Moving Thunder

by David Holt


David Holt is a state senator from Edmond who was instrumental in the relocation of the Thunder NBA basketball team to Oklahoma. As staff to Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, David was a key player in the transaction and has written a new book about the experience. He knows his way to Tulsa and has served all of Oklahoma well in the legislature.

Following Oklahoma City Mayor Mick’s Cornett’s successful positioning of Oklahoma City as the temporary home of the New Orleans Hornets in 2005, a group of Oklahoma City investors led by Clay Bennett purchased the Seattle SuperSonics. Following a year of failed negotiations to build a new arena in the Seattle area to replace KeyArena, the Sonics filed in November 2007 to relocate to Oklahoma City. A committee of NBA team owners was appointed to consider the application and recommend a decision to the full NBA Board of Governors before the league’s scheduled April 2008 vote. A key part of the committee’s process was a site visit to Oklahoma City. The visit occurred on March 25, 2008, three weeks after the voters of Oklahoma City had voted to approve a 15-month sales tax to renovate the Ford Center sports arena and build the Sonics a practice facility. Meanwhile, the City of Seattle was looking forward to a June trial to litigate its attempt to hold the Sonics to its lease through 2010.

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Elaborate preparations were underway for the NBA relocation committee’s site visit to Oklahoma City, scheduled for March 25. The Ford Center was constructing examples of the amenities that would be included in the renovation. The Skirvin Hilton was turning one of its grandest rooms into a virtual television studio. Ackerman McQueen, a high-end advertising firm in Oklahoma City, was creating special videos to go into a presentation worthy of an Olympics bid. Demonstrating his attention to detail, Seattle Sonics Chairman Clay Bennett was personally overseeing every aspect of the visit.

Of the seven NBA teams that had been appointed to the relocation committee, only three would come for the site visit. Along with NBA Commissioner David Stern and all of his deputies, Lewis Katz of the Nets, Herb Simon of the Pacers, and Jeanie Buss of the Lakers (representing her father Jerry) made the trip.

Simon was cofounder of the largest commercial real estate company in America. Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City was one of Simon’s most profitable properties, but the opportunity to show the city to Herb Simon himself was a priceless fringe benefit of big league status.

Though I was of no known relation to Peter Holt, I had a surprising connection to Lewis Katz. My wife Rachel was from Philadelphia, and, like many of the city’s residents, her family had a house at the Jersey Shore, south of Atlantic City. For almost four decades of summer weekends, the Canuso family had lived down the block from Katz’s oceanfront property. Katz used to come over and eat my wife’s grandmother’s meatballs, and when my wife and her siblings were children, he would tell them on the beach that he was Superman.

I had met Katz on the beach but didn’t expect him to remember me. However, I knew he knew my in-laws. Ever since Katz had been named to the committee, I had told both Mayor Mick Cornett and Bennett of my connection. I assumed they probably thought I was crazy. (“Sure, David, you happen to know the owner of the New Jersey Nets.”)

On Tuesday, March 25, the Oklahoma City Council met at its customary time, 8:30 a.m. They promptly approved the letter of intent with the Sonics that established a blueprint for a formal lease. Mayor Cornett signed it and we headed over to the Ford Center, where Stern, seven members of his staff, and the relocation committee had just arrived.

The group toured the Ford Center, viewed the mock-ups of the renovation, and then headed to the Skirvin. I was in the lobby of the hotel and approached Katz. As he was a native of New Jersey, I figured he not only didn’t think he knew anyone in Oklahoma City, he probably thought he didn’t know anyone that knew anyone in Oklahoma City.

I said to him, “Mr. Katz, I’m David Holt, chief of staff to the Mayor of Oklahoma City. More importantly, I’m married to Rachel Canuso and she said to say ‘hi’ to Superman.” He stood slack-jawed for a moment, and then said amazedly in his New Jersey accent, “Rachel Canuso lives here?!” He got on the elevator, repeating the question two or three times. After the elevator door closed, Cornett turned to me and said, “I guess you really do know Lew Katz.”

