With the downtown basketball arena still months away from completion, its first technical foul has already been called: The city has blown the whistle on the Rockets for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Back in 1999, the original letter of agreement between the franchise and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority spelled out the terms for the primo seats desired by public officials:
"The Arena will include a suite in a location mutually agreeable to the parties dedicated for the use of visiting dignitaries and public officials for public and civic purposes without charge."
Under those rules of the game, the city and the Rockets determined that the "mutually agreeable location" would be a center-court luxury suite located between the two free-throw lines, referred to as foul lines.
However, as the 92 luxury suites began to take shape in the $202 million city-subsidized arena, the Rockets reportedly came up with a somewhat different interpretation: Between the foul lines had suddenly expanded to anywhere between the spectators' seats.
Mayor Lee Brown and friends had reason to worry that their view might not be as stellar as they'd hoped for, that the Rockets would weasel out of the promised cherry to a spot closer to the unwashed masses.
"There was a little bit of a spat," acknowledges Oliver Luck, chief operating officer for the sports authority, which oversees the arena construction and lease. "The city agreed with the Rockets that their suite would be between the foul lines, and the Rockets offered them a suite only partially between the lines."
According to Dawn Ullrich, director of the city's Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department, the Rockets first approached the city in January about moving the suite away from center court.
"They suggested some other locations and gave us a pitch for other locations, but we'd like to stick to the original agreement," says Ullrich, whose office will manage the suite.
Jordy Tollett, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, is not as measured in his tone.
"It's strictly a money thing," he says. "The suites inside the foul lines are more valuable. They offered the city a suite that was only two feet inside the 30 feet" between the foul lines. "For crying out loud, a deal is a deal. They wouldn't let us renege on the land," he says, referring to the $20 million the city gave the sports authority to purchase the arena site.
The building, which should be completed in September, will feature the luxury suites leased to various corporate interests for hefty prices. And the closer to center court, the more valuable the suite. Of course, public officials will be feeding at the trough for free. Ullrich explains that visiting dignitaries and potential business partners with local government will be some of the lucky few who get to use the suite.
"It's important to us that we portray the city in the best possible light," she says, explaining why the prime location is necessary.
The fight over the suite is not the first flurry over alleged broken promises made by the Rockets. Some of the city's minority leaders are angry that team owner Les Alexander doesn't seem to be sticking to his original promise of granting 30 percent of the work in the operation of the arena to minority, women and disadvantaged businesses.
In a presentation to the sports authority earlier this year, Rockets consultant and state Senator Rodney Ellis said the Rockets intend to operate the more lucrative food and beverage outlets in the arena and leave businesses like bulk supply to the minority vendors, producing less profit for them than Alexander originally promised (see The Insider, by Tim Fleck, April 10).
While Mayor Brown hasn't weighed in on that fight, he took the Rockets to task earlier this month over the luxury suite location, telling a reporter that he expected the franchise to play fair.
"There's no question about what they're required to do," Brown said. "I expect them to hold up their part of the contract as well. That's non-negotiable. You can't go outside of those boundaries. That will not be acceptable to me."
The mayor even hinted at legal action if the team tried to back out of the deal. If the Rockets resisted, said Brown, "I would direct my city attorney to do what's necessary to make sure they live up to their agreement."
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Rockets vice president David Carlock would not return calls about the tiff, but team general counsel Michael Goldberg thinks the situation is more smoke than fire.
"It sort of surprises me," Goldberg says of Brown's comments. "We clearly expect to honor the agreement. We have to give a suite between the foul lines."
Goldberg says the Rockets were merely suggesting that city officials might be more comfortable in a larger suite farther away, and claims there was nothing wrong with proposing such a deal.
"Our agreement had been a suite between the foul lines or another location agreed upon by the parties," he says. He added that the situation would probably be resolved next week.