BY Steve Rudman 11:00AM 05/21/2013

Key In Sonics Saga: The ‘Chopp’ Block In Olympia

When David Stern announced the Kings would stay in Sacramento, he left Seattle’s NBA future up in the air. To understand why, it helps to understand Feb. 24, 2006.

NBA Commissioner David Stern never got over the lack of respect he felt when he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in Olympia Feb. 24, 2006. / Wiki Commons

When I watched the live stream of David Stern’s press conference from Dallas a few days ago, during which the commissioner made clear Seattle would not receive an NBA franchise any time soon, I couldn’t help but think of State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-Seattle), the events of Feb. 24, 2006, and conclude that Stern is still blinded by rage over his humiliation that day.

Stern, Sonics owner Howard Schultz and other franchise executives deployed to Olympia so that Stern could appear before the Legislature’s House Ways and Means Committee to urge state support for a taxpayer-funded, $200 million expansion/upgrade of KeyArena as a means of keeping the Sonics in Seattle.

From Stern’s perspective, the trip went irretrievably south when Chopp, the crusty Speaker of the House from Seattle’s 43rd District, failed to treat Stern with the respect Stern believed his eminence demanded. After Stern laid out his case for KeyArena expansion, Chopp harrumphed:

“They (the NBA) ought to get their own financial house in order when their payroll is over $50 million for, what is it, 10 players? I think that’s a little ridiculous. They need to get their own financial house in order and if they did, they wouldn’t have to ask for public help.”

Refusing to acknowledge even a dollop of truth in Chopp’s remark, a fuming Stern high-tailed it out of Olympia as fast as his limo could get him up I-5 to Sea-Tac Airport. He has, as his subsequent words and actions demonstrate, nursed an industrial-strength grudge since, not only over Chopp’s criticism, but over Chopp’s refusal to genuflect.

“Stern felt like Chopp treated him and the NBA with disrespect,” one of the members in the Seattle entourage that day told me in October. “Stern was upset that he went all the way to Olympia only to get abused. We tried to tell David that Chopp treats everybody asking for money that way, but David took it personally, and he didn’t like it at all.”

More significantly, in light of events involving Chris Hansen’s failed bid to extract the Kings out of Sacramento and move them to Seattle, Stern never forgot his run-in with the state policy wonk.

Fast forward to Nov. 8, 2007. Nearly two years have elapsed since Stern was felled by the Chopp block in Olympia. The setting is Phoenix, where Stern is holding a news conference following an NBA announcement that the 2009 All-Star Game would be played in the city.

According to The Associated Press account, Stern is asked one or two questions about the Phoenix All-Star Game. Then a reporter requests an update on the Seattle situation, by now this: Clay Bennett has purchased the Sonics from Schultz and announced he will file relocation request to Oklahoma City if he and his ownership group are not provided a new basketball playpen out of public funds.

Says Stern: “If the team moves, there’s not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision. There’s no way the league would ever return to the city.”

Stern, who still has Chopp rattling in his head, goes on to criticize Seattle and the state Legislature for the manner in which they handled the issue of funding a replacement for KeyArena.

Stern repeats an earlier criticism of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council for promoting a measure, Initiative 91, overwhelmingly passed by Seattle voters, that requires pro sports tenants of the city’s facilities such as KeyArena to have leases that return to the city an annual benefit at least at the same rate as a U.S. Treasury bill.

“That merely means,” said Stern, “that there is no way city money would ever be used on an arena project.”

Stern next laments that the Legislature refused to consider continuing for the Sonics a tax that helped fund Seattle’s baseball (Safeco Field) and football (CenturyLink Field) stadiums. Stern labels that action, or lack of action, “hostile.”

“To have the Speaker of the House (Chopp) say, ‘Well, they just spend too much money on salaries anyway, so we need it for other things,’ casts aspersions on the whole league’s operations,” Stern says. “We get the message. Hopefully, maybe cooler heads will prevail.”

Stern had a cool enough head during his Phoenix press conference to balance out his rant with remarks suggesting he still stood in Seattle’s corner.

