HANG TIME WEST — Suddenly, and strangely, there is pressure on the Seattle effort led by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer to close the deal to buy the Kings and deliver them to the banks of the Puget Sound as the SuperSonics reincarnated.
Strange because Hansen-Ballmer still have a lead over Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, and maybe a big lead. The Seattle group is smart, more battle-ready and has been more proactive to put KJ in a very bad position of needing to do a lot in a little amount of time. (Line up ownership, line up an arena deal, line up an arena location, the possible goal-line stand of convincing the Board of Governors to vote down an ideal opportunity in Washington state. Other than that, Johnson is all good.) This should all be about Sacramento feeling the squeeze.
Yet, Seattle is in a corner as well. Leaders of the effort there obviously know the history of the Maloof family of going far down the road on other aborted deals as owners of the Kings – the plan to move the team to Anaheim, the plan to build a new arena that would keep the team in Sacramento – and each day that passes without the For Sale sign being pulled off the front lawn puts more time on the clock for Johnson. (Whether there is a handshake deal is the source of conflicting information. Some have reported the Maloofs and Hansen-Ballmer have reached an agreement, while my stand has been consistent for nearly a week that Sacramento is still in the game.)
It goes beyond who is sitting across the table from Hansen-Ballmer, though. The bottom line of a textbook pursuit that could end in disappointment anyway is that the Seattle faction desperately needs the Kings as a central component in the real big-picture plan of a new arena and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in that. No anchor tenant, no building.
The Hornets have been sold and are staying in New Orleans. The Grizzlies have been sold and are staying in Memphis. Johnson a couple years ago had the Hawks and Pistons, among others, on his list of teams to approach as Kings replacements if the Maloofs shifted NBA operations to Anaheim; one of those teams (Pistons) have been sold and settled as well.
Hansen-Ballmer have no choice other than continue to trudge through the foggy Maloofian world they have entered, because this never has just been about buying an NBA team. That could have happened in the last couple years or the next couple, except with the franchise remaining in its current city. Seattle needs an organization on wheels, and that’s the Kings. Maybe, some around the league speculate, the Bucks at some point, but the Kings for sure, and for sure right now.
The Maloofs know all this and obviously don’t hate the leverage. They could not have been too disappointed when – oops! – word leaked they were deep in negotiations with the Seattle group, just in time to invite other bids. It cost the family the chance to revel in the look on Johnson’s face had he been blindsided by the Kings’ departure — so great is the dislike between the sides — but that could be worth more profit in the end. The Maloofs have a seller’s market.
The critical unknown is whether Hansen-Ballmer have internally set a line in the sand with a dollar sign attached. They can’t walk away from this chance because there’s no telling when the next team available for relocation will come along, but they didn’t get to be businessmen dealing in Monopoly money by making imprudent deals. Maybe the number is still far out there, knowing this is about an entire arena deal and not just the value of a franchise, or maybe the Maloofs are brushing against it now. It’s impossible to know.
Hansen-Ballmer could push away from the table and pursue an NHL team as the anchor tenant at a major savings. So much of this in Seattle, though, has been the emotional charge of the return of the NBA and the SuperSonics name, down to the green and gold uniforms and the old banners being hung from the rafters. Hockey, if it were to happen with the same plan of a couple seasons in KeyArena before moving to the new arena, wouldn’t hold the same appeal.