David Stern, Commissioner and Grand Panjandrum of the National Basketball Association, has no doubt that Oklahoma City is ready for the big leagues: "I can say without reservation that Oklahoma City is now at the top of the list," said Stern last fall, marveling at the turnout for New Orleans' temporarily-displaced Hornets, who are drawing far better at the Ford Center than they ever did than they ever can at the New Orleans Arena. This is not a knock against New Orleans: the Ford Center can accommodate lots more fans, and in Oklahoma City, we love us some hoops.

But the obvious question is "The list for what?" Stern has never wavered from his original position that after one more year of playing mostly in Oklahoma City, the Hornets will return to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season and there are no plans to expand the NBA beyond the current thirty teams.

That leaves only one possibility: the transfer of an existing NBA team to the Big Breezy. And while there is no shortage of teams unhappy with their current situations, Stern historically has not been keen on moving teams.

The Masked Man in this drama is Clayton Bennett, chairman of Dorchester Capital. Bennett was at the center of the sponsorship consortium that made the Hornets' sojourn in Oklahoma City possible in the first place. And his take on the deal was less that of a sports fan than that of a canny businessman:

It says, even to those not interested in sports, we are on another platform. We are on a recognized national platform in terms of the notion that to be selected by the league a very sophisticated and smart business operation as a market that can support a franchise, it says a lot about who we are.

And the Hornets deal also shored up Oklahoma City's reputation as the Home of Creative Financing, a premise based upon the unprecedented success of the MAPS operation and the pending completion of the restoration of the grand old Skirvin Hotel. The complicated public/private agreements have occasionally baffled onlookers, but the results cannot be denied.

So when Bennett put together an ad hoc group to seek an NBA franchise for Oklahoma City, be it the Hornets should owner George Shinn decide to sell, or some other team looking for a new home, the message was clear as could be: we've passed the audition and we've earned the spotlight.

It is true, however, that the other shoe takes a lot longer to drop than the first one did. Bennett will keep under the radar for the next few months or so while Seattle and Portland and Sacramento and maybe some other cities hash out their differences with their NBA team owners. George Shinn, who bought a smallish house in Nichols Hills last year and who is reportedly relocating to Gaillardia, is toeing David Stern's line so far, and he's showed no interest in selling controlling interest in the Hornets to Bennett's group. New Orleans sources are happy to remind everyone of the unbreakable lease on the Arena.

But any good lawyer, and their number, not incidentally, includes David Stern, knows that an unbreakable lease exists more in theory than in practice. And there's this: Stern and Shinn are not exactly Best Friends Forever. Suppose, just for a moment, that Stern's motivation for keeping the team in New Orleans is not so much to preserve a franchise that was not doing so well in the Crescent City, but to pay back Shinn for jumping out of Charlotte in the first place. It is no particular secret that Shinn is not among the most revered NBA owners; nor is it news to anyone that Shinn is carrying around a sackful of debt, much of which was incurred when he bought out a previous partner. (Shinn's net worth is estimated at $100 million; the team is worth $225 million; do the math.) Suppose Shinn and Bennett do strike a deal, contingent upon the NBA approving the team's transfer to Oklahoma City, and David Stern wakes up one morning toward the end of 2006 to discover that he might not have George Shinn to kick around anymore. Does he put the kibosh on the deal for the sake of New Orleans and their triple-strength plutonium-alloy lease?

Of course, if you can answer that question today, you're probably busy trying to beat the S&P 500 with your stock portfolio and don't have time for piddling questions about mere sports.

The Vent

  13 March 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill