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Sonics rumor quickly fizzles

Don’t go running out to buy season tickets for the Las Vegas SuperSonics just yet.

Seattle team owner Clayton Bennett backtracked Friday, saying he wasn’t specifically considering Southern Nevada as a potential relocation spot for the NBA franchise.

Likewise, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he wasn’t buying into rumors that arose in Seattle this week that Bennett and his ownership group were eyeing Las Vegas, not Bennett’s native Oklahoma City, as a possible site to relocate the Sonics.

Since Bennett bought the franchise last summer, there have been fears in Seattle that the Sonics’ four-decade residence in the city was drawing short. The team has not been able to renegotiate its lease at KeyArena with the city, and Bennett has been unsuccessful in attempts to secure public funding to build a new arena for the Sonics and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

Because Bennett is from Oklahoma City, it has been widely assumed to be the Sonics’ most likely destination. Oklahoma City built a successful track record as an NBA city the past two seasons, with the New Orleans Hornets temporarily relocating to the Ford Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Hornets averaged 18,328 for 71 home dates, with 30 sellouts.

In a statement released by the Sonics, Bennett said he is keeping his options open, including remaining in Seattle, though he was rebuffed in his latest attempt to secure $300 million in public funding from the Washington state legislature for a $500 million arena in the Seattle suburb of Renton.

“We have made it clear that we want to succeed in Seattle, and we are still exploring all of our options there,” Bennett said. “We have a responsibility to the business to weigh every possibility to ensure we make prudent business decisions based on the long-term economic upside.

“If, however, we find ourselves several months down the road in a position to begin a serious evaluation to find the best location for our two teams, we owe it to the business to consider a number of cities where the leadership has expressed a strong desire to attract an NBA and WNBA franchise and demonstrated a willingness to explore ways to make that happen.

“Of course, we know Oklahoma City, and we know what this remarkable marketplace can do based on the way it exceeded all expectations over the past two years. We have said all along, as has NBA commissioner David Stern, Oklahoma City deserves an NBA team, and, we would add, a WNBA team.

“At this time no one knows the confluence of events that could occur to land the teams in Oklahoma City. At this moment, everything is way too premature. While it looks bleak in Seattle, we are not ready to throw in the towel.”

Bennett was not available for further comment. The NBA did not comment on the Sonics’ situation and Bennett’s remarks.

Goodman said he has never spoken to Bennett or anyone in the Sonics organization. In a statement released by his office Friday, Goodman reiterated his stance regarding owners courting Las Vegas in an attempt to leverage a better deal elsewhere.

“The whole world knows Las Vegas thirsts for a NBA franchise,” Goodman said. “But we’re not going to put ourselves in the position where we could be used as a pawn because people know our desire.”

Bennett’s initial comments about relocating to Las Vegas were made Wednesday at a board meeting of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau. According to the Seattle Times, he reportedly said he was “looking hard right now” at Las Vegas, and attendees seemed convinced Bennett was thinking more of Las Vegas than Oklahoma City.

“What I heard him say was that if he ended up having to move the team, Vegas would likely be a more attractive market than Oklahoma City,” Steve Leahy, chief executive of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, told the Times.

The Sonics have a lease with the city of Seattle to play in KeyArena through 2010. Bennett has received permission from the NBA to relocate if a deal for a new Seattle arena is not reached by Oct. 31, though he would have to file a formal application to relocate by March 1, 2008. However, Bennett was recently quoted by Seattle media as saying the Sonics will stay in Seattle at least through the 2007-08 season. After that, Bennett said he could not guarantee anything.

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