NBA owners approved the Seattle SuperSonics' move to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season Friday, pending the resolution of litigation between the team and the city of Seattle.
The Sonics could begin playing in owner Clay Bennett's hometown as early as next season if they can get out of the remaining two years of their lease at Key Arena.
Owners voted 28-2 in favor of the move, with Dallas and Portland voting against. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has previously expressed concerns about the market size, and commissioner David Stern said the Trail Blazers, owned by Paul Allen, didn't say why they voted the way they did.
Stern said although owners understand the move from a larger market to a much smaller one, they "focused on the likelihood of success in Oklahoma City."
Seattle has filed suit trying to force the Sonics to remain in the city until the lease expires in 2010, while Bennett wants to buy out the remainder. The city already has rejected Bennett's $26 million to settle the lease dispute. A trial is set to begin in federal court June 16.
At a news conference Friday, Bennett would not say how much he was willing to offer the city but said he wants a reasonable settlement.
"Step one, I am hopeful we can re-establish communication and some sort of platform to have a meaningful, principled conversation," Bennett said. "Certainly, we're nowhere near that today."
The city's hope is to keep the Sonics in town for what would appear to be two lame duck seasons, to buy time for a group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to find an arena solution and eventually purchase the team from Bennett to keep them in town.
Ballmer's group already has proposed paying for half of a $300 million expansion of KeyArena, with the other half coming from the city and from county tax revenues.
"We know the longer they are in the Seattle, the better the chance they will stay," Mayor Greg Nickels said Thursday of the Sonics.
"I think if we had a group the caliber of one led by Steve Ballmer and we had an arena pot with $300 million available in it, the NBA would have a hard time abandoning a city that's always had pro basketball -- at least for the last 41 years," he said.
"I think the Ballmer group stepping forward was a game-changer for us," Nickels said.
Bennett is also facing a class-action lawsuit brought by season-ticket holders who say they were duped into buying tickets under the premise the Sonics wouldn't leave.
And this week former team owner Howard Schultz announced plans to sue to get the team back, saying Bennett did not make a good-faith effort to secure a new arena deal as he promised when he bought the team in 2006.
"It really doesn't feel like it's over here yet," Sonics forward Nick Collison, who owns a home up the hill from KeyArena, said before the vote was taken. "There's still a lot of things to do."