Don't put all the blame on Greg Nickels

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Kevin Johnson has been the unabashed face of the Sacramento/Seattle NBA saga. The Sacramento mayor and former NBA All-Star point guard leads his city’s impressive determination to keep the Kings, and in Seattle, his remarkable acts and love of the limelight inspire a strange cocktail of respect, annoyance and envy.

KJ, the mayor, rivals KJ, the player, in this regard: You hate him when he’s competing against you, but you’d love to have him run your team.

A common breathless comment: If only Seattle had a mayor like Johnson when the Sonics left.

And that leads to bashing former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

You remember Nickels by huffing and slapping your forehead. He was the messenger who delivered the news on July 2, 2008, that the Sonics were officially moving to Oklahoma City. He was the man who brokered the deal to let Clay Bennett’s ownership group break the KeyArena lease for $45 million and a bunch of other promises. He was considered the last dunce in a series of dunces who made it too easy for the Sonics to be taken.

If only Seattle had a mayor like Johnson when the Sonics left. Five years after the debacle, Nickels considers the criticism and tells his side of the story.

“I think it takes something of a stretch to say that,” Nickels said. “There were different circumstances. I don’t know how strong the public support was by then. The political support from the state Legislature and the city council wasn’t there. I think it’s tough to say that. Local ownership, they got out of the situation so quickly there was no time to intervene. Different circumstances, different towns, different times.”

Nickels is savvy enough to know he can’t really win this argument. He’d prefer to stay in the background, especially with Seattle vying to get the NBA back. But for 30 minutes last week, he answered my questions and revisited one of the most difficult situations of his two terms as mayor.

“It was ugly the entire time,” said Nickels, who wasn’t re-elected in 2009. “It was a real uphill struggle the entire time.”

It’s fair to criticize Nickels for the way the Sonics left. He turned the key in the ignition of the moving van. Instead of waiting to hear U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman’s ruling on the KeyArena lease trial, Nickels negotiated a settlement with Bennett, clearing the way for the Sonics’ departure.

But until then, Nickels had been a frustrated ally of the keep-the-Sonics cause. Problem was, he couldn’t wheel and deal like Johnson has. His hands were tied in ridiculous knots.

First, there was no opportunity for Nickels to put together a local ownership group to combat Howard Schultz’s decision in July 2006 to sell the Sonics to Bennett. Three months later, the NBA Board of Governors gave unanimous approval to that sale. There wasn’t a debate like this Sacramento/Seattle fight because relocation wasn’t on the table. Bennett had promised to give the region 12 months to work out an arena deal before he considered moving the team.

But there were so many more challenges. In November 2006, Seattle spoke loudly in passing Initiative 91 with 74 percent of the vote. I-91 requires Seattle to receive cash profit in exchange for giving subsidies to benefit pro sports teams, and at the time, it effectively ended the chances of an arena deal getting done within the city.

Beyond I-91, there was no state Legislature support to help build a new arena or renovate KeyArena, and House Speaker Frank Chopp had previously offended David Stern when the NBA commissioner tried to assist Schultz. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire wasn’t on board, either. City Councilmember Nick Licata made his infamous remark about the Sonics having no cultural value.

In addition, in 2005, the city council passed a resolution forbidding Nickels, who had hired a lobbyist to promote Sonics legislation in Olympia, from taking such action without council approval.

These weren’t excuses. They were definite hurdles. And Nickels couldn’t figure out any way to fight.

Looking back, he wishes he could’ve seen the sale coming.

“Had we known he was actively trying to sell, we could have brought forth a group like the Steve Ballmer group that tried to help out at the end,” Nickels said. “You play the cards you’re dealt, and we had a weak hand. We stretched it as far as we could.”

Nickels couldn’t gamble on Pechman’s ruling. He had received credit from Sonics fans for fighting Bennett on the lease, but the relationship between Seattle and the NBA had become toxic, and Nickels was advised to drop the lawsuit, take the money, play nice and position Seattle to reclaim an NBA franchise once it figured out an arena deal.

“We thought the NBA needed Seattle more than Seattle needed the NBA, and so, they’ll be back,” Nickels said. “In the long term, negotiating a settlement was a better option than trying to scorch the earth.

“The judge could’ve ruled either way. We think she would have ruled in favor of us, although that may have been blind optimism. The reality was, all we’d get out of it was two more years of a team headed to Oklahoma City, two more years of very little fan support and little else.

“And then there was the chance the judge would rule the other way. That’s a $50 million gamble I couldn’t take. My call — without Legislature, governor, city council or public support — was to strike the best deal for taxpayers and make sure that KeyArena wasn’t an albatross around the city’s neck.”

Johnson and Sacramento have been given every opportunity because they have widespread support to do whatever’s necessary to build a new arena. In Seattle, we’re left with hindsight and jealousy.

Truth is, saving the Sonics required foresight and preventive care, not a last-minute save. The train started moving because the entire state was experiencing arena/stadium-funding fatigue after Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field, and everyone arrogantly ignored the possibility the Sonics could leave as a result.

Blame Nickels for the way it ended, but, sadly, not even Kevin Johnson could’ve stopped that train five years ago.

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