Sacramento’s pending counteroffer for the Kings seems “certainly plausible to me, but I don’t have a vote,” Commissioner David Stern said Saturday night, but had no plans to meet with Mayor Kevin Johnson at All-Star Game weekend in Houston, where he is conducting an informal campaign among owners to reject a franchise sale to Seattle arena developer Chris Hansen.
At his 37th and final NBA All-Star Game as an officer of the league — he’s retiring a year from now — Stern offered little fresh regarding the two-city pitch for the Kings, but did say, “I don’t believe it will come down to economics,” meaning, for example, a bid of $526 million from Sacramento topping the $525 million from Seattle. But that isn’t a point of discussion, he said, because “we don’t have the predicates yet” — meaning Johnson has yet to provide the counteroffer.
“It’s going to be a tough issue for the owners to decide,” Stern said, “depending on the mayor making good on his statement that he will make an offer.”
Stern was positive about the nature of the offer from Hansen and partner Steve Ballmer. Asked if there was anything more Seattle had to do to lure the NBA, Stern replied, “Not that I’m aware of.” He said they have provided “a great and strong application from a terrific city” with a “well-financed ownership group.”
Stern saved his sharpest remark for the Sonics’ political history in Seattle. Responding to a question about his description of Seattle as a “great city” and whether it was a great city five years ago when the NBA pulled out the Sonics, Stern turned patronizing.
After saying Seattle was a great city then and now, he said, “I seem to remember, and correct me if I’m wrong, but there was $30o million-plus subsidy for the Mariners and $300 million-plus subsidy for the Seahawks,” he said. “But there was legislation that precluded that for the Sonics. Speaker (of the House of Representatives Frank) Chopp said we should get it from the players.
“History is being rewritten, so your question gives me an opportunity to set the record straight.”
Stern was referencing the 2006 vote in the city of Seattle passing Initiative 91, which mandated a small positive cash flow from pro teams leasing city facilities, specifically KeyArena. While Seattle’s NBA advocates often have focused on other people and issues that triggered the departure of the Sonics, Stern and NBA owners always took the 74 percent yes vote on I-91 as a resounding rejection of their business.
Nearly everything that happened after that vote became secondary; the NBA was ready to move. Also, Stern clearly never forgot his February 2006 trip to Olympia, where Chopp and other legislative leaders dismissed his visit and appeal for public funding.
But Saturday’s remarks also showed it is Stern who is rewriting history. While he is correct that the the Mariners’ stadium received public money from new taxes approved in 1995 by the state Legislature, and in 1997 voters statewide approved funding the Seahawks stadium with tax dollars, the Sonics were first to the public trough in 1993 when the city council approved $100 million in bonds to finance the remodel of the old Coliseum into KeyArena, which Stern then hailed as a premier venue.
Stern chooses to avoid that topic, as well as the fact that it was the NBA’s broken financial model that made KeyArena economically obsolete by the early 2000s. Unfortunately, Stern wasn’t asked about why he doesn’t remember the public funding in 1993, or the two lockouts of players required to fix the player compensation scale that made the NBA such an economic mess under his watch.
Stern seemed to dismiss another development in the Kings sale, a right of first refusal claimed by some Kings minority owners not part of the sale agreement between Hansen and the Maloof family, the majority owner: “I don’t feel it is a defining issue,” he said.
Stern was also asked whether there was a resolution to the bidding that would leave NBA fans in Seattle and Sacramento happy.
“I don’t see any scenario where both cities are happy,” he said, later saying that expansion is not in the NBA’s immediate future. He said expansion is seen by most owners right now as “neutral,” meaning that the one-time expansion fee paid by a new team to the league is balanced by the loss of shared revenue to the current 30 teams by taking on a new team.
Shortly after Stern’s press conference, Johnson spoke with reporters at the arena. He said he is spending his time in Houston lobbying team owners that Sacramento has a “competitive advantage” over Seattle because of the deal tentatively approved by the city council last spring, which included a $255 million subsidy by the city to build a new arena downtown.
Although Hansen’s planned arena in SoDo received a go-ahead from city and county councils in October, Johnson said, “Our deal was approved a year ago. We in our community don’t have lawsuits coming at us.”
The reference was to two lawsuits filed against Hansen’s plan for the arena location, one coming from the longshore union claiming negative impacts to the Port of Seattle, another from I-91 supporters who believe the deal doesn’t meet the law’s requirements.
Johnson said one owner told him this weekend: “I didn’t realize you guys were that far ahead.”
Johnson wouldn’t identify the owners with whom he met, and said he isn’t scheduled to meet with Stern, although he would try to “run into him in the hall.”
Presuming Stern takes the charge, the impact might jar his memory about the timeline of events in Seattle that, to use the word made up by Roger Clemens, Stern apparently misremembers. But that would mean taking some responsibility, which will never be recalled as a hallmark of the leadership of David Stern.