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Seattle Times reporters Percy Allen, Jim Brunner and Danny O'Neil are filing updates from the courthouse throughout the day.

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June 16, 2008 10:26 AM

Sonics' attorney says strategy used by Gorton, Walker, Ballmer was "bleed them until they sell"

Posted by Percy Allen

In his opening statement, Sonics' attorney Brad Keller said the case hinges on two fundamental premises. He acknowledged the city wanted a 15-year commitment from the Sonics for the 1994 renovations, but argued the second fundamental premise was that "the Sonics would have a venue that was economically feasible and comparable from an economic and physical standpoint to other NBA venues."

Keller said the relationship between the city and the Sonics "broke down. And it failed as the years went by and just got worse and worse."

Keller said that while Clay Bennett's Professional Basketball Club was in Olympia lobbying for a new venue in Renton, the city of Seattle was thwarting that effort. "The landlord response was, 'You either play in my sandbox or drown in red ink.' "

Keller said when the city helped in the construction of Safeco Field and Qwest Field, KeyArena's luxury suite sales plummeted.

Keller told Pechman that she will learn about the economics of an NBA arena. That an NBA arena needs to be able to generate revenue streams well beyond selling seats. That an NBA arena needs very special amenities to attract suite holders.

Keller's first evidence was information about the inadequacies of KeyArena. He noted that the average NBA arena is 700,000 square feet and KeyArena is half of that. He said other arenas have larger coaches offices and locker rooms. He said the federal courthouse has a news conference room and KeyArena does not.

Keller highlighted a 2006 report from a city task force that said: "KeyArena has significant shortcomings and issues that affect the financial health of its tenants. ... The original funding plan doesn't work."

Keller introduced his "unclean hands" defense later in his statement. He noted that Slade Gorton, one of the city's attorneys, conspired with former Sonics president Wally Walker and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to "force bleeding of about $20 million per year to get them to sell."

Keller said the trio engaged in a "bleed them until they sell" strategy that began months before the city filed its lawsuit November 2007.

Keller said the city has other tenants and treats them better. He said the city's other tenants are allowed to leave their lease. He said Seattle is a world-class city and would still be a world-class city without the Sonics.

Keller said a lame-duck relationship would not benefit either the city or the team. He downplayed arguments about the civic pride surrounding the Sonics.

Keller noted that lawmakers failed to support a KeyArena renovation package four times. He noted the passage of I-91 and said "the public has made it very clear how it views sports teams." He said 30 percent of the ticket buyers didn't go to games last season. He said television ratings have declined and the situations would just get worse.

Said Keller: "The last two years of this lease is all that this case is about. And rightly or wrongly the owner of this team has decided to move to Oklahoma City and instead of losing $60 million, it stands to make a profit of $10 million."

Finally, Keller said: "This marriage is broken and it has been broken for over five years. We say it's time to stop."

The city has called Mayor Greg Nickels as its first witness.

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