Economist: Impact may not be replaced if Sonics relocate

SEATTLE -- U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman has freely acknowledged she doesn't follow basketball.

But on Thursday she got a glimpse into the world of wounded Seattle SuperSonics superfans, courtesy of author, poet, humorist and season ticket-holder Sherman Alexie. The city called him to describe the team's importance to the community, or at least to Alexie -- and that he did, gushingly.

"I want two more years of the great gods," he pleaded during the federal trial to determine whether the SuperSonics can move to Oklahoma City or must honor the remaining two years of their KeyArena lease.

Sonics owner Clay Bennett is trying to relocate the team to his hometown. The city of Seattle has sued to force Bennett's ownership group, the Professional Basketball Club, to play the next two seasons at KeyArena, the NBA's smallest venue, as the team's lease requires.

Courts are often reluctant to force parties to fulfill contract obligations against their will; instead, they require monetary damages to be paid to the injured party. But in this case, the lease says either side may "specifically enforce" its terms, and the city argues that the team provides intangible benefits, such as civic pride, that can't be calculated or paid off as damages.

Alexie, who won a National Book Award last year and wrote the screenplay for the 1999 movie "Smoke Signals," frequently turns to basketball and its importance to American Indian reservation life as a theme in his writing, and he offered a unique perspective on the "intangible benefits" the Sonics bring to Seattle.

Before trial, the Sonics tried to exclude him from the witness list, arguing he had nothing relevant to say. The team argues fans aren't a party to the lease, so they're not legally entitled to consideration.

Alexie told of how isolated and alone he often feels as an American Indian in an overwhelmingly white city and how that vanishes when he sees the melting pot of fans and players at KeyArena, and he credited basketball for improving his relationship with his father.

The NBA, he said, is a "celebration of poverty" -- and he wasn't talking about the $60 million the Sonics expect to lose if forced to stay in Seattle for two more seasons. Professional basketball represents the hopes of poor kids, he explained.

He got so wound up explaining that "the great thing about basketball is they're barely wearing any clothes" and discussing the "current mythology" of the sport that the judge asked him to slow down for the court reporter.

"Sorry, judge," Alexie said.

He went on to talk about how things have changed for season ticket-holders since Bennett's Professional Basketball Club bought the team for $350 million in 2006: There were no banners in the players' parking lot, where such fans can park. There was no free popcorn or cucumber sandwiches inside. The new personnel didn't know who he was.

Add a final insult: Alexie got a letter saying that because of the possible relocation, the Sonics wouldn't be selling season tickets for next year. The letter began "Dear Fan," instead of "Dear Sherman Alexie."

But Alexie said that if the Sonics are leaving, what he really wants is two more years to say goodbye.

The litany won the wounded superfan a sincere apology.

"Thank you for your support. It's very much appreciated," team lawyer Brad Keller began his cross-examination. "I'm sorry the locker guy didn't know who you are. I'm sorry there wasn't any popcorn."

Thursday marked the fourth day of the six-day trial, and the city rested its case shortly after Alexie's testimony. If Pechman rules the Sonics can leave, a separate trial will be held to determine damages the team must pay for breaking the lease.

Earlier in the day, Lon S. Hatamiya, an expert for the city, testified that the Sonics support 1,200 to 1,300 jobs and are responsible for nearly $188 million in local economic activity. And, he said, you can't assume that impact will be replaced if they leave town.

But an expert who testified for the Sonics, Brad Humphreys, said the consensus of economists is that the departure of sports teams has no impact on the greater metropolitan areas they leave behind -- in this case defined as King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties. If people can't spend their money on the Sonics, they'll spend it on other entertainment options, such as Mariners games or movies.

But on cross-examination, city attorney Paul Lawrence noted that many Sonics fans -- including nearly two-thirds of season ticket-holders -- live outside Seattle. If they spend their entertainment dollars on movies, it probably won't be in Seattle, he suggested -- and that's a loss to the city.

Testimony in the case was expected to wrap up Friday with three witnesses, including former Sonics president Wally Walker. Closing arguments are scheduled for June 26.