“I believe things are going to work out,” he says, adding that he hoped “that a white knight that hasn’t existed before, somebody who has a building plan of how to keep the team there, will step forward.

“We’ve had a team in Seattle for over 40 years, it’s been a great city and I think it’s almost tragic that as a matter of timing, that people in power turned against the team at a time which will turn out to have been a time to really go in the other direction.”

A little more than seven months later, Bennett, as part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the city, paid Seattle $45 million to buy out the final two years of its KeyArena lease and relocated the Sonics to Oklahoma City, relegating the Sonics as dead in Stern’s mind as the Waterloo Hawks and Sheboygan Red Skins.

Five years later, Hansen and partner Steve Ballmer came along offering more money than the NBA had seen for one of its franchises, and a downtrodden one at that. Stern listened to Hansen and Ballmer and their plans for a new arena in SoDo, and apparently impressed, had to concede what everyone knew, that “they are the prototypical NBA owners.”

Sacramento, meanwhile, had a mess on its hands: Bad owners in the Maloof family, no new ownership group yet apparent, and no plan for a new arena — unless you count a plan to rob its own parking meters as a plan. Seattle in January presumed that a signed agreement between Hansen/Ballmer and the Maloofs would return the NBA for the 2013-14 season, and the yippees commenced.

Stern wouldn’t have it, not on his watch.  No matter what Hansen and Ballmer conjured. Recall his statement in Phoenix Nov. 8, 2007:

“There’s not going to be another team there (Seattle), not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision.”

Because Hansen and Ballmer apparently gave Stern more to envision than perhaps even he thought possible, he gave Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson time to get the city’s act together and assemble an ownership group and an arena plan. He practically coached Sacramento into making a viable counteroffer to Hansen and Ballmer.

Sacramento made multiple changes in its ownership roster, switched arena sites to a downtown location and asked the city council to forgo $258 million in future parking revenue and other city assets to help build a $448 million arena, one that Hansen firmly believes will fail. But it satisfied NBA owners and Stern, who, after the 22-8 vote in Dallas denying relocation, spoke about the “edge going to the incumbent,” and barely spoke at all about an NBA future in Seattle, a league “incumbent” 13 years longer than Sacramento.

Why? Stern doesn’t want a franchise in Seattle. Why? Frank Chopp – or, at least everything Chopp represents about Seattle and state politics, which boils down to a lack of fawning in Stern’s presence and a lack of appreciation for the NBA’s economic model, which wasn’t working in 2006 even if Chopp was a Wenatchee apple grower who never stepped foot in Olympia.

Chopp, who first crawled under the commissioner’s skin Feb. 24, 2006, was still there Feb. 16, 2013, seven years after their head-butt in Olympia.

On the latter date, Stern was in Houston, at the Toyota Center, giving his annual state of the NBA speech prior to the All-Star Game. At that point, signs pointed to the Kings relocating to Seattle.

“This is a good time to be a commissioner and not an owner,” said Stern, talking about the difficulty in choosing between Sacramento and Seattle. But Stern couldn’t resist another shot at Seattle.

“I seem to remember, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that there was a $300 million-plus subsidy for the Mariners, and a $300 million-plus subsidy for the Seahawks,” said Stern. “And there was legislation which precluded that for the Sonics. And (Washington State House) Speaker (Frank) Chopp said we should take the money from our players. Is there anything I’m missing here?”

Yes, he did miss something, but no one called him on it. At the insistence of then-Sonics owner Barry Ackerley and with the approval of Stern, the city council in 1994 authorized $73 million in 20-year bonds to remake the old Coliseum into KeyArena, the debt to be retired by income from new luxury suites. Stern forgot to mention to the national media audience that the NBA was the first of Seattle’s three pro leagues in the 1990s to be supported from the public trough.

Twelve years after the city approved the bonds, Stern was back to ask for another helping of public money for KeyArena. But in 2006, the ask was made at the state level, where Chopp (and other state lawmakers) were presiding over a very different public attitude toward taxation in general and stadium funding in particular after subsidizing the football an baseball stadiums. Chopp’s indignant refusal to dole out public funds in support of Stern’s private empire began the chain of events that have kept Seattle an NBA-free zone.

