NBA owners have approved the Seattle SuperSonics' move to Oklahoma City pending the resolution of litigation between the team and the city of Seattle.
The Sonics could begin playing in owner Clay Bennett's hometown as early as next season if they can get out of the remaining two years of their lease at Key Arena.
Seattle has filed suit trying to force the Sonics to remain in the city until the lease expires in 2010, while Bennett wants to buy out the remainder. The city already has rejected Bennett's $26 million to settle the lease dispute. A trial is set to begin in federal court June 16.
"This team is destined to lose $30 million a year and is prepared to lose it for two more years, if that's what the city insists on exacting," NBA commissioner David Stern said.
Gov. Brad Henry called the decision a "big win" for Oklahoma.
"I think this is exciting news for Oklahoma City and the entire state. The vote further confirms that Oklahoma is in the big leagues and can compete with anyone," Henry said in a press release. "In addition to providing an immediate economic boost, an NBA franchise will provide long-term benefits for all of Oklahoma by elevating our national profile and enhancing the quality of life here. When we work to attract and retain high-paying jobs and top industries, the NBA label is one more thing we can point to as we market our state to the rest of the world."
Seattle hopes to keep the Sonics in town for what would appear to be two lame duck seasons, to buy time for a group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to find an arena solution and eventually purchase the team from Bennett to keep them in town.
Ballmer's group already has proposed paying for half of a $300 million expansion of KeyArena, with the other half coming from the city and from county tax revenues.
"We know the longer they are in the Seattle, the better the chance they will stay," Mayor Greg Nickels said Thursday of the Sonics.
Bennett is also facing a class-action lawsuit brought by season-ticket holders who say they were duped into buying tickets under the premise the Sonics wouldn't leave.
During a question and answer period of the press conference, Bennett apologized to the citizens of Seattle, saying he did all he could to keep the team in Seattle.
"A potential future opportunity for the league could be in Seattle, but a new building must be built," said Bennett. "But it's a business, and it's a very capital-intensive business...and we have to move on. Now I turn my attention to Oklahoma City and I am thrilled."
And this week former team owner Howard Schultz announced plans to sue to get the team back, saying Bennett did not make a good-faith effort to secure a new arena deal as he promised when he bought the team in 2006.
Bennett addressed Schultz's accusations at the press conference, saying he "held to the commitment" of keeping the Sonics in Seattle and that he operated in good faith.
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