On Their Final Breath???

By Steve Kelley
Updated: April 24, 2009

SEATTLE — Ray Allen’s jump shot last Saturday looked so familiar it was only natural to feel a twinge of nostalgia.

Open in the corner, Boston’s Allen — one of the game’s all-time clutch shooters — had a chance to send the playoff game against Chicago into a second overtime. But he missed, the home crowd instantly fell silent, and the Bulls won the first game of their Eastern Conference playoff series.

The shot was a mirror image of the jumper Allen had at KeyArena on May 19, 2005, in the sixth game of the Western Conference semifinals between the Sonics and San Antonio.

The Key was supercharged that night. The Sonics, who were the surprise winners of the Northwest Division, had rediscovered the love in the city, and Allen had a chance to keep the season alive.

The shot looked true. The fans were poised to explode. But the ball rimmed out. We had no way of knowing at the time, but that turned out to be the last playoff jump shot ever taken by a Seattle Sonic.

And KeyArena hasn’t been the same since.

This weekend, the state Legislature has a chance to do something brave. It has an opportunity to bring hope back to legions of starving NBA fans. More important, it can bring jobs back to a crippled part of the city.

All it has to do is pass a bill — Substitute Senate Bill 6116 — that would fund myriad projects, including the necessary renovation of KeyArena.

The funds would come from an existing tax that uses locally generated hotel, car-rental and restaurant taxes that currently are dedicated to paying off Safeco Field, Qwest Field and the Kingdome.

The bill is necessary to maintain the heartbeat of this city. But on Wednesday the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Ed Murray, pronounced it dead.

The lawmakers as heartbreakers.

If the bill dies, the city won’t get the $30 million that the owners of the Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to pay as part of the agreement that allowed them to move the team from Seattle.

Forget the sweet revenge of making Clay Bennett pay the price for his piracy — how can any legislative body, in these difficult times, turn down $30 million?

And even though there are as many as 10 NBA teams looking for buyers, the death of this bill would kill any hope of bringing a team to Seattle.

The group of investors headed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that pledged $300 million, half the money needed to renovate the Key, isn’t going to wait forever to fix KeyArena and purchase a team. If lawmakers don’t care, why should they?

So the Key will remain empty most of the year. And for too many nights, Lower Queen Anne will look like a ghost town, and businesses like Tara Sonnhalter’s Center House Bistro and Bar will struggle.

When Sonnhalter moved into the space inside the Seattle Center House, she said she was guaranteed, orally, by the city that the Sonics would be playing in the Key through 2010. Now she says her business is down by 55 percent since the team’s departure.

“When the Sonics left we felt like we had the rug yanked out from under us,” Sonnhalter said. “It’s been a brutal hit for us, but it’s also been a hit for the spirit of Seattle.

“I mean, to see the Seattle Center area dying, sometimes it really feels like a ghost town here. People don’t seem to understand that this place [Seattle Center] is one of the highlights of our city.”

The joys of having professional teams in this town are obvious. Look at the energy the Mariners created by bringing back Ken Griffey Jr. Think back to Qwest Field during the 2005 Seahawks season, or Safeco in 2001, the Kingdome in 1995, or KeyArena when the Sonics played the Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals.

Or forget all of the intangibles and focus on the local economy.

Jill Arrow says three restaurants on First Avenue North have closed since she became the executive director of the Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce eight months ago.

“Uptown as a neighborhood is hurting,” she said. “This bill is about job creation for us. It is very important to small businesses, and there are few big businesses on Lower Queen Anne. There are a lot of mom-and-pop restaurants, small grocery stores and small hotels.

“It is very important to the revitalization of the neighborhood to get the NBA back. Of course, everybody in the city has been affected by the economic downturn, but we feel, beyond the economy, we have been hurt even worse because of the loss of the Sonics. The Sonics make a big difference. A full KeyArena makes a big difference.”

But too many legislators are refusing to listen to these arguments. And if they follow their apathy through the weekend, more businesses on Lower Queen Anne will fail and more jobs will be lost.

Bill 6116 is dying. And so is any hope of returning life to the Seattle Center and the NBA to Seattle.