Stern’s memory of Chopp’s seven-year-old rebuke explains why Hansen wasn’t going to get the Kings if he’d offered $1 billion and thrown in Kate Upton – as long as Sacramento came close with a credible offer. Stern made sure it did.

Stern didn’t throw so much as a bone to Sonics fans during his press conference. It will take new commissioner Adam Silver for Seattle to have any chance at a return to the NBA. It might have been different if Chopp hadn’t swatted the commissioner on the nose Feb. 24, 2006. And it might have been different if Stern decided on a position other than revenge.

Less than five months after his trip to Olympia, Stern OK’d the sale of the Sonics from Schultz to Clay Bennett, who once wrote an email to Stern that said: “David, you know how I feel about our relationship both personally and professionally. You are among a very few, notwithstanding our relative brief actual physical time together that have significantly affected my life. I view you as a role model, as an extraordinarily gifted executive, a deep and compassionate thinker, and a person with a rare and unique charisma that brings out the best in everyone you touch. You are just one of my favorite people on earth.”

Too bad Chopp didn’t know how to speak to an NBA commissioner.


  • Jared S.

    If all of this is Stern’s way of getting back at Frank Chopp, the joke’s on him. I doubt Chopp pays attention to any of this or even remembers who Stern is.

    But it’s remarkable how thin-skinned Stern is for a man in his position.

    • Michael Kaiser

      Sometimes certain types of individuals just get tired of people. And, by the way Rudman, if I did not mention it, your piece, obviously, does capture very important aspects of what transpired.

      • Rujax

        Yeah, like we’re tired of you. Already.

  • Leon Russell

    This seems to be a pretty accurate story, except for this:

    “At the insistence of then-Sonics owner Barry Ackerley and with the approval of Stern, the city council in 1994 authorized $73 million in 20-year bonds to remake the old Coliseum into KeyArena, the debt to be retired by income from new luxury suites. Stern forgot to mention to the national media audience that the NBA was the first of Seattle’s three pro leagues in the 1990s to be supported from the public trough.”

    KeyArena bonds were to be repaid with revenue from luxury suites (plus club seats) as you mention. Luxury suite revenue is NOT “the public trough.” There was no tax revenue going towards paying off the KeyArena bonds. Luxury suite revenue is not “public money.” It is arena revenue, as opposed to tax revenue. That is why Schultz constantly complained about the KeyArena lease and continually wanted to rewrite the lease — because the Sonics did not get all the revenue from the luxury suites and club seats as most, if not all, other NBA teams did.

    This continues to amaze me that Seattle writers can’t seem to grasp the distinction between “arena revenues” (luxury suites, club seats, ticket sales, parking, concessions, advertising, etc.) and “tax revenues.” KeyArena was to be paid off with ARENA revenues. Safeco Field, CenturyLink Field and the new SODO arena construction bonds were to be paid off with TAX revenues. All the arena revenues from the new SODO arena would go to Hansen, and the city would pay off the city-backed bonds with TAX revenues — not luxury suite and club seat revenues, which would all go to Hansen.

    • jafabian

      Bob Whitsitt said at the time when the Sonics left that Key Arena itself is fine, it’s the lease that was the problem. But when you have cities giving their pro sports carte blanche on their stadiums/arenas it’s difficult for other cities to compete with that. When Seattle has a billions (plural) dollar Viaduct issue that needs their attention its hard to justify earmarking millions towards a new basketball facility for a corporate entity that doesn’t let a whole lot of the profit trickle down to the public, if at all. And only ten years after a major remodel was done to their specifications. I-91 was presented and passed by voters, it wasn’t foisted upon the city by politicians. And it was done so for a reason.

      There’s ways around that though. The fact that Safeco Field was built proves that. Remember, initially it was voted down.

