Can messiahs retire? Guess we’ll find out when David Stern leaves the NBA commissioner’s job Feb. 1, 2014. But in order to avoid being crucified in one part of his world, he would like to turn back time to when there was a hugely successful franchise in Seattle.
Turning back time is normally the province of Superman. But let’s not mix our myths here. Stern can do it just as well.
While never apologizing, and with only a mumble of regret, Stern nevertheless knows he blew it in Seattle. Now, as he is carried around the world on a sedan chair for the next 15 months receiving the adulation of the basketball unwashed, he wants to wash some soiled sheets — not for Seattle’s sake, or any sense of justice, but for his legacy.
His mishandling of the Sonics situation is the single biggest blight on his resume, which does have numerous redeeming features. As the man in charge of the renaissance of the NBA from a league run out of the trunk of a car to world sports force, he deserves credit. Not as much as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, and not as much as Stern thinks, but the league is doing so much better on so many fronts than when the Sonics won the 1979 championship (the title series was tape-delayed for CBS broadcast at 11:30 p.m.).
Nevertheless, his belief that he was dismissed by state and local politicians during his February 2006 campaign visit to help then-owner Howard Schultz get a publicly funded arena was never forgotten. Stern’s messianic self-regard was at its apex, and five months later, the Sonics were permitted to be sold to Oklahoma City’s Clay Bennett, a man who subsequently proved he knows much about bowing and scraping (Bennett to Stern email: “You are just one of my favorite people on earth”). Ew.
But that same petty, adolescent passion for vengeance that catalyzed the Sonics’ departure now works in Seattle’s favor. Yahoo! sports writer Adrian Wojnarowski, a longtime, knowledgeable reporter on the NBA, wrote from the league meetings in New York that Stern is eager to return a team to Seattle.
That team, no surprise, is the Sacramento Kings, ostracized for much the same emotions he had for Seattle in 2006 — somebody there pissed him off. In this case, it wasn’t the politicians, it was the club’s owners, the Maloof brothers of Las Vegas casino notoriety.
In order to avoid another franchise relocation, particularly from a one-horse town of the sort that Stern prefers — no NFL or MLB competition — Stern over a span of more than three years went to great personal and financial lengths to help the Maloofs create a downtown arena that would secure the Kings; far more effort than he applied in Seattle.
At the All-Star Game in February, Stern and the Maloofs publicly celebrated a tentative deal to fund a $391 million arena that would open for the 2015-16 season in the downtown Sacramento rail yards.
Co-owner Gavin Maloof was in tears then during a joint announcement. The Sacramento City Council passed the deal in March, but by April, the Maloofs backed out, citing financial terms it considered onerous.
Stern was beyond furious. He believed he and the league had been humiliated. And Stern takes humiliation like a baby takes sandpaper diapers.
At the same time in Seattle, native son Chris Hansen was buying property, making friends and hustling up support for his arena proposal in SoDo, knowing full well the house politics in the NBA was working in his favor regarding the potential availability of the Kings. A source within the Hansen camp said there was a small shot at getting the Kings here by the start of the 2012-13 season. Arena events in Seattle did not move fast enough.
But Stern is working his sledgehammer magic now to get the Kings moving to Seattle after this season and before he retires — or at least having them on their way. Although he has met and likes Hansen, Stern has long been more impressed with one of his investors, Steve Ballmer, who runs a little software shop in Redmond.
“Stern is determined to get a franchise back into Seattle, league sources said,” Wojnarowski wrote. “He has become a strong ally of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s group to bring back the NBA there. Ballmer’s group has been trying to get the Maloof family to sell the Sacramento Kings, so that the franchise can eventually play in a new arena in Seattle.”
According to league sources, Stern’s plan for his vindication includes pressuring the Maloofs, who have adamantly refused to sell the team, to cave by freezing out the Kings from further NBA assistance as well as calling due notes from from the NBA’s line of credit. The Maloofs have reportedly borrowed many millions. And if necessary, Stern probably will doctor up unpleasant photos and tweets from the Maloofs.
Stern also will cajole Hansen and Ballmer into paying a record price for the franchise, which would give the Maloofs some cover in Sacramento by accepting an offer they couldn’t refuse, as well as helping float the boats of every existing franchise with an inflated value.
In the corporate world, that’s the sort of deal that earns and keeps the title of messiah. The league rids itself of clowns, gains participation of Microsoft, restores the Seattle market and hurts only Sacramento, where, unlike Seattle, it cannot be said that Stern didn’t make best efforts.
As Hansen and Ballmer dig deeper into their pockets while literally picking a fight with longshoremen and the baseball club over arena location, Stern flicks a little lint off his lapel, tugs at his cuffs and walks smiling into the sunset, encouraging everyone to ignore the noise behind him while they kneel to kiss his ring.
You’ve heard it’s good to be the king. Soon enough, it will be better to be Kings owners, and best to be the messiah.