Leaders fouled out: Who’s to blame for Sonics leaving?

He lied to us.

  • Wednesday, April 16, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

He lied to us.

Those four little words are the paper mache shield being used by politicians from Seattle to Olympia to deflect the blame for the Seattle Sonics’ inevitable departure for Oklahoma City.

“I have been lied to. All of the people of the state of Washington have been lied to. I’m shocked and I’m very disappointed,” said Gov. Christine Gregoire.

The “lie” consists of e-mail messages revealing that the Oklahoma City owners of the Sonics were eager to relocate the team if prospects for a better arena didn’t pan out.

Either the governor has a very short memory or she deserves Oscar consideration for her patently feigned outrage.

There was open speculation on the FIRST DAY the sale of the Sonics was announced two years ago that Clay Bennett and his group were interested in moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

The handwriting was big, bold, simple and clear: if the new owners couldn’t get a better deal than the previous owners, the team wouldn’t be here for long. Did they say it outright? No, they didn’t have to. Everyone knew it.

Article after article here and in Oklahoma City chronicled the enthusiasm of fans there for big league basketball, of their politicians who were eager to help land a team, and that their impressive new basketball arena would be packed night after night with 18,000-plus fans.

As it turns out, those stories were accurate. Oklahoma City voters even went to the polls and raised their taxes to seal the deal.

Let’s contrast that with our politicians here..

When Howard Shultz and his group wanted taxpayer financing for a $200 million make-over for Key Arena he was jeered, both at Seattle City Hall and in Olympia. The politicians were reflecting public impatience with public subsidies for rich players and mega-rich owners. And who can blame them?

KeyArena was renovated in the mid-’90s from the ground up exclusively for the Sonics, with public financing. Next came Safeco Field and Quest Field, also built with some public dollars. Then the Sonics owners come back looking for even more public money for a makeover. No. Not this time. Enough’s enough.

To drive the point home, a local ballot measure demanding no new public subsidies for the Sonics passed overwhelmingly in the city last year.

Meanwhile, in Olympia, State Sen. Margarita Prentice tried to put a package together to build a new arena complex off I-405 in Renton. Had it succeeded it would have transformed Renton’s future the way Microsoft changed Redmond. It fell short, and Sen. Prentice gave props to Bennett and company for mounting a serious effort to make it happen. To her credit, the Democrat from Renton refuses to follow the script condemning the current Sonics owners.

Earlier this year, four local guys with deep pockets, including Eastsiders John Stanton, Costco’s Jim Sinegal and Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer lobbied Olympia with a tempting new offer: they would toss in $150 million to improve KeyArena, then buy the team from Bennett if the state and city would supply the remaining $150 million. It was a good deal. But the Legislature dallied, then did nothing, claiming that the proposal was “last minute” and couldn’t be appropriately vetted.

Actually, the Legislature and governor knew two months before the end of the session about this offer. The “last minute” claim was, well, a lie to cover their inaction. The governor and Legislature simply couldn’t get it done.

So now the governor complains that she was “lied to.” Cry me a river. The team is leaving because Olympia and Seattle’s political leaders simply didn’t make a new arena a top priority.

It’s that simple. End of Story. End of Sonics.

John Carlson, KOMO 4 news radio commentator, can be reached at jcarlson@fisherradio.com or johncarlson@komoradio.com.

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