      • Michael Kaiser

        Seattle does not have a “billions (plural)” Viaduct issue that needs attention. It needed to shore up some stuff. What is going on right now is certain people’s idea of a cosmetic improvement more than it is a necessity. But with a federal political environment that was throwing around money at highway projects–to keep certain people in jobs more than anything–cities and states are foolish to not take advantage. And with Patty Murray heading Senate Appropriations, is it any wonder that Hooterville has gotten much more than its fair share–allowing (and I use the term “allowing” loosely) Hooterville to replace 520, Mercer, and the Viaduct all at the same time. Mammoth projects even individually, let alone collectively.

        • MarkS

          Hey Mike
          There’s a bridge in Skagit County you might like to buy.

          • no fool

            Hey Marky mark….Quit sniffin….I think it is rotting your brain…… Maybe if you the ” IDIOTIC MORON” would get your nose out of another mans crotch ; you would see that we need things like bridges…..Schools….Police….Fire….What a little brain you have TROLL BOY

          • Michael Kaiser

            Spewing garbage like that you actually have the audacity to call me a “troll”? That is priceless. What sort of sewer did you climb out of?

          • MarkS

            I didn’t think I’d agree with Michael Kaiser on anything but I think we’ve just been called ugly by a toad.

      • Colin Powell

        Oh god, here we go again with the “We voted down Safeco Field” myth. Maybe YOU thought you were voting down a stadium, but I read the actual ballot. What I voted against was an across-the-board increase in the sales tax. That tax would have funded the stadium. I was never opposed to the stadium per se, but I was adamantly opposed to forcing everyone to pick up the tab whenever we went shopping. (After voting no, I went to the Kingdome that night and watched the M’s whup ass on Texas. rememebr when that used to happen?)

        So you do know what we got, right? The Legislature and the M’s going back to the drawing board. They came up with additional taxes on rental cars and hotels/motels, by far the primary dominion of tourists. (If I have to pay 25% rental car taxes in New Orleans, their tourists can certainly afford 15-17% here.) The M’sgislature also dinged us 1/2% sales tax on restaurant meals. I’m not thrilled with that, but I’m also not required to take my meals chez Tom Douglas. What I’m still pissed about is how the M’s ownership/F.O. hustled the team to us as a local amenity, but as soon as the ink was dry on the tax deal it became a “regional” treasure. Remember Howie and Chuck’s disingenous justification for adding a $120 million roof? “We can’t have people coming all the way from Boise or Anchorage, and get rained out.” I still want to beat those two with a stainless steel bobblehead for that one. But the bottom line is NOBODY pays for Safeco Field outside the cozy confines of King County. Not in Pierce County, where the M’s have a farm team. Not in Snohomish County, where the M’s have a farm team. Nope, it’s just us, right here in King, picking up the tab for the Chuckie Cheesehead and Town Car Lincoln to market the Mariners from Alaska to the Cal border, and from Montana to Japan!!

    • Coug1990

      Actually, Rudman is more correct than you. The bond was a municipal bond, which is public borrowing power. If their had been a default, the public would be on the dime.

      • Leon Russell

        As long as the bond was paid off with luxury suite and club seat money, it didn’t cost the public a dime of public money. It may have saved the Sonics some money, but it did not cost the public any tax dollars at all, as long as the suite and club seat revenues were paying off the bonds.

  • Michael Kaiser

    Rudman, your attitude is the perfect personification of the Hooterville outlook, and Chopp is pure Hooterville. Somehow he takes it upon himself as, essentially, a nothing legislator in, again, essentially, a nothing legislature in a distant corner of the country that the NBA helped put on the map, to harshly critique the NBA, and your focus is STERN’S arrogance??? Lol. Typical Hooterville hypocritical BS combined with the fact that we shun “stars” who, can you believe this!!!, actually have the audacity to position themselves as the stars they are. The arrogance in this affair has been almost entirely on behalf of low self esteem Hooterville. From deciding that Hooterville is above spending public money on pro sports (unless it is women’s basketball), to thinking we should be critiquing the NBA’s business plan-especially when the NBA has come to town to try and help us save our franchise–and then thinking almost by default that Hooterville MUST be a better place for the Kings, Hooterville just does not get it. Hooterville, right now, is like an adolescent jock–steeped in arrogance, masking typical adolescent esteem issues, but not realizing yet how fallible he is. Some of those jocks get it, and others never grow up. And the Socialist Republic of Hooterville (FDR’s words) rolls on! Oh, and speaking of parking enforcement/meter issues, Hooterville has been going crazy on that revenue source for the past several years. Also, does any of that revenue in any way benefit the Storm?

