July 18, 2006: The Day That Changed Sports In Seattle

Tim Booth, AP Sports Writer

SEATTLE (AP) — The day had already tested Jeremy Repanich’s patience and resolve. And now he was being hounded by a security guard outside the Seattle SuperSonics’ practice facility because he was unable to produce the credential that proved he worked for the team.

The only way Repanich — a guest relations coordinator — could get inside the gates on July 18, 2006, was to open the back of his car and show the security guard he was hauling the 1979 NBA and 2004 WNBA championship trophies to a news conference on the Sonics’ future.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I forgot my credential, how am I going to get in? Oh wait a minute, I have the Larry O’Brien trophy in the trunk of my car,'” Repanich said.

The day would get stranger and tougher from there.

People in Seattle remember July 18, 2006, with bitterness because it was the day the city’s first professional sports franchise was sold by Howard Schultz and the Basketball Club of Seattle to Clay Bennett and the Professional Basketball Club LLC based in Oklahoma City. It was the beginning of a process that eventually led two years later to the SuperSonics relocating to Oklahoma City after 41 years in Seattle.

This is the story of that 2006 day, as told by some of those involved. Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks and Sonics majority owner at the time of the sale, and Bennett both declined to be interviewed.

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Schultz purchased the SuperSonics and Seattle Storm in 2001 and inherited a difficult lease agreement with the city. With the changing economic structure of the NBA, the Sonics’ financial situation at KeyArena was a problem from the start.

After failing to get money from local and state officials for arena upgrades, Schultz decided in early 2006 to explore selling.

Sonics president and minority owner Wally Walker: “The issue was the arena. That was the unstable part because there was a lease that was expiring in 2010.”

Walker arrived in France on July 11 for a family vacation. The ownership group was in discussions with Ed Evans, the head of a wireless firm out of Oklahoma City who indicated he wanted to keep the team in Seattle. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Europe, Walker found out an offer was made and Bennett was now at the forefront of the Oklahoma City group.

Walker: “Our whole ownership group, and some of the management team, had gotten to know Ed over a period of multiple months, but still, we weren’t anywhere close to a deal. Then, we have a conference call, and now Mr. Bennett’s part of the Oklahoma City group.”

The nine-member executive board of the Basketball Club of Seattle voted 5-4 to sell.

“I flew back from France on that Sunday, I think it was the 16th, and got together with our management group. We went to a restaurant … and basically said, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’ I was still in a state of shock.”

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Kevin Calabro, Sonics play-by-play announcer: “We were heading to a tee time … when I got a phone call and it was from Wally Walker. And Wally said ‘We’ve sold the team.’ I said, ‘To who?’ And he said to Clay Bennett and Oklahoma City. And I knew immediately who Clay Bennett in Oklahoma City was because they had hosted the Hornets during Katrina for a couple of seasons.”

Mike Gastineau, Seattle radio host: “I had just had a meeting at Pearl Jam’s warehouse about something, and I got this call from Calabro and he told me and it was announced maybe 10 minutes later or something. And I remember Kevin not being overly optimistic but being ‘Hey, who knows what is going to happen?’ I remember hanging up with him and I thought ‘They’re gone.'”

Repanich: “I was someone who was also manning the phones a lot back then, because we had to talk to season ticket-holders and stuff like that. (One of our communications heads) was like ‘This is going to be a really horrible day. I can’t tell you anymore.’ But he was getting me ready, mentally ready to be on the phones all day.”

Walker: “This was a brutal day. Of course, besides the fact that the announcement was made, we, and specifically I had a bunch of people to get in touch with, a bunch of, you know, Sonic faithful people that are affiliated with the organization. So I’ve got this whole list of people that I called, and also there were politicians. I had forgotten this, but here’s a note, I called the Governor.”

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The sale was formally announced at an afternoon news conference. While there were questions about Bennett’s future intentions, the lasting memory was the odd celebratory nature — complete with green and gold balloons — of a day that felt so gloomy.

Jason Reid, director of the documentary ‘Sonicsgate’: “Watching the press conference live and hearing the words that were coming out of Clay Bennett’s mouth and Howard Schultz’s mouth and being so angry because it seemed so disingenuous to say they were selling to a group of out of town investors and that it was going to preserve the history of this great organization.”

Walker: “That was a bad. It just had a bad vibe to it. Again, I’m up on a dais, and I’m totally uncomfortable with being there. I wrote my own little thing, my goal was to positively reinforce the things they said that was right about Seattle. … While I respected the people that I was up there with at that time, I didn’t want to be there. And, of course, the balloons.”

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Nearly two years to the day that the sale was announced, after failed arena proposals, lawsuits and a federal court case that never reached its conclusion, the Sonics and the city reached a settlement that allowed the franchise to move.

The time since has been filled with starts and stops in the attempt to get the NBA back to Seattle.

Sonics assistant coach Jack Sikma: “Ten years is a long time. I guess I overrated the importance of Seattle to the NBA.”

Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens: “I miss the opportunity to be at the game, to see the players here, living here, being part of this community.”

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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