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The NBA: A league full of leaders as crass as Donald Trump

It takes a real love of pro basketball to put up with David Stern and the NBA owners. More credit to Hansen, Ballmer, McGinn and Constantine for doing so.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, speaking at Fortune Magazine's Brainstorm Tech 2012 conference

NBA Commissioner David Stern, speaking at Fortune Magazine's Brainstorm Tech 2012 conference Credit: Kevin Maloney/Fortune Brainstorm Tech

Each time any issue involving Seattle and the National Basketball Association arises, I think immediately of a drop-in visit I made in 1975 at the offices in New York of Larry O'Brien, a longtime Democratic adviser and party chairman, shortly after he had been named commissioner of the NBA.

O'Brien sat with his feet up behind a completely empty desk. I had the impression he was pleased to have a visitor.

"This is a good job," O'Brien said, "except for one thing. The NBA owners, with a couple exceptions, such as our friend Abe Pollin (then owner of the Washington, D.C. team), are the biggest collection of jerks I've ever encountered."

The league's championship trophy is called the O'Brien Trophy. His counsel during O'Brien's tenure was David Stern, who frequently has claimed public credit for the league's progress during O'Brien's tenure.

Keep that in mind as Stern, O'Brien successor in 1986, now enters his last year as commissioner presiding over the Chris Hansen/Steve Ballmer group's attempt to purchase the Sacramento Kings and move the franchise into a new state-of-the-art arena south of Safeco Field.

Stern, when he became commissioner, instituted a draft "lottery" in which a drawing was held at the end of each season to determine which teams would have the first draft choices among incoming players. The New York Knicks, the league's cornerstone franchise, at that time lacked a center. Voila: The Knicks won the initial lottery under the Stern regime and chose Patrick Ewing, who would be their star center and restore the team's competitiveness for years ahead.

A few years later the Cleveland franchise was hurting and near bankruptcy. Voila: The team won the lottery and picked LeBron James, a local star, who would bring the franchise back from the financial brink.

All coincidence, of course. 

Seattle's Hansen/Ballmer group has put in nearly two non-stop years of expenditure and effort to frame a record financial bid for the Kings. City and county support has been mobilized. A purchase agreement was reached with the Maloof brothers, the current Kings majority owners. All was ready for the return of an NBA franchise to Seattle, the country's 12th largest market and one which had handsomely supported the SuperSonics before their abrupt Stern-brokered departure for Oklahoma City five years ago.

But wait. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA point guard, began putting together a last-minute bidding group to compete with the Seattle bidders and keep the team in Sacramento. Stern publicly announced that the Sacramento group was undercapitalized for competition with Hansen/Ballmer. He then found a major investor, now a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors and a particular friend of Stern's, to join the Sacramento group. He announced that the bidding had become so complicated that Friday's scheduled decision by owners on a Kings purchase would have to be deferred.

NBA media watchers say that Stern has told them that he can count on a majority of owners to vote his way on a Kings' sale.

Seattle media, for the most part, have covered Stern's statements, and the reported NBA decision process, as if they were credible and serious. After all, the story line goes, the owners do not want to move another franchise from one city to another (the Kings have moved four times in their existence).

This gives Stern and NBA owners credit they have not earned. The owners, needless to say, have an interest in getting the biggest purchase price and "relocation fee," if the team moves, that they can get. If they decide, in the end, to leave the current Kings in Sacramento, then they likely will offer the Seattle group an expansion franchise a couple years down the road — but, no doubt, at the same price it would have paid for the Kings.

They also must ponder, of course, the precedent that would be set if the Maloofs, the current majority owners, were denied permission to sell to buyers with whom they had reached a firm agreement.  Could this happen in future to any of them?   They also must worry about the threat of a lawsuit brought by either of the two groups if they considered the decision to be made unfairly or not in good faith.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Apr 19, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

"Expect nothing but crass and smarmy." Oh please, Ted. I'm sure Seattle's owners would be the only ones not so. Get real!!! There is no Seattle "exceptionalism."egnif

Posted Fri, Apr 19, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

By your previous comments, Swifty, you present yourself as a knowledgeable and worldly guy. You are quite right that there are crass and smarmy folk in Seattle. Some would even put the last Sonics ownership in that category.

However,it also is true that organizations all have characteristics of their own, usually reflecting the values of the people running them.
I have little doubt that, if you ranked major professional sports leagues on their reputations for integrity, the NBA would fall well below MLB, the NFL, and NHL. I mentioned the draft "lotteries" which fell under suspicion. There have been others which awarded high picks to teams which just happened to need certain players at a certain time.
A few years back there were questions raised about the integrity of on-court NBA officiating during playoff games. I have more confidence in the NBA's integrity than that of profesional wrestling and boxing but
that's about it.

Posted Fri, Apr 19, 3:36 p.m. Inappropriate

"NBA media watchers say that Stern has told them that he can count on a majority of owners to vote his way on a Kings' sale."

Wow. That's quite the statement, Ted. Care to elaborate? Who exactly are these "NBA media watchers" with such great access to Stern, and how do they know, definitively, something no one else seems to know, and which Stern specifically, vehemently denied as recently as today? Sports-talk radio hosts? People in the Psychic Friends Network? Not challenging the truth of the matter here, just curious about the source of this interesting fact.

