While watching Clay Bennett’s press conference announcing the settlement of the Seattle lawsuit, it caused me to reflect on the effort he’s put into his “mission” of bringing an NBA team to Oklahoma City and how much he’s personally endured.
Bennett’s vilification by Sonics fans in Seattle once the city failed to step up to the line with an improved facility was inevitable. If someone were taking an NBA team away from our city, our fans would no doubt be as vile, probably on the level of taking the OU-Texas rivalry and focusing it in one direction.
We ran several of the Seattle newspapers’ editorial cartoons depicting their savage negative sentiments for our readers to see. Yet throughout all of those attacks, many quite personal in nature, Bennett kept his demeanor on a very professional level, resisting any instinct to respond in kind.
Then there’s the litigation. Having defended public officials for 25 years as an attorney, I’m familiar with the incredible pressure and angst that builds in your gut when you’re on the receiving end of a lawsuit. The plaintiffs demand, and usually receive, your personal communications and look into every aspect of your personal and business dealings. Every day of trial just piles on the stress.
You could not only see great relief on Bennett’s face at the press conference announcing that the litigation was over, but also indications of the toll taken by weeks at trial. Yet, there was nothing in his delivery that indicated glee over a vanquished foe, just happiness that the litigation was finished and his work could go on.
This commentary is not about the money ” that’s another issue. It’s about Bennett’s vision and determination to bring an NBA team to Oklahoma City. Yet to be determined is whether taxpayers will get sufficient intangible benefits from the NBA team to justify the $200 million they’re donating to this venture.
Key to Bennett’s success was learning the rules of the NBA ” the world’s most exclusive sports club ” and playing by them. Most crucial was building a relationship with David Stern, the iron-fisted mastermind of the modern NBA. Through that relationship, Stern mentored Bennett about team ownership protocol and Bennett never missed a beat.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Hornets’ situation in New Orleans, there was a harmonic convergence of factors that made their visit a success. Although it couldn’t have happened without the MAPS-built Ford Center and the best city manager and staff in the country, it was obvious that Bennett’s prior ownership experience in Texas and his relationship with Stern were vital to convincing Stern of the city’s ability to handle NBA action.
Now the juggling begins to get the team on the Ford Center court this fall. Although the Hornets experience was a great drill, the challenge of getting the new team situated is incredibly more difficult under the current time frame because parallel temporary and permanent decisions and actions must be made at the same time.
Bennett has shown he can perform under pressure and the leadership skills are there. Challenging those skills will be recognizing that Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch and his staff also have a city to run and fulfilling Bennett’s “mission” is only part of the job.
Bill Bleakley is publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.