city is ready and most people would like to see us
move forward in that direction. When you choose that, you know you
are expected to provide facilities and venues that are comparable
to other NBA cities."