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Lawsuit filed to keep Sonics from leaving

Gene Johnson Associated Press

SEATTLE – Seattle officials filed a lawsuit Monday to keep the SuperSonics from leaving town, saying the team’s profitability in much-maligned KeyArena “has less to do with KeyArena than perhaps the Sonics’ ability to defend the high pick-and-roll.”

The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court just a few days after new Sonics chairman Clay Bennett issued a demand for arbitration, seeking to buy out the remainder of the team’s lease unless an agreement on a new arena is reached by the end of next month. The complaint asks that a judge force the Sonics, the city’s oldest professional sports franchise, to stay through the end of the lease, in 2010.

Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr and former Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, the city’s legal big gun, said the issue is simple: In exchange for $74 million in renovations to the old Seattle Coliseum in the mid-1990s, the Sonics agreed to play all of their home games there through Sept. 30, 2010.

“The lease is 15 years. We didn’t agree to a 12- or 13-year lease term,” Carr said. “We simply ask that they keep that agreement.”

Bennett’s Oklahoma City-based ownership group bought the Sonics and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm for $350 million last year, and has insisted that the Sonics need a new, $500 million stadium.

Among the complaints are that KeyArena is the smallest venue in the league and that under the lease agreement the Sonics must turn over too much of their revenue to the city.

NBA commissioner David Stern has called the lease the worst for any team in the league.

The demand for arbitration states that the team has lost money every year since 1999 – more than $55 million in the last five years alone. It says that losses for the fiscal year ending Sunday will be more than $17 million.

Louie Richmond, a Seattle-based spokesman for Bennett, said he did not have any immediate comment on the lawsuit. Dan Mahoney, a spokesman in Oklahoma City, said, “We’re choosing not to comment on this.”

“I don’t think it’s been fully read yet. That’s all I can say,” Richmond said. “I take Mr. Bennett at his word. … The Sonics ownership’s goal is to get an arena built in Seattle. It always has been.”

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