BY Art Thiel 10:04PM 03/21/2011

Ackerley: A hard man, a winning owner

A media baron, he had no time for media stiffs, but the Sonics were fun.

Barry Ackerley (left) sold the Sonics to Howard Schultz in January of 2001. Ackerley's Sonics made the playoffs 13 times during his ownership and captured four Pacific Division titles. / Getty Images

Cantankerous. Obstinate. Irascible. Litigious.

Best owner the Sonics had.

It just wasn’t that obvious at the time.

I told KJR’s 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, I’d 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 franchise’s greatest period of sustained success, Ackerley also owned KJR when it become Seattle’s 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 wasn’t a big deal. I can’t 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, I’d 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 didn’t swing, I didn’t 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 NBA’s 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 couldn’t 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.”

I’m told by those around him that Ackerley didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Coliseum’s 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, Ackerley’s time as Sonics owner, from 1983 to 2000, was the acme of the franchise’s 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 columnist’s 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.

Damn.

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.


YourThoughts

  • 1COOLGUY

    Another great article Art!

    Schulman and Ackerly made teh Sonics, Schultz detroyed them. Sad, real sad.

    Amazing Schultz lives in Seattle after his Sonics’ debacle, which will never be forgotten.

    • Lucky Infidel

      And now Schultz has a book out that he is promoting that discusses how, according to him, he recently turned around Starbucks–this purported turn around of course occurring at the same time he was selling out Seattle.
      Yes, for better or worse, Ackerley–perhaps, at least in part, because he was an ass . . . .–certainly played a substantive role in pushing the Sonics toward consistent winning. Someday the Mariners might get an owner like that. Or at least an owner that watches them play–at least once. That would be a good start. In the meantime I guess we can comfort ourselves with Shultz’s book.

  • Finn

    No comment about the time Sam Shultz apologized to the City of Seattle for selling the team to Ackerley?
    Remember when Ackerley put the sonics on KVOS in Bellingham and than tried to force the Cable Company to carry his station (and the Sonics) for an exorbitant amount of money?
    A cutthroat business man who was smart enough to let professionals run the team. How could Coffee Boy get it so wrong?

  • Dave J

    This is the first I’d heard of the conflict wth Ackerly. The Sonics were the pipeline for many a local sports hero – so valuable to the area – no more so than during Ackerly’s ownership. I used to think that the only mistake Ackerly made was to hire Wally Walker, but I have to admit that it was a bit weak of him to treat you and Kelly the way he did. He was a hard man to understand – sometimes those are the most rewarding to know.
    Well done, Art.

  • Sam Kelly

    Ackerley was the best owner we had. Great article Art!