If you’re a Sonics fan nursing a boot-print bruise on your butt, keep in mind the one adjective that has always prevailed in this soul-sapping drama regarding the NBA Kings:
From nowhere came Chris Hansen to put $70 million of his own money into SoDo property, plus millions more in private money from Steve Ballmer, the Nordstroms and others to put into an arena project. From a block further than nowhere came Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s whale round-up, as well as an arena plan. From a labor lockout came a collective bargaining agreement that offered the possibility of break-even operations for every NBA team in its market, drying up the pool of available teams.
These unlikely developments arrived simultaneously upon a franchise that had no remaining arena lease, in a city desperate for national validation and in a sport governed by a commissioner in the last of a 30-year tenure.
Delighted by the rising value of his franchises — Job One for any sports commissioner — but looking at another potential ugly relocation, Commissioner David Stern gave every chance for Sacramento to match the record Hansen bid. For one reason: He didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.
Rather than screw over a second city with relocation, he has screwed over, at least temporarily, the same city twice.
At worst, he figures he can live the rest of his days with never getting a drink brought for him in Seattle.
The 7-0 vote Monday by the relocation committee (not including the five members of the finance committee) to recommend to the Board of Governors that the Kings be kept in Sacramento is a logical outcome, if the premise is accepted that what was done in 2008 in allowing the move of the Sonics to Oklahoma City — no relocated team in NBA history had a longer tenure in its original city than the Sonics’ 41 years in Seattle — was wrong.
Who in Seattle can argue with that?
The fact that the NBA found no significant flaws in the proposal by Hansen, and was the better financial deal, was never going to be enough to trump Sacramento’s incumbency — as long as the counteroffer came close. Thanks to Stern’s persistent scolding, wheedling and cajoling, the fate of the Kings became a crusade locally and statewide for California politicians and rich guys who indeed made a big effort, because they saw a chance for the capital city to be something other than a backwater.
The only remaining question: Is the effort close enough?
As one member of the Seattle bidding group told me Monday: “It’s not over.”
The source confirmed what Ballmer told KJR radio’s Mitch Levy off-air by phone Monday, that he was “horribly, horribly disappointed” in the NBA. “But he used different words,” said the source, laughing lightly, leaving undescribed the notorious Ballmer temper.
Truth was, Ballmer, Hansen and their crew were blown away, so certain were they that the Seattle bid was superior, while the Sacramento bidders were riven by conflicts, disarray and an arena plan that that wasn’t even dough, much less baked. As late as Friday, according to USA Today, the NBA was talking to the bidders about putting in escrow a substantial deposit by next Friday, May 3 — as much as 20 percent of their valuation, a number that still has not been disclosed.
That would be somewhere close to $50 million in cash, which would seem within reach of the wealthy group. But as far as has been disclosed, Sacramento still hasn’t committed sufficient cash, despite numerous missed deadlines and Stern’s earnest efforts to move the goalposts on their behalf.
That’s probably why the normally exuberant mayor sounded cautious Monday afternoon, where he addressed an impromptu crowd at a press conference in a downtown bar.
“It is not over yet,” Johnson said. “I feel like we have won a round in the playoffs . . . There is still work to be done. We do not want to dance in the end zone.”
After the emotion of Monday’s decision dissipates, the Hansen group will meet to strategize, the Sacramento group will have to man up at the ATM, and the NBA will have to assess whether it is logical to now consider a response to Seattle, which could include expansion.
Yes, expansion. Despite Ballmer telling Levy that the owners have told him expansion is not on the table, why would it have been if the Kings were still in play for Seattle? Now that relocation is apparently not an option, it serves the NBA’s interests to keep Hansen/Ballmer engaged.
Why? Because Sacramento could still screw it up. If the holes in Sacramento’s ownership and arena plan are as numerous as Seattle bidders claim, and the Friday deadline is actually real, the owners need a fallback position — Seattle. That’s part of why the NBA by-laws mandate a minimum seven-day window of deliberations in these matters, and why Johnson himself said it isn’t over.
Is this sequence of events a little unlikely? Of course. What in this saga hasn’t been unlikely?
The only thing the Monday vote did was recommend denial of relocation if both bids were competitive. If Sacramento fails to perform, the NBA has an alternative in Seattle, and Stern has cover. He can say to the Sactowners: I grew your food, made it into groceries and created the meal, and I’ll be damned if I’ll chew it for you and swallow, too.
If Sacramento does deliver, then there remains time before the vote the week of May 13 to consider Seattle for expansion following next season. Monday’s vote had one agenda item, and it wasn’t expansion. Up until Monday, there has been absolutely no reason for the NBA to have formally considered expansion, and there won’t be until Sacramento has secured its bid.
Stern has given clues all along, repeatedly saying, in answer to the same question, expansion is not under consideration “right now.” He has also said nothing but positive things about the Seattle bidders and the arena project. But he has had to keep feet on the throats of both bidders in order to get the highest return.
Yes, Seattle is being used, just as the NFL has used for 18 years a vacant Los Angeles market to blackmail other balky municipalities with NFL teams. It is not yet being thrown away.
If the scenario seems far-fetched, remember the word that describes the entire affair: Unprecedented.