Imagine in 2008 if Steve Ballmer, Jim Sinegal and partners offering $150 million in private money, were successful in getting the state to authorize public funds to help redo KeyArena for $300 million to keep the Sonics in Seattle. Next, imagine a public outcry, led by anti-subsidy activist Chris Van Dyk, over using tax dollars without a vote.
Then imagine Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett secretly funneling $100,000 to help Van Dyk’s initiative campaign succeed in creating a city ballot measure. Finally, imagine disclosure of the law violation, and the subsequent civic red-ass that would ensue for the lowdown country varmint who dared to interfere deceitfully with Seattle’s cherished process of political transparency and accountability.
In light of events, it’s not that hard to imagine, is it? That is what is so disreputable about Hansen’s foolish attempt to influence a vote in Sacramento: It’s what Bennett would have done.
Hansen’s stealthy, presumably illegal, attempt to influence a political issue in Sacramento is behavior of a kind so artfully exposed in “Sonicsgate,“ the award-winning documentary film about the Sonics’ relocation to Oklahoma City and the manipulations, prevarications and chicanery among Bennett, Howard Schultz and the NBA monopolists to achieve their desired outcome.
If a “Sonicsgate” viewer felt moral outrage at being lied to and manipulated, the same feeling should attend what Hansen attempted to do to another marketplace. Sure, there is a question of degree, but not of kind.
So please, Sonics fans, stop already with the bogus moral equivalencies. Enough with excusing Hansen’s deed by saying it’s politics as usual, or high finance as usual, or the NBA was dirtier with Seattle’s bid than Hansen was with Sacramento.
Apparently AFTER the rejection by NBA owners of his bid to buy the Kings in mid-May, Hansen had a Los Angeles law firm — one used by the dubious Maloof family that owned the team — wire his money to a Sacramento anti-arena group that was gathering signatures to have the public contribution subject to a citywide vote in June 2014.
None among Hansen, the law firm or the anti-arena group disclosed the source of the June 21 donation by the July 31 deadline. At least Hansen is not hiding behind some excuse of clerical error. In his written explainer issued Friday, Hansen said he did it — a mistake he regretted.
Yet, even in owning up, he fell short. I consider a mistake the adding two and two and getting five. This was calculated deception that came to light through basic document-checking. And regretting an action after the fact is not the same as apologizing for it, which he did not do.
It’s the kind of oily response I would expect from Bennett, NBA commissioner David Stern many other sports executives who get caught. For many Sonics fans, that is the worst part of this development — the disclosure that he is one of those guys.
Apart from the legal issue and the ethical problems, what Hansen has done is force his supporters to engage in all sorts of oral gymnastics to justify Hansen’s tactics because, well, um, he’s our guy, and he wants what we want, and he has the means and method to create an arena and buy a team.
During a visit to Seattle May 27, he did interviews with KING5 TV and KJR-AM radio in which he discussed his post-vote feelings and the future. Even he admitted to some degree of repulsion at the turn of events.
“I’m not going to wrestle (another) team away . . . be a predator,” he told KJR. “The Seattle-Sacramento fight made us all uncomfortable. It made me sick to my stomach . . . ‘How did I get myself in this position?’”
Yet he wasn’t made so ill that he couldn’t continue to seek to undermine Sacramento’s arena project to enhance his own in Seattle. Nor was he doing what he asked his supporters to do.
“I think people need to get the bad taste out of their mouths and move on,” he said. “Being resentful doesn’t get you anywhere in life. If (the opportunity to buy the Kings) never came up, the mentality would be a little better now.
“If you want the Sonics back, it’s a good time to get over the anger and frustration and show what a great city we are . . . If there’s constant anti-NBA, anti-commissioner (talk), it will hurt us. The NBA is smart — they know we wouldn’t take this well. They know Sacramento wouldn’t have taken it well if they lost. Grieving, anger and frustration is to be expected.”
Apparently, Hansen was unable to walk his talk.
There is a context here that Hansen should have appreciated. As a kid growing up in Seattle, he knew of the deceits and betrayals of pro sports owners George Argyros, Jeff Smulyan and Ken Behring, well before Bennett. He knows today about the unaccountability of the current Mariners ownership that has rendered the franchise virtually inert. He has also seen successes by the Paul Allen regime that have made the Seahawks and Sounders national stories.
Based on Hansen’s words and deeds over the past 18 months since he became a public figure, I don’t put him in the Bennett/Argyros/Smulyan/Behring class of owner with ruthless disregard for anything except money. But Hansen also demonstrated a naivete about politics that is standard for his class of wealth. Without exception, every rich guy I know who has dabbled in sports has expressed annoyance and even contempt for the headaches of dealing with government.
Fine. The solution is simple: Do the project yourself.
Hansen’s request for a $200 million loan from the city that can borrow more cheaply than he can has made him a partner in a process that requires transparency and public accountability. Typically, those characteristics are anathema to business buccaneers who work the shadows until it’s time for the IPO.
But presuming Hansen wants to maintain the deal as is, he has heavy lifting to do to rebuild his cred. I think the arena project and the return of the NBA brings value to the city. But so much of the project rode on Hansen’s relationships with politicians and fellow investors (who may require some bridge-building too, if Hansen is being honest with his claim about not informing them of his foolish donation).
For people who care about these things, there is a shadow on Hansen that threatens those relationships: Is he dumb, dishonest, naive, all or none of the above?
He needs to answer that question to the satisfaction of the electeds who burned political capital on his behalf, to partners with whom he was not candid, and to NBA owners who see what he did as an attempt to sabotage a new lodge brother, Kings owner Vivek Ranadive. Some of Hansen’s less discerning fans will always back him, but even they need help explaining why the man couldn’t follow his own instructions to them.
He needs to explain himself a lot better than he did Friday. He needs to apologize. And he needs to do something that may be impossible for him: He needs to solve the problem without throwing money at it.
At every turn, Hansen has used money to move himself and his project forward. Whether it was paying for the city’s run-up costs, improving the arena MOU requirements, increasing the purchase price of the Kings or buying a round of beers for his fans, he has spent freely and often, including a $30 million deposit for the team purchase that was supposedly nonrefundable.
In this episode, money no longer works.
He needs to pretend that, for once, there is is something of value that can’t be bought. That idea may shock his partner, Ballmer, too. Credibility has no price, but losing it has a great cost.