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Gloria Bailey cheers Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson during a news conference Monday in Sacramento. Johnson cautioned, “We do not want to dance in the end zone. We do not want to celebrate prematurely.”
The league’s Relocation Committee has unanimously recommended that the NBA Board of Governors deny the application of the Sacramento Kings to relocate to Seattle.
By Bob Condotta, The Seattle Times
The NBA lowered an emphatic boom Monday on Seattle’s hopes of bringing the Sonics back, as the league’s Relocation Committee unanimously recommended that the Sacramento Kings not be allowed to relocate.
The recommendation of the seven-person committee will be forwarded to the NBA Board of Governors for a vote in the week of May 13. It is expected the board will follow the recommendation of the committee and deny the request of the Kings to move to Seattle.
That puts a halt, for now, to Chris Hansen’s nearly three-year quest to bring the NBA back to town.
But Hansen, who leads a group that reached an agreement in January to buy the Kings from the team’s owners, the Maloof family, released a statement Monday night saying the battle is not over.
“We have a binding transaction to purchase the Kings for what would be a record price for an NBA franchise,” Hansen’s statement read, “have one of the best ownership groups ever assembled to purchase a professional sports team in the U.S., have clearly demonstrated that we have a much more solid Arena plan, have offered a much higher price than the yet to be finalized Sacramento Group, and have placed all of the funds to close the transaction into escrow. As such, we plan to unequivocally state our case for both relocation and our plan to move forward with the transaction to the league and owners at the upcoming Board of Governor’s Meeting in Mid-May.
“When we started this process everyone thought it was impossible. While this represents yet another obstacle to achieving our goal, I just wanted to reassure all of you that we have numerous options at our disposal and have absolutely no plans to give up. Impossible is nothing but a state of mind.’’
Hansen made an aggressive move for the team, offering $357 million for 65 percent of a total valuation of $550 million that was the most ever bid for an NBA franchise.
The sale, and a later request for relocation, needed approval of the NBA Board of Governors to become official, however, and that gave Sacramento time to mount a counteroffer that ultimately kept the Kings where they have played since 1985.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said in an interview on NBA-TV that the Seattle bid was “very strong” but that “there is some benefit that should be given to a city that has supported us for so long and has stepped up to contribute to a new building, as well.”
The new building in Sacramento came as a result of a dogged effort led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former three-time NBA All-Star who made it a priority to keep the team there.
“I still think Seattle is deserving of an NBA team,” Johnson said Monday. “Just not ours.”
Stern had also said his preference was to not relocate a team, and his support for Sacramento’s offer was likely a critical part of the team staying.
Stern was seen as helping Sacramento revamp its ownership group — now led by Vivek Ranadive, a co-owner of the Golden State Warriors — to get into position to make a bid that could keep the team.
Johnson numerous times had said a key selling point of Sacramento’s bid was that the local government had “stepped up” every time it had been asked to in recent years, specifically in helping fund arenas. Sacramento’s plan for a $447 million arena includes $258 million in public money.
“I know this doesn’t mollify the anger, but I think this decision was really about Sacramento and not Seattle,” said Michael McCann, a sports legal expert and an on-air analyst for NBA.com. “I think it was an affirmation of Sacramento, and the significance of that, I believe, is that Seattle is still well-positioned for an NBA team.”
While many regarded Monday’s news as pretty much ending the battle over the Kings, USA Today reported that the new Sacramento ownership group has been asked to put 50 percent of the purchase price into escrow by Friday. Also, the Maloof family still has a binding agreement to sell the team to Hansen’s group — which included a $30 million nonrefundable deposit by Hansen — and doesn’t have to sell the team to the Sacramento group.
A Maloof family spokesman said Monday the family has no comment.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, one of the Hansen group’s investors, was quoted by KJR-AM saying he was “horribly, horribly disappointed” at the news.
It’s unclear, though, what happens now with Hansen’s effort to bring back the NBA to Seattle. The city has been without a team since the Sonics left for Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season.
