A media baron, he had no time for media stiffs, but the Sonics were fun.
Cantankerous. Obstinate. Irascible. Litigious.
Best owner the Sonics had.
It just wasnt that obvious at the time.
I told KJRs Mike Gastineau recently that I never had a more contentious relationship with anyone in Seattle sports than Barry Ackerley.
Yet, had he walked into our presence at that moment, Id have been on one corner of the sedan chair that we would have hoisted to our shoulders to parade him around town.
Gastineau probably would have been on another corner. Besides his time as owner of the Sonics during the franchises greatest period of sustained success, Ackerley also owned KJR when it become Seattles first radio station with a sports-talk format. Say what you will about that being blessing or curse, sports talk radio is part of the lifeblood of any major sports market in the country.
Ackerley, who died at 76 Saturday in Rancho Mirage, CA., also had a couple of other firsts, at least in my experience.
He was the first and so far only sports figure to lay a hand on me.
And he was the first sports owner to attempt to have me arrested. Far as I know, anyway.
The first episode wasnt a big deal. I cant remember what prompted it, but it was after a press conference in the Sonics locker room in the Kingdome in which I thought Ackerley could have been more forthcoming in his answers. I always thought Ackerley could have been more forthcoming.
As he attempted to leave, I followed. Barry, I pleaded, just a couple more questions.
He stopped, turned and put his hand, gently, into my chest, giving a slight shove.
No, he said curtly. I have nothing to say to you.
Words would have been enough, Barry, I said, looking down at his hand. He withdrew it, spun away and marched out.
A moment later, I thought, jeez, if he had swung at me, Id soon be owning every billboard in town. See, his company at the time had the billboard monopoly in town, and I . . .
Well, you can figure the rest. He didnt swing, I didnt win a lawsuit, and nothing much came of it.
The second episode was far more entertaining.
In the time before Ackerley struck a deal with the city to remodel the old Coliseum into KeyArena a deal that looked good then, but quickly became inadequate in the face of the NBAs economic recklessness he owned acreage south of Pioneer Square where he wanted to build an arena big enough to accommodate hockey as well as basketball.
Good idea, which I nicknamed The Ackdome. Problem was, he couldnt find a fellow mogul in town willing to buy an NHL team that would be the fourth pro sports ticket in town — fifth, if you count the pros at Montlake — as well as a tenant to Ackerley.
So in the late 1980s he turned his sights back to the Coliseum, and began a rancorous negotiation with the city that included a threat to move the team to San Diego. Based on his quarrelsome history with business leaders, NBA leadership and civic pooh-bahs not to mention his semi-immortal episode of ordering his company to cut down trees along Aurora Avenue to better view his billboards I wrote a column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that included the line, I would rather sleep in a bed of broken light bulbs than make a deal with Ackerley.
Im told by those around him that Ackerley didnt care much for that. Some said that it appeared the week his daughter was being married, but I was never sure.
In any event, by next summer, Ackerley hatched a plan to deny me access to the Sonics coaches during a draft-day public function at a downtown hotel. He hired an off-duty Seattle cop to be ready to arrest me for trespassing, should I cross from the public-access area to a private part of the hotel ballroom designated for staff and media.
Fortunately, I was tipped by a mortified member of the Sonics staff, as well as the cop, who knew me. The plan was sabotaged when the staff brought to me in the public area the people I needed to interview, even though they were quite bewildered as to why they were being dragged about.
Word of the episode made it back to the NBA office, which then spent several months haggling with Ackerley about the issuance of season press credentials to people he didnt like. Ackerley figured he won the argument when he granted credentials to me as well as another writer he considered equally loathsome, the Seattle Times Steve Kelley, but gave us seats in the catwalk at the apex of the Coliseums ceiling. Nice folding chair, as I recall, but a good 125 feet above center court.
Again, Commissioner David Stern heard about it, and by the next game, Kelley and I were back on press row. That was back before Stern went messianic, when he still had some feel for media and public relations.
That means it was a long time ago. Funny now, even nostalgic.
Regardless of his temperament, Ackerleys time as Sonics owner, from 1983 to 2000, was the acme of the franchises existence, eclipsing even the title year of 1979 because contention was sustained over a longer stretch. The Sonics made the playoffs 13 times, reached the NBA Finals in 1996, and assembled a formidable armada of desperadoes, whack jobs and often outstanding players and coaches that never lacked for drama and comedy. They were a sports columnists dream.
By the time he sold the club in 2000, the NBA wheels started to come off, thanks mostly to a work stoppage in 1999 in which everyone lost big. The leader of the new ownership group, Howard Schultz, came in talking about fixing things, but by 2002 he had his hand out to taxpayers, wanting public money to fix a building the public already had fixed just seven years earlier.
In less than four years, Schultz, who talked fervently about civic stewardship of the Sonics franchise, found a desperate Oklahoma buckaroo willing to cash him out at $350 million for his $200 million investment, and jumped. You know the rest of the sad saga.
Not too long ago, I ran into Ackerley at a civic event. He stuck out his hand again, this time to shake mine. He lamented about the Sonics, and lit up about the success of the Storm, whom he and his wife, Ginger, championed. He looked good, was chatty, amiable and, for the first time in my experience, warm.
We agreed that it would be good to talk more. Call me anytime, he said, and walked away.
I never did call.
I missed a chance to get to know a little more about a man I once thought I knew.
I can only guess that that conversation would have contained no apologies from either party. But it might have been a rare opportunity to discover that what we know to be the truth at one moment can be, in the next moment, something entirely different.