Build the arena, bring the NBA back to Seattle

SEATTLE — It wasn’t so much a warning that Chris Hansen issued to the thousands of Sonics fans as it was a reality check.

As Thursday’s rally to support Hansen’s arena proposal — and the return of the NBA that an arena would bring — one of the final things the hedge-fund manager told the crowd at Occidental Park was this:

“We’re not there yet.”

As much as this festive afternoon felt like a celebration of a mission accomplished, it was just another step in the long process that sports fans here hope will end with an NBA team, and possibly an NHL team, playing in Seattle. Hansen and his group of investors, which includes the likes of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and fourth-generation Nordstroms Peter and Erik, still need the city and county councils to approve their arena proposal. If and when that happens, they then need to procure themselves an NBA franchise.

Even if this day wasn’t a coronation, it was an important part of the process. It was a reminder to the city and county governments that there are a lot of passionate fans who support a new arena. It was a reminder to the NBA that it abandoned a great market. And most of all, it was a reminder that if we ever want to see the NBA return to this area, we’d be wise not to mess this up.

If Hansen’s arena proposal fails, others will try to bring basketball back to Seattle, but it will be a long, long time before we are presented with a deal that is anywhere close to as good as the one Hansen is offering.

“This group of investors is making a remarkable offer to us,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “They’re going to bring hundreds of millions of dollars, and the government investment is going to be so completely secured that we’re going to be paid back and paid far more than that in all the other taxes and all the other economic activity. So you want to scrutinize, but you don’t want to be unduly skeptical either. You want to try to make a good deal work.”

Of course, the fans that packed Pioneer Square don’t need convincing that Hansen is offering a good deal. That’s why they’re the ones who showed up in Sonics gear, chanted Hansen’s name and cheered when former Sonic stars like Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Slick Watts and Detlef Schrempf took the stage.

As sports fans, they are biased — as is, for that matter, a sportswriter who would love to cover NBA and NHL games. But what we and so many others realize is that this arena, and everything that comes with it, would be very good for the region.

Constantine’s job is to serve his King County constituents — or as a cynic might say, to secure votes in future elections. Either way, he’s not going to back an arena deal that is bad for the public.

A new arena would mean more chances for people to come together and celebrate like they did on this cloudy Thursday evening. It would mean more people coming to a city to spend money in bars and restaurants. And just maybe, in time, it would mean watching the NBA finals in person instead of watching the team that was stolen from Seattle thrive in another city.

“This is an opportunity to show the NBA, show the NHL, show the city that we have a fan base that would love to have basketball and hockey here,” Hansen said. “… It’s also just an outlet, too. There’s so much pent-up energy, and this is definitely a way to express it in a positive way, especially with Oklahoma City in the finals.”

When Hansen, who grew up in Seattle, took the stage for the first time Thursday and saw the sea of Sonics fans before him, he was a bit overwhelmed.

“I was about to tear up, actually,” he said. “It’s inspiring.”

Hansen is doing this because he is a businessman who knows that sports ownership can be very profitable, but his motives run much deeper than that. Whether he owns a team or not, whether his arena gets built or not, he will be a very wealthy man. But as someone who felt the sting of the Sonics leaving town, he knows the pain those fans at Occidental Park have felt over the past four years, and he happens to have the means to do something about it.

“I mean, I have enough money, and I don’t have a desire to be a mega-billionaire,” he said. “If you can do great things, whether it’s for charity or something like this for community while you’re alive and you can enjoy it, that’s what you should do.

“This is an opportunity for me to give something back to the community and it’s something that I’m very passionate about. It goes beyond profits.”

Beyond the profits are more days like this one when a community of sports fans can gather and celebrate. Let’s hope everyone with the power to make or break the arena were paying attention Thursday and do what needs to be done to bring the Sonics back to Seattle.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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