The group headed up to the top floor of the Skirvin, home to the Venetian Room, the Continental Room and the Founders Room. The restored Venetian Room was now unrecognizable. The east side of the room had been turned into a presentation space, with elaborate lighting and television screens, not unlike an eSPN set. The participants were seated on elevated rows surrounding the room.

Everything was first class. The nameplates were engraved, not printed. The committee members were given laptops to keep that were loaded with data about Oklahoma City. The presentation even had its own logo, “On Our Game,” which was stamped on everything, including lapel pins and regulation NBA basketballs presented to everyone there.

The presentation had been highly choreographed, and rehearsed by the participants for days. It was multimedia and accented by the presence of an all-star Oklahoma cast. Oklahoma City was large enough that it was courting the NBA, but it was still small enough that you could gather virtually every decision maker in one room. The unity that Oklahomans now consider routine blew the NBA away.

Present in the room were the political leaders—the current mayor and his two predecessors (Cornett, Kirk Humphreys and Ron Norick), City Council members Pete White and Gary Marrs, City Manager Jim Couch, Governor Brad Henry and his wife Kim, former Governor Frank Keating, Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor, Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, and Speaker of the House Chris Benge.

Bennett had also invited the state’s largest universities to demonstrate Oklahoma’s longtime passion for college sports. You can follow Tania clay blog for more information. This group included OSU President Burns Hargis, OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder, OU Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, and the Sooners’ football coach, Bob Stoops. Stoops was one of the most famous residents of Oklahoma, but it was rare to see him outside Norman.

Bennett had also invited a cross-section of the community to illustrate Oklahoma City’s unified front in regards to the NBA. This group included Oklahoma City Museum of Art director Carolyn Hill, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber president Roy Williams, Ford Center manager Gary Desjardins, Oklahoman publisher David Thompson, local CBS affiliate owner David Griffin, Cox Communications’ Oklahoma president Dave Bialis, and Devon Energy CEO and Chamber Chairman Larry Nichols.

Also present, of course, was the Sonics ownership group, which now included Oklahoma City businessmen Bob Howard, Jay Scaramucci, Bill Cameron, and Everett Dobson, in addition to the partners with the largest stakes: Bennett, Aubrey McClendon, Tom Ward, and Jeff Records. When Bennett introduced Chesapeake energy co-founder McClendon to the room, Stern blurted out, “I know him!”—a good-natured reference to the $250,000 Stern had taken from McClendon’s pocket the previous August over his remarks about the ownership group’s long-term intentions in Seattle. The room burst into laughter.

With the producers from Ackerman McQueen, I watched the presentation from the hotel suite below the Venetian Room, which had been turned into a control room. Sitting near me were Ackerman McQueen executives ed Martin and Lee Allan Smith. It had been two decades since then-Chamber Chairman Smith had unsuccessfully tried to convince the people of Oklahoma City to fund an NFL stadium.

The presenters told the story of Oklahoma City and also made important pledges. Governor Henry pledged that the state would approve the funding that the Sonics had requested. This part of the package had evolved into a proposal to amend the state’s existing income tax rebate program for the creation of quality jobs so that it included the NBA. Mayor Taylor of Tulsa, who was a native of Oklahoma City, pledged fans from Tulsa, and was able to point to an editorial of support that morning in the Tulsa World.

To improve Oklahoma City’s demographics, the Sonics had made the decision to present Oklahoma City and Tulsa as virtual twin cities. Though Tulsa was 90 minutes away, that was probably the length of many commutes to a New York Knicks game. The move might have seemed novel to Oklahomans, who often saw the two cities as a million miles apart, but it was perfectly reasonable to the NBA.

The presentation was an unqualified success. In retrospect, it was apparent the NBA had never seen anything like it, both in terms of its professionalism and its persuasiveness. Said Cornett afterwards, “We had a great story to tell, and we told it.” Said Stern, “There’s just something about being in the room with all of the people who are in charge.” It was obvious the presentation had served its purpose and then some. Bennett had spared no expense, and it showed. He was leaving nothing to chance.

