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June 18, 2008 9:11 PM

Day 3 triumphs and defeats

Posted by Percy Allen

Compared to his counterparts, city attorney Jeffrey Johnson looks very young. His bio on the K&L Gates website says he graduated cum laude from Gonzaga University in 1990. So unless he sailed through school, he's probably about 40 years old.

His age isn't relevant at all, however, Johnson seems to be the least experienced of the attorneyes and at times it shows.

Still, he recovered from the opening day when he appeared to momentarily freeze after an objection and he was not allowed to introduce a letter from a sports bar owner into evidence.

A few courtroom observers said Johnson was too soft on Sonics CEO Danny Barth during his initial questioning. Johnson tried to establish the unique connection a city has with a basketball team by highlighting various charitable activities the Sonics are engaged in.

During one amusing clip, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Kurt Thomas read the children's tale "The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens" to middle school kids. One attorney told me, the city needed to hammer the point that the unique relationship can't be qualified with a dollar amount and Johnson didn't do that.

Still, Johnson might have delivered the best exchange of the day during redirect. Let me set this up.

Sonics attorney Brad Keller allowed Barth to detail a series of setbacks that the team had endured during the 2007-08 season. He mentioned a loss of $27.6 million, plummeting TV ratings, the loss of 23 employees etc.

Barth said things have gotten so bad and the fan apathy is so high towards the Sonics that no one called the team to buy or renew tickets when the Sonics claimed the No. 4 pick in the lottery.

Barth went so far as to say that the team received calls when it drafted no-name Mouhamed Sene two years ago.

Here's the transcript from Johnson's redirect on this point.

Q: And now you're talking about tickets -- you were talking about you weren't getting phone calls for next year?
A Yes.
Q You're not selling tickets for next year?
A We are --
Q You haven't let any season ticket holder that wants to renew for next year?
A We are not actively out marketing. Didn't think it was prudent to go ahead and take people's money until we knew where we were going to be.
Q You're not accepting ticket sales -- I can't give you money right now to reserve tickets, can I?
A You cannot.

That's a slam dunk in my book, however, the city's attorneys didn't score enough of them.

Seattle's lead lawyer Paul Lawrence hammered away at owner Clay Bennett all morning and his use of the phrase "the man possessed" lost the powerful effect it had early in the trial.

Still, Lawrence kept to this talking points which are Bennett is a smart businessman who knew the risks before he bought the team.

It's amazing how Keller continues to confound Lawrence and Johnson with timely objections. If you ever get a subpeona from Keller, leave the country. He's that good. Same goes for Paul Taylor.

Still as one attorney who watched today's trial told me: "Having this case before a judge makes all the difference in the world becasue a judge will look at the facts and not be swayed by the theatrics of the lawyers."

The attorney told me he thinks the Sonics crew has presented better arguements, but there's no getting around the specific language in the lease that says the Sonics have to play at KeyArena for two more years.

I'm calling it a draw for today, which allows the Sonics to maintain their narrow edge.

For some strange reason, the city has not established that the lack of fan interest in the Sonics is due to the crummy team that took the court for 82 games last season. Former Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson talked about this, but the attorneys didn't use this arguement when questioning Bennett and Barth. Barth said the Sonics were 27th in average paid attendance and yet no one asked which teams were 28, 29 and 30. Without looking it up, I guarantee you those teams were lousy. K-I-S-S.

Some quick points, co-owner Aubrey McClendon will not testify in court, which is a wise move for the Sonics. Thursday may not be as exciting as the first three days because there's no one on the witness list that has the star power of Mayor Greg Nickels or Bennett.

Author Sherman Alexie is scheduled to appear in Thursday morning, however, the next interesting witness is probably former Sonics President Wally Walker. City Councilmember Nick Licata may also provide some sparks.

Remember it was Licata who told Sports Illustrated in Feb. 2007 the economic impact of the Sonics leaving would be "near zero."

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