BTW, there's an easy way to avoid stuff that "seems degrading:" Don't do it. It is, in fact, a common trait of people with some degree of integrity.

rjudd

Posted Fri, Apr 19, 7:29 p.m. Inappropriate

rjudd: Lots of vehemence here. I saw in a couple national-origin pieces that Stern had made such a statement. Had I not, I would not have written it. I put as much credence in Stern's denial of same as I would any statement he might make.

I agree with you about stuff that seems degrading. I try to stay away from it. However, the Seattle bidding group apparently is sufficiently comnmitted to an NBA franchise that they're willing to
grind their way through it. I'm both rooting for them and sympathize with them. By the way, if rjudd is Ron Judd, I am a great fan of your Sunday Times column.

Posted Fri, Apr 19, 8:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Ted,

Thanks. Sorry for the vehemence. I just found that reference amusing because I have also seen "insiders" who have written the direct opposite -- that Stern is/was on a mission to right the wrong of the Sonics debacle by making sure a team goes back to the NW. I'm not sure anyone has full comprehension of what goes on in that reptilian brain, and I don't waste much time wondering.

I sense that your heart is in the right place here. But I don't get the logic flow: Stern and the NBA are at best a bunch of liars and at worst downright corrupt, and by the way, good on not only Hansen and Ballmer, but McGinn and Constantine for holding their noses and jumping right back in bed with them. That might be behavior expected of private citizens who have so much money they're willing to throw big chunks of it toward guys who can't master a bounce pass. But it's a different matter if that "bidding group" is extended to include a pair of public servants representing a population still clearly less willing to hold its nose and plunge forward -- especially when public money is (unnecessarily) involved.

I was pleased that you acknowledged that it was degrading, something it seems a lot of other people feel, but can't seem to admit.
Ron

rjudd

Posted Sat, Apr 20, 2:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Ron: I've watched Stern too closely for too many years to believe the line that he wants to "right the wrong of the Sonics debacle by making sure a team goes back to the NW." I suspect you don't believe it either. This guy has a long history of being petty and vindictive.
And I heard him, in his own voice, express in a recent radio interview his continuing anger at Seattle for not ponying up what he considered sufficient tax dollars to build a Key Arena replacement five years ago.

I don't like public money being used to subsidize a sports franchise.
But the subsidy in this case is far smaller than that extended, for example, to the Mariners and, for that matter, to major-sport franchises in just about every major U.S. city.

The NBA has managed to spoil my lifelong interest in pro basketball. I don't even watch the playoffs anymore. But I recognize that many people in our region continue to love the sport and their Sonics. If Hansen/Ballmer et. al. are prepared to wade through nonsense in order to secure a team---without unduly burdening taxpayers---I respect their effort and that of the elected officials signing on. i also welcome the prospect of an NHL franchise here. That is a sport worth watching and still unspoiled.

I get angry at the same elected officials, by the way, for wastage of far greater tax dollars on special-interest boondoggles hereabouts.
But that is another subject for other pieces, some of which I've already written over the past dozen years.

Posted Fri, Apr 19, 5:34 p.m. Inappropriate

"..like dealing with Donald Trump." I have to ask, does Donald Trump really deserve this comparison?

kieth

Posted Sat, Apr 20, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Stick to the facts that matter.

1) The NBA is a business created for the sole purpose of squeezing every dime possible out of any community that hosts a team.
2) Hansen and Ballmer are not heroes. They are extremely wealthy businessmen skilled at using weak-kneed politicians for their own profit.
3) McGinn and Constantine are spineless bootlickers who are using public resources to subsidize the business venture of two obscenely wealthy parasites who could easily finance the entire Sonics venture out of their pocket change.
4) What does this sentence "More credit to Chris Hansen, Steve Ballmer, Mayor Mike McGinn, County Executive Dow Constantine and others locally for hanging in with the record, generous franchise bid." say about Mr Van Dyk's powers of analysis? His willingness to go beyond the usual media bootlicking of the rich?
5) Crosscut can do better than this. The boot licking media niche is already well filled by the Seattle Times.

Posted Sat, Apr 20, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

JohnDrabble got it exactly right. Great comment.

Seattle is embarrassing itself with it's current begging of the NBA to move the Kings here, and with it's $200 million in tax subsidies for one of the wealthiest people in the world, Steve Ballmer.

One of Seattle's proudest moments was when it told the NBA to go bleep itself and refused to use tax revenues to build a new arena here. Now McGinn and Constantine have humiliated Seattle and turned this attempt to bring the NBA back to Seattle into a pathetic, unseemly spectacle.

Lincoln

Posted Sat, Apr 20, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

"Crass and smarmy" is a perfect description of Constantine and McGinn.

Lincoln

Posted Sat, Apr 20, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Well Lincoln-as long as you're quoting Mr Van Dyk I'll go with his statement "it also is true that organizations all have characteristics of their own, usually reflecting the values of the people running them" to describe local media-specifically the Seattle Times and to a lesser extent Crosscut which is always involved, it seems to me, in promoting these corporate welfare deals. There is a wealthy elite who runs this town and there is a media that exists, in part, to promote their interests.

Note that Mr Van Dyk admits he doesn't "like public money being used to subsidize a sports franchise. But then does his duty as a local media figure by writing that "the subsidy in this case is far smaller than that extended, for example, to the Mariners and, for that matter, to major-sport franchises in just about every major U.S. city." He would have us be grateful, like a victim of rape, that the rapist had a small penis.

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