PHILADELPHIA – Maybe we are dreaming, “cause we have not found many places more charming or beautiful in our travels. But there were slight rumblings this week that there may be a chance for the Sonics to stay in Seattle.

First, we are told by two sources that at last month’s Board of Governors meeting, Clay Bennett informed his fellow owners that he hadn’t closed the door on working out a deal with local officials for a new arena, which has been the sticking point between Sonics ownership and the city for years.

But Bennett also said that he was proceeding with his application to move the team to Oklahoma City when the Sonics’ lease with the city’s Key Arena expires in 2010 in order to protect his business interests. Bennett officially announced his plans to move 10 days ago.

Second, we are told by a local person with extensive knowledge of the negotiations between the city and the team – we will call him Mr. Seattle – that the political ground in the city may have shifted a bit.

Previously, while state officials and the governor’s office tried to help, they weren’t interested in expending political capital when so many in the city had no interest in issuing temporary sales taxes to fund a new building, as was done when the city funded stadiums for the NFL’s Seahawks and baseball’s Mariners.

But those local politicians now know there has to be some public investment to keep the Sonics in Seattle.

“The psychology’s changed,” Mr. Seattle says. “The perception (before) was the rich guy’s trying to get into the public till again. Now, it’s “We’re saving the team.'”

But there are about a million issues to work out. Well, make that 200 million.

Bennett wants a $500 million arena with all the bells and whistles. That is not going to happen.

But the city and state are still willing to talk about a $300 million building, although they have tied any public investment to a requirement that those funds earn money at a rate equivalent to that of treasury bills.

The biggest hurdle: For any agreement to take place, Bennett, who bought the team from Starbucks magnate Howard Schulz for $350 million, still would have to either sell part of or all of his interest in the Sonics to local investors, something he has expressed no interest in doing.

Bennett is toxic in the city right now, his cause not helped by minority owner Aubrey McClendon’s statements to an Oklahoma City newspaper in August that Bennett and his group never had any intention of staying in Seattle. (The league relieved McClendon of $250,000 for his comments.)

Some grassroots groups think they can force Bennett into action, and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe has proposed using a 185-acre property it owns 24 miles from Seattle as a potential arena site. But it’s more likely that any solution will need someone much closer to town with deep, deep pockets to make Bennett an offer he can’t refuse.

“The premium ticket buyer isn’t going to drive an hour to see the game,” Mr. Seattle says of the Muckleshoot plan. “And on a bad day, it’s an hour and a half.”

For its part, the league remains convinced that the die is cast in the Emerald City.

“We’d like nothing more than to hear there is a solution to the arena situation in Seattle, but we have heard nothing of the sort,” NBA general counsel Joel Litvin said Thursday afternoon in a statement.

And NBA commissioner David Stern, continuing his rather heated rhetoric of late about the Sonics, said, at a news conference Thursday announcing Phoenix would get the 2009 All-Star Game, that if the Sonics leave, Seattle won’t be getting a replacement team.

But it is still hard to believe the league would stand idly by while Bennett swaps the nation’s 14th-largest television market for the 45th-largest. Nothing against Oklahoma City, which proved with two years of strong support for the Hornets that it can solidly back an NBA squad. But business is business.

Seattle has filed suit against Bennett in federal court, claiming Bennett is not making a good faith effort to negotiate, and should not be allowed to break the lease at KeyArena before its 2010 expiration date. At the moment, that remains the city’s best hope for keeping the team in town.

The $350 million question remains: Would Bennett sell?

“Only if he thinks he’s stuck here,” Mr. Seattle says.


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