    • Leon Russell

      The NBA is nothing but a diversion for people with lots of discretionary income. Without an NBA team, Seattle has a very good economy compared to most cities in the U.S. with NBA teams. All the construction you see in our city is happening without any NBA team. Seattle has not missed a beat since the Sonics left.
      Seattle doesn’t have any need for an NBA team. If the NBA wants to build a privately-funded arena, fine, go ahead and do so. If the NBA wants public tax subsidies, the voters of Seattle have said “no thanks.”

    • Tim

      If you’re truly interested in making a point may I suggest paring down your rant a little, stick to a topic, lose the caps and the self-indulgent references that only you find funny. After all, I don’t think you want to be confused with a stoner from hooterville.

      • Michael Kaiser

        Glad to see I got under your skin.

        • Tim

          So you’re admitting you’re a troll and not to be someone taken seriously. Thanks for clarifying.

    • Coug1990

      Michael Kaiser has posted one of the most ignorant posts that I have read in a long time.

      • Michael Kaiser

        I will try to carry on.

        • Jamo57

          Still parroting the ‘Fabulous Sports Babe’? C’mon dude put some effort into your writing!

          • Michael Kaiser

            Actually, excepting the term “Hooterville,” which I did get from the SportsBabe, I do not recall anything else she ever said about Hooterville, except that I know the general tone of using the term Hooterville obviously connoted a backward, hick-type town.

          • Colin Powell

            Troll Alert.

          • Michael Kaiser

            What does troll mean? It sounds like a word third-graders throw around during sleepovers.

          • Dongcopter Pilot

            He’s a whiny little girl

    • NixBeeman

      Typical inside-the-jock-bubble ignorant response, similar to those who decry the actions of Greg Nickels (I was no fan) at the time. Both were simply politicians representing their constituents, the vast, vast majority of whom are done, finished with devoting public financing to inane sports organizations that can’t control their own costs and provide little return in value to the community. It must be frustrating to be a blinders-on sports geek in a place where most people feel this way. But acceptance is the first step to recovery. None of this has changed. Deal with it.

  • Artemis

    Is it just me, or does Adam Silver look like the love child of Howard Lincoln and David Stern?

    • jafabian

      With Clay-Clay as the godfather!

  • Tim

    Well done Mr. Rudman. I think you nailed it. Stern is right out of a Tolstoy novel.

  • Kafkaeske

    I had forgotten some of this. But now that you bring it up again, I say Right On, Frank Chopp! It was outrageous for the Sonics (Schultz) and the NBA to insist on a new arena plan only 12 years after Key Arena was refurbished to their specifications. The mere thought that the public might not want to write another huge check for the NBA billionaires gave Stern a hissy fit. After that, he could never be fair to Seattle, and his hand-picked successor won’t be any better.

    The decision to keep the Kings in Sacramento was correct. The locals did what they needed to do and they deserved what they got. But pro sports leagues rarely if ever prevent their teams from moving. “Fairness” doesn’t enter into their thinking. If some city other than Seattle was trying to take the Kings away, I bet the NBA would have sent the team packing in a jiffy. But this was Seattle, the city that had stood up to the corporate panhandlers, so Sacramento won.

    And by the way, whether or not the Key Arena bonds were repaid with tax revenue or suite revenue, the job was done with public money. To get a loan from the taxpayers on such favorable terms represents a big trip to the public trough.

    • Leon Russell

      It was not a trip to the public trough in any way. As long as the suite and club seat revenue were making the bond payments, there was no tax subsidy whatsoever for KeyArena.

      • Dongcopter Pilot

        ” As long as the suite and club seat revenue were making the bond payments”

        Was that happening? Was that going to continue happening?