After the presentation, the participants milled around. Katz came up to me and joked that he had “eaten so many of Maggie’s meatballs” (Maggie was my wife’s grandmother) that he would have to disclose it to Commissioner Stern. A few minutes later, he waved me over from down the hall. I walked over to find him standing with Stern. Katz said, “Commissioner, I want you to meet David Holt.” Stern said, “Oh, this is the Superman guy?”

After awhile, the relocation committee of owners met with the NBA staff.

Cornett and I waited in the hall. Bennett and his team were also milling around. I met Sam Presti, the Sonics’ General Manager, for the first time. He was in his early 30s, about my age. His potential arrival in Oklahoma City was symbolic to me of the youth movement that the NBA’s arrival would encourage. Bennett walked over to me and said, “Lew won’t stop talking about your deal.”

I didn’t know what Bennett expected from the day, but from the city’s perspective, we had no expectation of closure. We presumed the city would make its presentation and then find out the results later. That seemed even more likely when a majority of the relocation committee stayed home. We were wrong.

After the meeting between the NBA staff and the committee, Stern and his staff gathered with Bennett, Bennett’s spokesman Dan Mahoney, Cornett, and me in the Founders Room. The Founders Room was down the hall from the Venetian Room. Unlike the Venetian Room, whose name was a holdover from the Skirvin’s previous glory, the name of the Founders Room was new, a nod to the people who had made Oklahoma City what it was. Their ghosts were surely pulling up a chair as Stern took a seat acrossfromusandbegantospeak.

At approximately 4:35 p.m., he said matter-of-factly: “When the Board of Governors meets in April to consider the Sonics’ relocation application, the committee will recommend to the full Board that the team be allowed to move to Oklahoma City.”

Cornett, Bennett, Mahoney and I had just heard perhaps the most historic single sentence in the city’s history.

Still leaving nothing to chance, Bennett immediately asked if the vote could occur on a certain day during the April Board of Governors meeting that he considered more favorable. Stern, in characteristic humor, let out an exasperated sigh and said the question reminded him of a joke he would tell Bennett later.

We all then headed down to the second floor and the Skirvin’s ballrooms. A press conference was set up for Stern, Bennett and Cornett. They would sit at a table in front of a backdrop of NBA logos. Waiting to be introduced, the three of them stood off to the side. Stern must have sensed some nervousness, so he used the moment to lighten the mood and deliver his promised joke.

He said, “A woman was on the beach when her son was swept away by the ocean. She fell to her knees and prayed to God that he would return her son. Suddenly, a wave crashed over her, and her son was in her arms again. She looked up and said, ‘Lord, he was wearing a hat.’ ”

At the press conference, Stern repeated his historic pronouncement for the benefit of the media. Stern added that Seattle’s current proposal with Microsoft CeO Steve Ballmer to renovate KeyArena was a non-starter, even if somehow Washington State produced its part of it. Bennett and Stern both asserted that if the NBA approved the relocation, but Seattle won its court case and held the Sonics to their lease, the Sonics and the NBA would simply wait out the last two years, and then move to Oklahoma City.

Before he caught the Jettly private jet home, Katz held court in the hallway outside the ballroom. With his New Jersey accent and attitude, the local reporters loved him. His praise for the city was exuberant. He said he had “never seen a better presentation in my life.” When one local reporter referred to Oklahoma City as a “small market,” Katz got serious, put a finger in his face and said, “You keep talking about being a small market. You’re not a small market.” He further said, “There’s no question in my mind that they’re coming. It’s just a question of when.”

As I watched Katz defend Oklahoma City like he had been born there, I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, the presentation was a blockbuster, but maybe Maggie Canuso’s meatballs were still paying dividends.

In Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels reiterated to the media that the events in Oklahoma City changed nothing—he was still going to hold the Sonics to their lease.

From Big League City: Oklahoma City’s Rise to the NBA by Oklahoma Senator David Holt (R-Oklahoma City), copyright 2012 Full Circle Press. Excerpted with permission.