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In new book, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says he’s sorry for Sonics move: ‘a public wound I cannot heal’

Seattle Sonics owner Clayton Bennett, right, is presented a team jersey by former owner Howard Schultz at the conclusion of a news conference on the sale of the WNBA’s Storm and NBA’s Sonics to an Oklahoma group in 2006. (Ken Lambert / Seattle Times)
Seattle Sonics owner Clayton Bennett, right, is presented a team jersey by former owner Howard Schultz at the conclusion of a news conference on the sale of the WNBA’s Storm and NBA’s Sonics to an Oklahoma group in 2006. (Ken Lambert / Seattle Times)
Seattle Times

As he considers a possible independent run for president, Howard Schultz is also belatedly apologizing to Seattle sports fans for his role in sending the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, is launching a book tour this week as part of his very public consideration of a 2020 candidacy. He’s written a new 349-page autobiography that mixes his rags-to-riches life story and Starbucks history with reflections on ending the divisiveness in U.S. politics.

In the book, to be released Monday, Schultz also spends about five pages recounting his disastrous ownership of Seattle’s NBA franchise, making his clearest apology to date for his stint with the team. (An advance copy of the book, From the Ground UP: a Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America, was provided to the Seattle Times late last week.)

Schultz writes that he and his co-owners bought the Sonics for a reported $200 million in 2001, aware of the deficiencies at KeyArena, but believing they could convince local government to help fund a renovation or build a new arena, citing generous stadium deals for the Mariners and Seahawks.

“My assumptions were a mistake,” Schultz writes. He says negotiations with politicians, including then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, the City Council and the state Legislature “could fill another book.”

Schultz recalls a statement by then-Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, who described the impact if the team left Seattle as “on an economic basis, near zero … on a cultural basis, close to zero.” At the time, Schultz thought Licata was blind to the value sports brings to a city. “In retrospect, I can see he had other priorities for taxpayers’ dollars.”

After years of losing money and failing to secure a new arena deal, Schultz chose to sell the Sonics for $350 million in 2006 to a group of Oklahoma City businessmen fronted by Clay Bennett.

Schultz writes that he thought the out-of-town owners might have a better chance of negotiating a new arena deal because of the threat of moving the team.

“In retrospect, this was not a fair position to impose on the city,” he admits.

In 2008, the Sonics were moved to Oklahoma City and renamed the Thunder. Seattle sports fans have continued to blame Schultz for the loss, and on Page 155 of his book he acknowledges the rap is justified.

“Almost everyone blamed me, and after some initial denial, I realized they were right to do so. I had squandered the very public trust that I had bought into,” Schultz writes, recounting the visceral reaction of fans who have cursed him out in person.

Schultz writes that selling the Sonics “is one of the biggest regrets of my professional life,” saying he made a decision based on getting out of a bad financial deal instead of recognizing he should have been willing to accept losses until a local buyer emerged.

He ends his Sonics recollection with a direct apology:

“The sharpest pains hit me not when I’m publicly insulted, but when I’m walking or driving and see someone wearing a SuperSonics T-shirt or cap. If it’s a boy with his dad, it’s like a stake through my heart. Losing the Sonics has been tragic for generations of fans, especially kids who are growing up without the benefit of an NBA team in their city. It’s a public wound I cannot heal. For that I will forever be deeply sorry.”

In an interview with the Seattle Times on Sunday, Schultz said he’d spent a long time thinking about the consequences of his actions, but this was the first time he’s made a public apology.

“I am not trying to do anything other than be transparent,” he said.

Schultz is scheduled to speak about his new book at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on Thursday.

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