Sonics Fever in Seattle Turns to Rage as NBA Rejects City Again

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may have missed some crucial technology trends, but he helped grow the company into a giant. 

David Vahey was printing “Sonics Fever” T-shirts yesterday near Seattle when his partner called and told him to stop. National Basketball Association owners had rejected the city’s bid for a team.

“I had to sit down,” said Vahey, who was selling as many as 200 shirts a day. “It feels like we’re losing a kid we never got to adopt.”

An investment group including Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer agreed three months ago to buy a majority of the Sacramento Kings and move the team to Seattle, restoring the SuperSonics, who left for Oklahoma City in 2008. A 12-member panel of NBA owners yesterday recommended against the sale to the Seattle group, making it likely a group assembled by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson will get the team.

The loss rekindled memories in Seattle of the two-year fight over the SuperSonics that led to a city lawsuit and a bitter fan documentary called “Sonicsgate.” Among the fans venting was Ballmer, who told radio talk show host Mitch Levy yesterday that he was “horribly, horribly disappointed.”

For months, the Seattle group, led by Valiant Capital founder Chris Hansen, had touted its bid, even releasing sketches of an arena topped by a gleaming cylinder resembling a jet turbine. The city and county planned to back $200 million of the $490 million arena cost. Hansen said he had requests for 44,000 season tickets, more than double the arena’s capacity.

Instead, owners on the relocation committee backed Johnson, a former NBA All-Star. He won city approval for a new downtown venue to replace the team’s aging Sleep Train Arena and recruited an ownership group including Vivek Ranadive, the founder of Tibco Software Inc. (TIBX), and 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide Inc. founder Mark Mastrov.

‘Used Us’

To some fans in Seattle, it appeared as if the NBA used the bid from Hansen’s group to leverage an improved offer from Sacramento, said Jeremy Repanich, who was a staffer for the Seattle SuperSonics when the team was sold to a group led by Oklahoma City-based Clay Bennett in 2006.

“The NBA used us,” Repanich said. “Once they were able to get Sacramento to start coughing up taxpayer dollars and really spending money, they were like, ‘We’ve got something valuable.”’

In his radio interview, Ballmer said he and Hansen and the other partners will discuss their possible next steps. NBA Commissioner David Stern has said expansion of the 30-team league is unlikely.

Nordstrom Investors

Hansen began trying to bring a team to Seattle more than two years ago, acquiring land south of downtown for an arena and assembling investment partners including Ballmer and department store scions Peter and Erik Nordstrom.

Raised in Seattle, Hansen was 11 when the team won its only NBA championship in 1979. The SuperSonics played in Seattle for 41 years, featuring such stars as Slick Watts, Shawn Kemp, Jack Sikma and Gary “the Glove” Payton.

One of the beneficiaries of a Sonics restoration would have been Oskar’s Kitchen, a restaurant co-owned by Kemp near KeyArena, where the team would have played until the new venue was finished. The announcement yesterday was a damper, said manager Laina Treuhaft.

“Everybody was getting really pumped about the idea,” she said. “It’s just really sad.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Robison in Seattle at robison@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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