Full Court Press
Key Witnesses Slammed as Sonics Trial Wraps Up
On Thursday, June 26, U.S. District Court judge Marsha Pechman will hear closing arguments in the Sonics case. At press time, she had not said when she would announce her decision.
The city, which took the Sonics to court to keep the team in Seattle through the 2009– 2010 NBA season, wants Pechman to issue a "specific performance" ruling, meaning that neither the city nor the Sonics can unilaterally break the contract by offering money in the place of mandated obligations.
Sonics owner Clay Bennett, who offered to pay the city $26.5 million so he can move the Sonics to Oklahoma City next season (the city still owes more than $30 million in outstanding debt on KeyArena), argues the lease is already broken because it was premised on the Sonics making money.
The Sonics lost an estimated $58 million between 2001 and 2005.
Paul Lawrence: Is there any provision in the lease that you are aware of that allows you to leave early under any circumstance?
Clay Bennett: No, not that I am aware of.
On the trial's second day, June 17, the city's hired gun, K&L Gates attorney Paul Lawrence, put the full-court press on Bennett with a line of questioning that laid out the city's case.
Eliciting answers of "yes" and "yes, sir" and "I was aware of that," Lawrence got Bennett to confirm that he was well aware the team was losing money when he signed the lease, and that he had even acknowledged that "the company expects to incur operating losses for the foreseeable future" in a candid memo to investors. Lawrence summed up his damning line of questioning with this zinger: "And you understood that as long as the Sonics were playing at KeyArena under the lease, the Sonics would lose money?" At that point, Bennett wised up and tried to hedge. "No," he said, "we thought perhaps we could turn that around...."
Lawrence turned to Bennett's April 23 deposition, at which Bennett answered the same question this way: "That was our basic understanding, yes."
Paul Taylor: I want to take us all to October 7. Do you recall that date?
Wally Walker: I do.
Taylor: There was a meeting at your house...
After four days trying to defend their right to break the lease, Bennett's lawyers tried a different argument on June 20, claiming the city's lawsuit was part of a "Machiavellian" ploy to force Bennett to sell the team back to local owners.
Questioning former Sonics CEO Wally Walker, Bennett's lawyers exposed a plot—outlined in a secret document, "The Sonics Challenge: Why a Poisoned Well Affords a Unique Opportunity"—that recommended "bleeding" the Sonics' ownership.
The plan, presented at a meeting at Walker's home while he was a consultant on the city's recently filed lawsuit, included bullet points like "Making them sell. The Path Forward," in which Walker was to work his NBA contacts to "drive a wedge" between the NBA and Bennett by promoting an alternate proposal for KeyArena renovation.
In a questionable move, the city's lead counsel on the lease case, former U.S. senator Slade Gorton, was at Walker's house for the meeting, as was Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who would later offer $150 million as part of Mayor Greg Nickels's KeyArena renovation plan.
Lawrence objected to the line of questioning, arguing that Bennett's attorneys hadn't presented any evidence that Walker was actually a city consultant when the "Poisoned Well" plan was set into motion.
Judge Pechman, apparently persuaded by the evidence (Bennett's lawyer had a letter confirming Walker's consulting gig that was signed by Walker and K&L Gates in September 2007), overruled the city's objection, scolding Lawrence: "[The letter] was signed off by [an attorney] from your law firm."
Sherman Alexie: During the play-off runs, during the end of the season, when we were competing to get into the play-offs, to improve our position, that's when the gym is packed.
Sonics season ticket holder Sherman Alexie, who testified about the importance of keeping the Sonics in Seattle, still seems to think of NBA basketball as something that's played in a gym.
"You know what the players and coaches call players who always show up first and leave last for practice?" Alexie asks. "The ones who shoot an extra 500 jumpers a day? The ones who are constantly in the weight room? The ones who have strict off-season regimens? They are called gym rats. Not arena rats. Not stadium rats. Not dome rats. Not millionaire rats. Gym rats."
Alexie's allegiance to old-school basketball is ironic. The whole reason Bennett wants to take the Sonics to Oklahoma City is because KeyArena—the "gym"—isn't up to NBA standards. Bennett needs clubs and restaurants, retail stores, media dining areas, more courtside suites, family lounges.
Alexie's idealism runs up against the demands of the NBA's bloated business model. And that sums up the standoff between Seattle, with its anti-stadium initiatives (74 percent of us voted against public funding for corporate sports in 2006) versus the NBA and its boutique basketball.
If the city loses the case and the Sonics because KeyArena is not up to NBA standards, fans like Alexie will know the NBA is the real loser because it's not up to Seattle's.