Bennett pressed in Sonics trial

SEATTLE — Now it’s the integrity of Clay Bennett that is on trial along with his team.

The SuperSonics owner testified Tuesday that he remained committed to finding a new arena in the Seattle area before last season — even as e-mail circulated among team co-owners portraying how eager they were to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

Lead Seattle attorney Paul Lawrence repeatedly questioned Bennett about an e-mail Sonics co-owner and fellow Oklahoma City business leader Tom Ward sent to Bennett on April 17, 2007. That was just after the Washington Legislature rejected Bennett’s plan for a publicly financed, $500 million arena in the Seattle suburbs.

“Is there any way to move here for next season, or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?” Ward wrote.

“I am a man possessed!” Bennett responded. “Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys. the game is getting started!”

“That’s the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here next year,” responded fellow Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon, a childhood friend of Bennett’s.

Under oath Tuesday in U.S. District Court, Bennett said of his e-mail: “I am not responding to moving to Oklahoma. I’m reiterating my commitment to the process to stay in Seattle.”

Bennett is trying to move Seattle’s oldest professional sports franchise to his hometown two years before the KeyArena lease expires. The city is asking a federal judge to force the Sonics to honor their lease. The six-day trial is scheduled to end June 26, after which Judge Marsha Pechman will issue a written verdict.

“We presented evidence of his intent and his credibility. The judge will draw from that her own conclusions,” Lawrence said after testimony ended.

Bennett, leaning forward in his chair and often peering over black, sharply angled reading glasses, was cordial but firm during the more than three hours he testified. He was scheduled to be back on the witness stand Wednesday.

The Sonics say they would lose as much as $65 million over the next two seasons if forced to stay at KeyArena, the NBA’s smallest venue, but could make more than $18 million if allowed to play in Oklahoma beginning this fall. Bennett characterized the team’s financial losses as “significant and ever-growing, but they would not significantly alter” his family’s lifestyle.

The team calls this situation a standard landlord-tenant dispute, and says it should be allowed to break the lease while paying the city no more than $10 million.

The city argues the new owners were aware of the risks when they purchased the Sonics. Thus, they should not be able to claim financial hardship to break the lease because the agreement includes the specific performance of playing in KeyArena through the 2009-2010 season.

When Bennett and his partners agreed to buy the Sonics for $350 million in July 2006, they also agreed to launch a good-faith effort to find a new arena around Seattle for 12 months ending Oct. 31, 2007. Lawrence hounded Bennett on how good his faith really was.

Bennett said he knew when he bought the team that it was losing money at KeyArena, but thought “perhaps we could turn that around” with a new arena. He eventually proposed a palatial one in Renton that asked for $300 million in public funding. The Legislature rejected that plan in April 2007.

On cross-examination, Sonics lawyer Brad Keller asked Bennett why he’d buy a team he knew was losing tens of millions of dollars a year.

“We thought it was ripe for a turnaround,” Bennett said, citing Seattle’s “dynamic marketplace” and “great economy.”

“There are credibility issues with respect to the explanation of his e-mails,” Lawrence said. “Very clearly he understood seven ways from Sunday the very issues he is now trying to use to get him out of his lease.”

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