  • no fool

    and you idiots want to do business with these guys huh?????? I suggest getting on your knees and Take a big swallow …. They can stay away for ever and it would be fine with the educated in the city… You JOCK-SNIFFERS need to get a life…

    • 1coolguy

      Please do all a favor and take your pathetic, Cro-Magnon terms to a more appropriate spot, like The Stranger. You’re disgusting.

      • no fool

        Poor little JOCK – SNIFFER… Face it BOY, Your sonics are not a comin ….But stern sure is…WIPE OFF YOUR CHIN YOU IDIOT

    • MarkS

      Irony post? We’re told to get a life by a sports hater trolling a sports bog.

      • no fool

        Someone who does not want his dollars going to the WHORE STERN is a troll huh????? QUIT SNIFFING ANOTHER MANS JOCK and get a life…. THEY ARE NOT A CUMMIN…. STERN IS in your BIG MOUTH Marky Mark…..sniff sniff sniff….

      • no fool

        sniff sniff

      • no fool

        how does it taste????

  • Ted Van Dyk

    You got the facts and context correct, Steve. Good piece. Chopp’s remarks re the NBA business model were undiplomatic but entirely correct. It involves spending ridiculous payroll dollars on a small roster of players, reaping big local and network TV revenues,
    adding gate receipts, and getting local taxpayers to build and pay for arenas which meet the league’s specification. Since Stern and the NBA have been getting away with
    this formula, in an enterprise way behind the NFL and MLB in fan interest, they have come to believe they are entitled to it.
    Yes, you are correct Steve that the NBA got a big taxpayer subsidy here before other major sports did. But why would anyone expect Stern to acknowledge or mention this?
    In his mind, he is a world-class figure who should not be questioned about shakedowns of hard pressed taxpayes. He is a small, petty prevaricator. If Hansen, Ballmer & Co.
    want to continue pursuit of an NBA franchise, that is their right. It would be good, though, to put first priority on an NHL franchise. Seattle would love and support it. If the NBA, post-Stern, were to come later, so be it. But, if not, I suspect the Hansen/Ballmer venture could be profitable without it.

    • Leon Russell

      The Sonics did not get any tax subsidy at KeyArena, as long as the deal was working as planned. Using luxury suite and club seat revenue to pay off construction bonds is not a “tax subsidy.” Using TAXES to pay off construction bonds, like the SODO arena plan is a tax subsidy.

  • fred117

    There are a couple of other issues with the whole Sonic fiasco Mr Rudman didn’t point out:

    Frank Chopp is an Arrogant Hypocritical Schmuck (AHS) in light of his proposal to fund the Husky Stadium improvements with the same hotel/rental car taxes a year or two later. (Of course, David Stern is an AHS also. No wonder there’s a personality problem there.)

    If I recall correctly, Barry Ackerley was proposing a privately funded arena with Spectocor of Philadelphia where Safeco Field sits now. When the City Council heard about this they put together a package to persuade Ackerley to reuse the Coliseum. This was the genesis of the $75 million public investment to the Sonics and Key Arena.

    Shoehorning the Key Arena into the the old Coliseum shell produced a compromised design that proved to be too small for hockey (one reason why Seattle has no leverage with the NBA) and prematurely obsolete for the Sonics. This is why I cringe when I hear people wanting to reuse Key Arena.

    But if you’re trying to point blame for losing the Sonics, it has to be Howard Schultz.

  • 1coolguy

    Blame Chopp all you want Steve, BUT it was and always has been the carpetbagger HOWARD SCHULTZ, the BILLIONAIRE, as I recall, who decided to get cheap and dump the Sonics to a buyer from another market.
    What did he expect would happen? Bennett and his buddies would move to Seattle? Right.
    Schultz is in the Seattle Hall of Shame, Charter Member, PERIOD. he should move back to New Yawk and enjoy the Knicks!

    • no fool

      1coolguy=JOCK- SNIFFER…You little cry baby…I think I will go buy a little Joe from Howie in your honor….PLEASE get off your knees