SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Speculation and news reports gave way to certainty Monday morning as the NBA and both parties involved in the transaction announced an agreement has been reached to sell controlling interest in the Kings to a group that plans to move the team to Seattle for the start of next season.
Chris Hansen, the leader of the Seattle efforts along with Steve Ballmer, said in a statement that they had reached a “binding agreement” with the Maloof family that owns 53 percent of the Kings. Similarly brief announcements from the league and the Maloofs did not choose the same wording, a slight surprise since it would figure the releases from Hansen-Ballmer and the Maloofs would be coordinated after passing through lawyers’ microscopes. But is little more than semantics.
The unvarnished truth by any terminology: The Kings have been sold and will play their final game ever in Sacramento on April 17 unless the Board of Governors unexpectedly votes down the purchase.
Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson will push forward and within days could announce an ownership group as part of a final appeal to the league to keep the team in town. He will press on with plans for a downtown arena, having said for years that the city needs a new entertainment complex whether the Kings are part of the future or not. Commissioner David Stern has promised Johnson the chance to address the Board of Governors before a vote on the sale, a direct appeal that will probably come in April.
In the meantime, Johnson will have to lobby the BoG – one representative from every team, usually the owner but occasionally a high-ranking club official as proxy for the owner – for a historic comeback. This will not be the former All-Star point guard trying to fend off advances from Anaheim a couple seasons ago, what would have been a winnable fight amid resistance around the league for a third team in the Los Angeles market. This will not be noting the imperfections of other locations the Maloofs flirted with in recent years.
There is nothing not to like about the Seattle bid. Corporate backing at an international level, population base, history as a sports market, owners that by all appearances have very deep pockets, a new arena planned – the Emerald City checks all the boxes. That’s a real problem for any Sacramento comeback.
Johnson will be pushing owners to ignore all that on the speculation of what may be in the California capital, based on what was 10 years ago. He will ask the Board to turn down a city most everyone wants back in the NBA. He will be telling the BoG to vote for Sacramento by voting against Seattle.
In short, it is almost impossible to imagine Johnson finding enough sympathy.
When previous ownership changes have fallen apart, the finances were usually not in order. It is reasonable to think in this case that Stern would not have allowed the Seattle bid to get this far without a strong sense that Hansen and Ballmer could pass the requisite background checks.
The transition from the Maloofs to Hansen-Ballmer will move forward even as Sacramento counter-punches. The Seattle group will file for relocation by March 1 and Johnson will be down to hoping the league will first void the Hansen-Ballmer deal and then be able to force the Maloofs to sell to Northern California interests.
(Never say never, but consider precedence: If Stern had been able to dictate ownership sales before, he wouldn’t have waited until 2013 to hit the button.)
A couple other points as this moves forward:
- It is fitting to note that the man who heads the relocation committee, Thunder owner Clay Bennett, is the same man who took the SuperSonics from Seattle in the first place. Don’t attach too much actual meaning, though. Seattle as a destination – apart from whatever maneuvering transpires on other levels – gets approved no matter who chairs the committee.
- Don’t take Johnson’s statement Sunday night, that he wants the Kings to be “the NBA equivalent of what the Green Bay Packers have been in the NFL,” too literally. Johnson has enough to do to line up a conventional ownership plan for a last-minute reprieve from the BoG. As the mayor knows, there is no time to organize a Packer-like plan for fans to have ownership. His reference can only be read as hope that the Kings could remain to Sacramento what the Packers are to Green Bay, part of the fabric of their respective small markets. It can’t mean a call to arms to duplicate the Green Bay structure.