Thiel: It's Stern who owes us an apology

David Stern

Credit: CNN / NBA TV

NBA Commissioner David Stern announces the tentative end of the NBA lockout early Saturday morning.

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on February 13, 2012 at 9:14 AM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 15 at 3:01 PM

Even though the Sonics were nearly three years dead in Seattle,  David Stern felt  compelled the past May to dig up the body just to throw it off a nearby ledge.

Meeting with reporters in Sacramento to explain his decision to grant the Kings a one-year stay of execution rather than move the team to Anaheim, the NBA commissioner was asked to explain why he didn’t do the same in Seattle. The Sonics in 2008 not only had two more years remaining on a valid lease with the city, but a pending offer from Steve Ballmer and other wealthies to remodel KeyArena to the latest NBA standards.

"In Seattle, there was a hostility by the mayor (Greg Nickels), who was interested in doing nothing as opposed to the way Mayor (Kevin) Johnson has put himself out on this for the people of Sacramento,” Stern said, referring to the former NBA star-turned-politician. "The Speaker of the House (Frank Chopp) was hostile to the NBA and its players, was not the least bit interested in moving any legislation even that just authorized King County to do what which it might have done to help support the arena.

“To call it night and day, it was an absolutely an incredible difference and it is night and day."

Now, it seems, the Kings again are staring at their expiration date in Sacramento, at least to according to the breathless reporting from the California capital on the struggle to find public financing for a new arena. Apparently, it is night, too, in Sacramento, even if the mayor is an ex-baller.

Suddenly Seattle has emerged into daylight as a candidate for the relocation of the Kings.  A mysterious hedge fund manager who went to Seattle's Roosevelt High School is ready with hundreds of millions of dollars to build a privately financed arena, according to Nickels' successor, Mike McGinn.

Stern, staring at a dead franchise walking shortly after sweating through a lockout to get a new collective bargaining agreement that is supposedly an improvement for owners, now says he is, ahem, open to discussing Seattle again.

Before we get too far along in this rekindling between exes, I’d like to take the liberty of asking something of Stern:

An apology for his comments nine months ago.

His unwarranted, unprovoked diatribe against Seattle completely mis-characterized the local political situation, which approximates the Sacramento situation in that municipal and state governments are flat out of money to help prop up his little hoops operation. Fergawdsakes, Sacramento is proposing to rob its own parking meters to pay for its new arena.

I’m not attempting to defend Nickels and Chopp. They’re big boys capable of doing that themselves. But they were playing with a pair of deuces and had no chance to win the pot.

What I'm offering is the point that Stern, three years after the fact, chose, in front of the people of Sacramento he is about to hose, to again denigrate our politicians without taking a lick of responsibility for the demise of the Sonics. The sequence of events that crippled the franchise began with the 1999 lockout and is yet to be repaired despite another lockout in 2011. Stern's remarks were demagoguery, pure and simple.

Neither Seattle nor Sacramento deserves such rhetorical dreck.

My friend at the Seattle Times, Steve Kelley, wrote Sunday that Seattle sports fans need to forgive Stern and forget, as if some sort of public capitulation will speed the process. I beg to differ.

It is Stern’s obligation, not Seattle’s, to mend fences for the good of all parties.

But before the point gets muddled with sentiment, let's also recognize this not a romance. It’s a business deal.

The politicians, business leaders and fans who’ve been through the ugliness of the Howard Schultz sellout and the Clay Bennett duplicity can never lose sight of the fact that Stern and NBA owners are a ruthless business cartel well experienced in manipulating public sports passion to their advantage.

Examples of trap doors, open manholes and exploding cigars that mark the trail of these guys are endless. But for brevity's sake, let’s use one that contributed to the Sonics' demise.

In the early 1990s, when the city and the Sonics reached agreement on the Coliseum remodel that became KeyArena, the city agreed to a 20-year schedule of debt payments to retire the construction bonds, but allowed the Sonics to sign a 15-year lease.

How stupid was that?

The five-year difference meant that the city would be stuck if the Sonics left at lease expiration. Roughly speaking, that's what happened.

Part of the reason Schultz extracted such a sale-price premium from Bennett in 2006 – $350 million -- was that the worst that could happen to Bennett was he'd have to spend four years in Seattle, not nine, before moving to Oklahoma City. Instead, he chose to get out after 2008 by suing the city for breach of contract. Even though the city was probably going to win the verdict in the landlord-tenant lawsuit, Nickels caved and took $40 million from Bennett because he didn't want any risk of having to pay five years of mortgage debt without an anchor tenant.

That's why Nickels was playing with a pair of deuces. A deal made under pressure from the NBA monopolists in 1993 resulted in a leverage play in 2008 that amounted to civic extortion. That's how it works in pro sports, and to forgive and forget those lessons and those perps is foolish.

The old Sonics lease is Exhibit A for why all parties in this renewed arousal should keep zippers on lockdown. The urge to pirate the Kings for the next NBA season should take a deep second to getting a clear, smart deal that doesn’t leave the city vulnerable in another 5, 10 or 15 years.

Stern can make traction by recognizing publicly the NBA’s contribution to the Sonics demise. I don’t expect him to apologize for hijacking the Sonics; however ruthless, that was business as it has always been done in pro sports. But he owes some sincere contrition toward city and state leadership who, years after the fact, were being skewered by him for attempting to protect tax money from predation. For Stern to do less only buttresses his image as a demagogue unworthy of trust.

If there is to be a second time around, it has to be done without prevarication, fear, sentiment or haste ruling the day and the deal.

Some of us surely miss the NBA, but to again make the same mistakes with the same guy would be the acme of humiliation, especially when we know what he really thinks of us.

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