Stern repeated in his NBA-TV interview his long-held stance that expansion is not an option.
“All I can say is that discussion will have to wait for commissioner (Adam) Silver (who is taking over when Stern retires Feb. 1) to oversee,” Stern said. “Right now, expansion is not on the agenda, but I would never say never. We will see what happens. It doesn’t make a lot of sense unless we know what the new TV deal is.”
The NBA’s national TV contracts expire after the 2015-16 season.
Hansen had targeted the Kings because they were seen as the team that might be the most vulnerable, with an aging and small arena, built in 1988, and an ownership group that had attempted previously to move the team.
McCann said “there’s no obvious other team” available. If there might be one, McCann pointed to the Milwaukee Bucks, whose arena also dates to 1988. However, the team has a lease through 2017, with reports that a new arena plan will be developed by then. And Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl, a former U.S. senator, is a Milwaukee native who is unlikely to sell the team to someone who would move it.
NBA.com, meanwhile, reported that legal action against the league “is a near impossibility, given that the NBA requires prospective owners to sign agreements that prohibit them from taking legal action if their bids are denied.” It further reported that “a source with knowledge of Hansen’s group’s plans said Sunday that the group had never thought about taking any legal action if it lost.”
While there was much celebrating in Sacramento — Johnson scheduled a 5 p.m. rally downtown — there was consternation among Seattle officials who had worked hard to push through the arena deal. Under the terms of the deal with the city of Seattle and King County, Hansen has until Dec. 3, 2017, to secure a team.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said, “I was disappointed. I was hopeful that today would go well.”
In a brief statement, he said he is proud of Sonics fans and their work to get Seattle a team.
“We’re going to stay focused on our job: making sure Seattle remains in a position to get a team when the opportunity presents itself,” he wrote.
The mayor has perhaps the most at stake politically if an arena deal stalls. Making a deal with the Hansen investment team is one of the most high-profile accomplishments of his first term.
McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine each attended a presentation made by the Seattle group to the NBA Board of Governors in New York on April 3 to state the case for the city.
Constantine said in a statement that he will continue to work to return the NBA.
“I’m disappointed, but undeterred in our quest to bring NBA basketball back to the Pacific Northwest,’’ he said. “Today’s decision doesn’t mean this effort is over. From what I saw at the presentation in New York, Chris Hansen and his team have made the superior offer and the best pure business case for the NBA to return to Seattle.’’
In a twist that surely only deepened the wound for Seattle basketball fans, the chairman of the committee who voted Monday was Clay Bennett, who bought the Sonics in 2006 and two years later moved them to Oklahoma City. The others who voted Monday were Peter Holt (Spurs), Herb Simon (Pacers), Glen Taylor (Timberwolves), Greg Miller (Jazz), Ted Leonsis (Wizards) and Micky Arison (Heat).
The Board of Governors vote had initially been expected to come April 19 in New York. But Stern said then the league needed more time to evaluate the situation. Many speculated that also helped buy Sacramento more time to get its proposal solidified.
“If the vote was two weeks ago, I bet it was not unanimous,” McCann said. “I think the league likes to rally around one vote, and I don’t think the league was ready for that two weeks ago.”
Hansen’s quest to bring the NBA back began roughly three years ago when he began quietly buying up land in the Sodo District. Hansen first let the city of Seattle know about his plans in June 2011, and the first public notice came in December 2011.
Hansen, who grew up in Rainier Valley, has said a seminal moment of his life came in 1979, when he was 11 years old and the Sonics won their only NBA championship. It still is the only championship for a Seattle team in one of the three major pro sports.
Hansen, now a hedge-fund manager who works out of San Francisco, wasn’t in a financial position to make a bid for the Sonics when they were bought in 2006 by Bennett.
Hansen not only put together an ownership group that included Ballmer, but also helped power through an arena deal approved by King County and the city of Seattle. The $490 million project for an arena in Sodo would have included $290 million in private money. Hansen also agreed to make improvements to KeyArena for the team’s stay there.