NBA: Stern supports Sonics’ relocation

By Jason Peterson

NBA commissioner David Stern arrived in Salt Lake City on Wednesday to take in Utah’s game against Minnesota from a courtside view. Before tipoff, Stern paid a visit to Utah’s locker room and spoke with Salt Lake media.

“I came in to tell the Jazz how proud we are of what they’re doing,” Stern said. “To have a team like this leading the league in season tickets, to see them up in sponsorships, to see them doing so well on the court when no one probably expected it a few years back after a couple of notable retirements and generally their standing in the community — I think it’s absolutely great.”

Stern has reigned as commissioner over the league during its glory years, governing players such as Michael Jordan, John Stockton and Karl Malone.

As a member of the Council on Foreign Relations — an organization that fosters understanding of foreign policy and America’s role in the world — Stern has used his background to promote the NBA on an international scale.

Under Stern’s watch, seven new franchises have been added, more than 200 countries now televise NBA games and social programs such as “Read to Achieve” and “NBA Cares” have been implemented.

However, that’s not to say Stern’s tenure is without its share of controversy. It didn’t take long before the subject of the Sonics’ impending departure from Seattle arose in the brief news conference.

The Sonics have held residence in Seattle for 41 years and won a championship in 1979. The team’s lease with its venue, Key Arena, is up in 2010. The arena was completely rebuilt for nearly $75 million in 1995, although it is still relatively undersized by NBA standards.

Oklahoma businessman Clayton Bennett, chairman of the Professional Basketball Club LLC, which owns the Sonics, made clear last year his intentions to move the team to his native Oklahoma City.

On Tuesday, Oklahoma City voters approved a sales tax extension that would cover nearly $122 million in renovation costs toward the city’s Ford Center as well as building a new practice facility. The Ford Center temporarily hosted the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets for two seasons following Hurricane Katrina.

“I think it’s a strong sign of support for the NBA, and we’re gratified by it,” Stern said Wednesday.

Stern has openly backed Bennett in the businessman’s decision to uproot the team, even criticizing the city of Seattle for not approving a similar tax extension that would renovate the Key Arena.

In November, fans in Seattle — the nation’s fifth-largest market — were in an outrage over comments Stern made to ESPN. The commissioner said if the Sonics move to Oklahoma (the 45th largest market), Seattle would not receive another team in the “conceivable future.”

Bennett and his ownership group are scheduled for trial in June in hopes of extricating themselves from the lease and moving the club to Oklahoma this summer. Also, a seven-person NBA committee plans to convene in April and determine whether to ratify Bennett’s relocation plans.

“We have a vote scheduled for April, a trial scheduled for June, and we have an owners’ visit to Oklahoma City at the end of March,” Stern said. “Those are three dates, (but) none of them is sort of an end-date.”

Stern declined to say whether the renovations to the Ford Center must precede the Sonics’ arrival. He also admitted that the league hasn’t discussed division realignment should the Sonics move.

“I hope somebody back at the office is focusing on that as we speak,” Stern joked. “We haven’t given it a lot of thought.”

Stern acknowledged, however, that an NBA-approved relocation would be pending only upon the city’s legal settlements with Bennett.

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