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

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

Watching Stern and the owners over a long period, I've adopted a rule of thumb. Dealing with them is like dealing with Donald Trump. Expect nothing but crass and smarmy.

Even as the process has moved along, Stern has been quoted publicly with snarky comments about Seattle's failure to build — on NBA demand — a new arena with public funds prior to the Sonics' move to Oklahoma City.

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. Every bone in their bodies must make them want to tell Stern to stuff it and talk to their lawyers. If you truly love NBA basketball (as I once did, being a longtime D.C. season-ticket holder), you may be willing to stick in there and put up with Stern and Co.'s delays and diversions. But it seems degrading to do so.

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