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Rockets agree to stay but lose lawsuit over Summit lease

GEORGE FLYNN, JULIE MASON Staff

FRI 02/28/1997 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section A, Page 1, 3 STAR Edition

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After unexpectedly signing an agreement with the city to stay in Houston for at least the next seven years, the Rockets on Thursday lost their lawsuit seeking release from their Summit lease for a possible move into a future downtown arena.

State District Judge Mark Davidson upheld the lease binding the NBA team to play all home games in the city-owned Summit through Nov. 30, 2003.

Rockets owner Les Alexander had argued that a new arena and its higher revenues are essential if the team is to remain "world-class" competitive - and perhaps remain in Houston at all.

Chuck Watson, owner of the Houston Aeros hockey team and Arena Operating Co., which runs The Summit, argued that the lease clearly commits the Rockets to play there.

Mayor Bob Lanier said he is satisfied that the city conceded nothing and gets exactly what it sought.

"All we ever wanted in the lawsuit was the assurance the Rockets would stay here through the year 2003," he said. "They said they would do that. The court entered an order. That was why we came to the `party.' "

Terms of The Summit lease allow Arena Operating to get a court order to block any threatened move by the team.

Alexander wanted those terms ruled invalid. He said Rocket Ball Ltd., the controlling Rockets' interest, would pay The Summit for any losses from an early departure, but it wanted a court to approve the exit and determine the monetary damages to be paid.

Aeros general manager Steve Patterson and other Summit officials cheered Davidson's ruling. Patterson referred to the team's pledge to stay in Houston - and the order that it stay in The Summit.

"Mr. Alexander, in fact, went 0-for-2 today," Patterson said. "The judge affirmed what we've been saying all along."

Alexander, reached Thursday night at the Rockets game, said, "The lawsuit wasn't about leaving Houston, it was about getting out of The Summit. We didn't want to be adverse to the city. And I think I made that clear."

Asked where the arena battle now will go, he replied, "I have no idea. I'm an honest man, and I really don't know where it's headed."

But team Vice President John Thomas told The Associated Press, "The only purpose of our lawsuit was to enable the Rockets to move out of The Summit into a new arena in downtown Houston. It wasn't the result we expected."

Attorneys said the ruling does not doom plans for a downtown arena for the Rockets. But it does mean the team must first negotiate an end to The Summit lease acceptable to Arena Operating.

Rockets attorney Michael Goldberg and team officials declined comment, but plan to seek a rehearing before Davidson on the legal issues.

By day's end, the legal fighting had taken on almost bizarre twists.

The city had intervened and was scheduled to argue on behalf of Arena Operating.

Lanier supported the concept of a downtown arena for the Rockets, but he did not want the franchise to escape from its binding Summit lease before any contract was signed for a new Houston home for the team. Otherwise, Alexander would be free to relocate to another city.

When court convened, City Attorney Gene Locke made the surprise announcement that Alexander had approached the city with a legal pledge to keep the team in Houston, if the city dropped its opposition to the Rockets' suit against The Summit lease.

That, Locke said, achieved the city's goal of ensuring that the Rockets stay in Houston - even if they do not play in The Summit.

Davidson accepted a judgment binding the team to that agreement, which gives the judge special powers to keep the Rockets here.

Patterson said the city saw Alexander's pledge as a "safety net" that would require the team to stay here, even if Davidson ruled The Summit lease was invalid.

Those close to the case said Alexander accepted the agreement because the city's position in the lawsuit was seen as especially strong -that Davidson might reject The Summit's position but could grant the city's motion if it remained in the case.

The unusual legal twists continued Thursday when Arena Operating - even after its victory in court - inadvertently filed a scathing countersuit against the Rockets, the city and others involved in the planning for a downtown arena.

That suit contended the defendants conspired to unlawfully breach The Summit lease and commit other wrongs against Arena Operating.

As that blistering counteraction was being processed, Arena Operating was issuing a diplomatic statement calling for everyone involved in the legal battles to "put all of this behind us" and enter a new era of cooperation.

The countersuit - intended to be filed only if Arena Operating had lost - was quickly and quietly withdrawn through a nonsuit action before the end of the day.

Lanier speculated that the Rockets management may have felt public sentiment growing sour despite back-to-back NBA championships.

"I think from a public relations point of view, they are presented in a better light if they are presented as committing to the city," Lanier said. "I think there may have been some tilt lately that maybe the Aeros are a local group and committed to staying here."

Lanier said he hopes settlement of the matter improves relations between Watson and Alexander, noting, "It could stand some improvement.

"I will be in touch with both of them, and we will try to be helpful in working out an agreement that would accommodate all the parties."

During the settlement negotiations in the Rockets' lawsuit, Lanier said, city officials purposely did not broach the issues of a new arena and which team would control a new downtown arena.

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