Stern criticizes city, state governments in Sonics dealings

PHOENIX -- NBA commissioner David Stern warned Thursday that if the SuperSonics leave Seattle he sees no way the league would ever return to the city.

"I'd love to find a way to keep the team there," he said, "because if the team moves, there's not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision, and that would be too bad."

At a news conference following his announcement that the 2009 All-Star Game would be held in Phoenix, Stern criticized the city of Seattle and the Washington legislature for its handling of the issue of funding a replacement for Key Arena.

Stern repeated earlier criticism of the mayor and city council for promoting a measure, overwhelmingly passed by voters, that requires any funds to help build an arena earn money at the same rate as a treasury bill.

That measure simply means there is no way city money would ever be used on an arena project, Stern said.

He also lamented that the state legislature refused to consider continuing a tax that helped fund Seattle's baseball and football stadiums.

"To have the speaker of the house say, 'Well, they just spend too much money on salaries anyway, so we need it for other things,'" Stern said, casts aspersions on the whole league's operations. "We get the message. Hopefully, maybe cooler heads will prevail."

He was referring to a remark by House Speaker Frank Chopp last February when funding for a new arena in the Seattle suburb of Renton was proposed.

"They ought to get their own financial house in order when their payroll is over $50 million for, what is it, 10 players? I think that's a little ridiculous," Chopp said at the time. "They need to get their own financial house in order and if they did, they wouldn't have to ask for public help."

Stern's comments were much tougher than the ones he made last June, when he said he believed the issue was "just going to work itself out."

SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett told the NBA last Friday that he plans to move the team to Oklahoma City. When that move would occur depends on outcome of litigation with the city over the franchise's Key Arena lease. The lease calls for the team to play in Seattle through the 2009-10 season, but Bennett wants out sooner.

As the issue becomes more and more contentious, Stern said he hopes "that a white knight that hasn't existed before, somebody who has a building plan of how to keep the team there, will step forward."

Bennett said even after he filed for relocation, no one has approached him with an arena plan.

"We're moving down the line. We're filing for relocation. The only elements that really effect that are the time and if very quickly a tangible and binding proposal for a building comes forth," Bennett said. "I think [Stern] is speaking to try to bring focus to where we are. He's speaking to leadership and hoping that leadership focuses on the issues and determines if in fact this is a public priority or not."

As for Oklahoma City, Bennett said he intended to "begin a comprehensive discussion with the city and business leaders and understand exactly what the relationship will be."

Seattle deputy mayor Tim Ceis said: "Mr. Stern ought to take some of his own advice and quit lobbing these things over the fence at us in press conferences ... and engage with us on ways to keep the team in Seattle."

"We have a lease that is valid and enforceable and his owner is in litigation with us to try and break that lease," Ceis said. "It appears that Mr. Stern is aiding and abetting that effort."

In remarks before he served as the presenter for Bennett's induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City on Thursday night, Stern said he was "not through" helping in Seattle if he could be constructively involved and "not just simply parachute in to say you were there."

"We've had a team in Seattle for over 40 years, it's been a great city and I think it seems almost tragic that as a matter of timing that people in power turned against the team at a time which will turn out to have been a time to really go in the other direction," Stern said.

"Without Oklahoma City in the equation one way or the other, I would like very much to have seen a relationship that was so strong in Seattle and the SuperSonics continue free of sort of the antipathy and downright hostility that has been exhibited," he said.

Stern said he was not meeting with Oklahoma City leaders during his visit because it would be premature, and he deflected questions about the city's potential for hosting an NBA team on a permanent basis as being "an exercise for a relocation committee" and ultimately the Board of Governors.

"If he's serious in working with us to keep the team in Seattle, we would appreciate him coming here to work with us," Ceis said. "Our door is open to Mr. Stern and his representatives and Mr. Bennett and his representatives to see what we can work out."

Stern said Bennett has "learned a fair amount about public speaking in his stay as an owner" but otherwise said Bennett made intensive lobbying efforts for support in Seattle. Stern said a fair analysis of the situation would be that the city of Seattle and Chopp were "hostile, not specifically to Clay but to the notion that there should be a new building for the Sonics at a time when tax moneys are currently being used to subsidize the baseball and football stadiums."

The commissioner's comments in Phoenix came at the end of a news conference where he spent most of his time rehashing the one-game suspension of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after San Antonio's Robert Horry slammed teammate Steve Nash into the scorer's table in last season's conference semifinals.

NBA rules require a one-game suspension for any player who leaves the bench in such incidents.