NBA commish says arena issues could hold up new Seattle team

SEATTLE -- With the SuperSonics on their way out, Seattle needs to act fast if it wants a new NBA team soon.

Commissioner David Stern sent the city a warning Wednesday, saying officials have less than 18 months to come up with a funding plan for a KeyArena renovation if there's hope of an NBA return within five years.

A settlement reached Wednesday between the SuperSonics and the city terminates the current lease and allows owner Clay Bennett to move the team to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season.

Stern said the league was aware that city, county and state officials were discussing a $300 million renovation of the arena, adding the league would help with the reconstruction plan if the funding was approved. But it's got to happen fast.

"Given the lead times associated with any franchise acquisition or relocation and with a construction project as complex as a KeyArena renovation, authorization of the public funding needs to occur by the end of 2009 in order for there to be any chance for the NBA to return to Seattle within the next five years," Stern said in a statement.

Stern sentiments were reiterated by officials in Seattle. But threats and deadlines often don't sit well with legislatures at the state capital in Olympia, about 60 miles southwest of Seattle.

State House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, panned the settlement's reliance on action next year by the state legislature, which has shown reluctance to extend state taxing authority toward sports stadiums. Part of the settlement would include an additional $30 million for the city of Seattle should lawmakers approve money to renovate KeyArena, but the city not land a team in the next five years.

Making the additional $30 million contingent on state lawmakers quickly approving a stadium financing deal seems threatening, she said, and is "the worst way to approach this."

"Quit threatening us. Just work with us. I don't just mean us the legislature. Everybody -- the fans, the voters," Kessler said.

Stern was frustrated with the reception he received when he went to the state legislature 2½ years ago to lobby support for a new arena, and with the lack of support he sensed from some lawmakers toward keeping the SuperSonics in the city.

Still, he was careful not to rule out a return to the city in October, when owners voted to allow the Sonics to move to Oklahoma City if litigation allowed.

Stern has frequently ruled out expansion, and no teams have said publicly they want to move. If a team did become available, cities such as Las Vegas, Kansas City and Anaheim, Calif., also would want to be in consideration.

Seattle would have an advantage of being an NBA city for 41 years before the settlement was reached. Gov. Chris Gregoire pointedly did not pledge to work on a stadium financing package in the 2009 Legislature, instead putting the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of state lawmakers: "Now it's time for the state legislature to get to work."

Gregoire also said she was disappointed to be losing the franchise, but was heartened by the NBA's pledge to help potential new owners secure another team for the city.

Developer Matt Griffin, part of a potential ownership group in Seattle that includes Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer, said his group remains committed to helping get the NBA back at its earliest availability.

"In April, the mayor [Greg Nickels] said to keep an open mind. This is all part of keeping an open mind," Griffin said. "We're giving the city credit for making a settlement with Bennett and the NBA that provides us a road map for going forward with the goal of having the NBA here in Seattle for the long term."