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Seattle faces challenges to bring NBA back

SEATTLE - As the SuperSonics pack for the move to Oklahoma City, basketball fans and city officials were hopeful about the provisions of the team's departure deal that could lead to a new NBA franchise in Seattle.

But meeting those requirements will be no easy task. Basketball boosters will have to win over a balky state Legislature and local voters who have grown weary of building stadiums for pro sports teams.

The biggest lynchpin in the process is a proposed $300 million renovation of KeyArena, which needs approval from the Washington state Legislature to cover $75 million. Another $75 million would come from the city of Seattle with $150 million from private investors.

'(Seattle) is ready to do its part. Local investors have stepped up. Now, the state Legislature must act,' Seattle mayor Greg Nickels said.

Caught in the middle is the basketball fan in Seattle, who now must accept the reality that the green and gold of the SuperSonics is now a historic item.

The team is headed to Oklahoma City after 41 years and one NBA title in Seattle. The championship banners, the 1979 title trophy and the retired jerseys of Jack Sikma, Lenny Wilkens and Nate McMillan will remain in storage in Seattle in the hopes that the SuperSonics name and colors will be resurrected.

But if those jerseys ever hang in the KeyArena rafters again, perhaps alongside the numbers of more recent Sonics heroes such as Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, it will mean many obstacles have been overcome.

Wednesday's settlement came with the blessing of NBA commissioner David Stern, but without the guarantee of a future team, leaving some Seattle fans feeling betrayed by city officials and the NBA.

But while fans vent their anger on blogs, local officials put a positive spin on the settlement, latching on to Stern's reversal on the possibility that a renovated KeyArena could house a future team. Getting the money to update KeyArena, however, requires the approval of state lawmakers, who have rebuffed three previous efforts to help bankroll arena projects for the Sonics.

City officials now hope that a slightly different financing package will help them win the Legislature's approval. Rather than attempting to tap regional taxes that are paying for Seattle's other major sports stadiums, the city wants to divert a slice of existing hotel taxes that presently pay for the state convention center, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said Thursday.

That could generate enough money to back $75 million in bonds - the missing piece of an equation that also includes $150 million in private money and another $75 million in city dollars from other sources.

'The key next step is funding package. Without that we can't really have a negotiation,' said Seattle developer Matt Griffin, the public face of a potential franchise ownership group that includes Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer and has previously offered to pay for half of a $300 million renovation of KeyArena.

But Schultz, Bennett and Ballmer's groups all have traveled this path before with the state Legislature, none finding any success. And the thought of a strict 2009 deadline for approving a new stadium financing package, well before there's any team to play there, didn't sit well with some in power at the state Capitol.

'It's not going to work, with these 147 individually elected members of the state Legislature, to threaten them and bully them,' said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. 'God love the fans, but we have a state to run. And I think the city of Seattle, they have to go out and make their case to the state.'

And Nickels' rhetoric aside, it's not clear the citizens of Seattle would put up with a big tax subsidy to lure another NBA team even if lawmakers authorized it. Two years ago, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to block such subsidies.

In his statement, Stern said the NBA would assist in helping Seattle acquire a team if state lawmakers approve the KeyArena remodel before the end of 2009. But finding an available team could be equally tough.

While franchise stability appears shaky in Memphis, Sacramento and Milwaukee, those teams may never come up for sale. And Seattle might be competing with the likes of Anaheim, Calif., Las Vegas and Kansas City for any attainable team, that could cost upward of $300 to 400 million to purchase.

In the interim, KeyArena will sit dark for much of the winter, with just the WNBA's Seattle Storm and potentially a few Seattle University basketball games to fill the hoops void.

'I think the NBA can thrive there but it requires a modern building,' Bennett said. 'It requires commitment of leadership and perhaps through this, that can all be realigned and pointed in the right direction. And I wish them well in that endeavor.'