NBA owners approve Sonics' move, pending litigation

NEW YORK -- The messy split between Seattle and the SuperSonics lurched forward Friday when NBA owners approved relocating the team to Oklahoma City -- a move legal wrangling might delay another two years.

"I'm giving this press conference in the face of a scorched earth policy," said NBA commissioner David Stern, who criticized civic leaders suing to force the team to stay until its lease expires in 2010.

He charged that their "strategy is to inflict as much harm on the Sonics in Seattle" to try to force a different outcome.

Owners voted 28-2 in favor of the move, with Dallas and Portland against it. The relocation carries a $30 million fee, and the Sonics could begin playing in owner Clay Bennett's hometown as early as next season.

All that is contingent on resolving the lawsuit filed by Seattle, which has rejected a $26 million settlement offer from Bennett.

Stern directed his ire at Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who is helping with the suit.

"I think that Sen. Gorton and the mayor are determined to exact whatever pound of flesh is possible here, and they will," Stern said. "And then the team will leave at the end of whatever period of time the court says it is required to stay for, and that will be it, period."

Stern said the league is prepared to play out the remaining two seasons in Seattle, but he cautioned that would mean a possible loss of $30 million a year for a team playing in front of reduced attendance.

"Right now, there's no speedy resolution on the horizon," Stern said. "There's a contested trial, a pretty hot atmosphere."

With the move, the Sonics would be the first NBA team to change cities since the Hornets went from Charlotte to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season.

That would delight one city.

"The vote further confirms that Oklahoma is in the big leagues and can compete with anyone," Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry said in a statement.

But before the team can compete in Oklahoma City, it must settle the issue of the lease. Seattle's lawsuit is set for trial on June 16.

"Step 1 is I am hopeful that we can re-establish communications and some sort of platform to have a meaningful, principled conversation," Bennett said. "We are certainly nowhere near that today."

When asked during a news conference later Friday in Seattle if he was expecting a new, richer offer from Bennett, Nickels said, "I don't really care."

"We're going to go into court in June," Nickels said. "We are going to protect the interests of the people of Seattle."

Though Stern insisted it wasn't personal, he repeatedly criticized Seattle officials.

"The presentation from Washington is, 'We're going to kill you,' " Stern said.

When asked about "the shots you took today" from Stern and Bennett, Nickels said to consider the source.

"We're in litigation, and the other side has got to say what they think they have to say to punch holes in our case," he said. "I think it shows they have a pretty weak case. We are focused on June, on winning that litigation and keeping the team here."

Bennett defended his efforts to try to keep the franchise there. E-mails between Bennett and his ownership partners released recently as part of the city's lawsuit appeared to show they planned to move the team to their hometown all along.

Stern said the other owners never "questioned the good faith of Clay Bennett," and Bennett said his words had been misinterpreted. When he wrote, "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can," he meant he was determined to find a way for the Sonics to remain in the city, Bennett contended. He cited at least 30 trips to Seattle and "millions of dollars" spent as evidence of his commitment.

"I also want to express my regret to the citizens of Seattle and the fans of the Sonics that I was unsuccessful in bringing forth a new building," he said. "We tried the best we knew how to try and did what we knew how to do and did the best job I could."

Stern warned Seattle isn't likely to land another NBA team anytime soon for the same reason the Sonics are leaving: the ongoing reluctance of state and local officials to help pay for a replacement for outdated KeyArena. Stern dismissed the idea that a group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer would be able to find an arena solution and eventually purchase the team from Bennett to keep the Sonics in town.

Bennett is also facing a class-action lawsuit brought by season-ticket holders who say they were duped into buying tickets under the premise the Sonics wouldn't leave. And this week former team owner Howard Schultz announced plans to sue to get the team back, saying Bennett did not make a good-faith effort to secure a new arena deal as he promised when he bought the team in 2006.

The NBA's Sonics' move drew strong reaction from Washington's two U.S. senators, who asked the league to delay its vote.

Sen. Patty Murray says she is disappointed that NBA leaders
ignored calls for good-faith efforts to keep the Sonics in Seattle
and rewarded what she labeled "the bad-faith behavior" of Bennett.

Sen. Maria Cantwell says the Sonics have been part of the
Seattle community and its culture for more than four decades. As an
avid sports fan, Cantwell says she is dismayed to see the NBA
rewarding such "unsportsmanlike conduct."

She says the Sonics ownership misrepresented their true
intentions to the community.

Stern and Bennett said it had yet to be determined whether the franchise will carry the SuperSonics name, colors and history with it to Oklahoma City.

The rights to those could be a bargaining chip in Bennett's negotiations with the city, with Seattle possible retaining them for a future team. Stern suggested that calling the club Oklahoma, instead of Oklahoma City, might be desirable because it reflects the importance of other parts of the state such as Tulsa in the franchise's viability.

Of the two teams that voted against the move, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has previously expressed concerns about the market size, and it also happens that Oklahoma City is just 200 miles from Dallas. Stern said the Portland Trail Blazers, owned by Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, didn't say why they voted the way they did.

Stern played down the fact that Oklahoma City is a much smaller market than Seattle.

"The judgment was that the prospect of continued further losses in Seattle without an adequate arena really rendered that discussion with no good answer other than the movement of the team to Oklahoma at this point," Stern said.

The potential move of the Sonics was not the only item on the board's agenda. Owners also voted to increase the revenue sharing pool from $40 million to $49 million, and sources told ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan that the league's competition committee will take up the issue of whether to change the current playoff format when it meets during the annual pre-draft camp in Orlando.

One source said there was not a groundswell of support for changing the playoff format. However, the owners feel it is time to start taking a closer look at alternate formats that would include Eastern Conference teams playing Western Conference teams in all rounds of the playoffs. If the competition committee decides to make a recommendation, it would be presented to the league's board of governors at its next meeting in late October.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.