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Washington’s NBA chances: Silver’s the key

A break during a 2008 game at KeyArena. Credit: Colin Whittaker/Flickr

Asked what he knew of NBA commissioner-elect Adam Silver, Chris Hansen said, "He's a rational, sensible guy." If true, whew. That puts him well ahead of his predecessor, David "I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City" Stern, for whom vindictiveness is a life force.

Yes, I know: Hansen encouraged his Seattle audience on KJR radio Tuesday to get over the anger they felt toward Stern and the NBA for rejecting his bid to buy the Sacramento Kings and make them the Sonics. That's fine. Good of Hansen to help with the group therapy, and better that Hansen himself take the high road. He has no choice, really.

But the issue is not anger. The issue is fair dealing. Seattle was never going to get a fair deal from Stern. He said so Nov. 8 2007, in Phoenix when he said, of the Clay Bennett-owned Sonics, “If the team moves, there’s not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision. There’s no way the league would ever return to the city.”

Well, the Sonics left, and so far Stern has been right. But his tyranny ends next Feb. 1, when Silver takes over. Only then will there be a chance to see if Silver is, as Hansen believes, rational and sensible, ushering in a different kind of leadership.

By then, other things will have changed regarding Seattle's chances for another pro basketball team.

The proposed arena's environmental impact statement will have been released, and opponents of the SoDo location will likely be months into their lawsuits. The NBA will also be several months into a negotiation with its network partners, close to a new deal well before the current contracts' 2015-2016 expiration. And most of the NBA's money-losing teams will be a year closer to breaking-even as the effects of the 2012 collective bargaining agreement take hold.

The upshot is that, while the chances of relocating a team will be reduced to near zero, the chances for an expansion team — should Hansen prevail with the EIS — will have increased.

For Seattle, expansion will be much better than had Hansen and partner Steve Ballmer succeeded in poaching the Kings. Yes, gratification for Sonics fans will have been delayed, but the ugliness recently visited upon the two sports markets and the NBA will not have to be revisited, and Seattle will engage with a fresh team without blood on its hands.

Hansen's interview with KJR revealed that he really didn't have the ruthlessness to be predatory (his word) in extracting the Kings. Ballmer probably didn't blink, but Hansen confessed that the conflict between the cities "made me sick to my stomach," causing him to ask himself, "How did I get myself in this position?"

In hindsight, an unpleasant fight was a guaranteed minimum, and a bad outcome was forecast six years in advance by Stern. Hansen and Ballmer didn't see it coming.

From the moment the Sonics left in July 2008, the central question was whether Seattle had the chops to poach a team in the fashion of Oklahoma City's Clay Bennett. Remember, the NBA at the time was financially faltering and would have been wiser to contract than expand.

Disregarding Bennett's two dissembling years as owner in Seattle, he and Hansen had the same ultimate agenda: To take a team from another market. The hard-core Sonics fans didn't mind Hansen’s intentions, but if one can judge civic attitude from a public vote, hard-core fans are in the minority. The I-91 vote in November 2006, which required a pro sports team leasing KeyArena to return a small profit, won by a citywide plurality of 74-26.

That vote offers a clue that there's a big majority of people in town who either didn't care about, or actively opposed, the Sonics and/or pro sports. That's certainly how Stern took it. It's how Hansen took it too, because he created an arena deal that put the risk heavily on the private side instead of the public side. Hansen knew he had to win over the don't-cares and their electeds with a good deal for taxpayers.

For the don't-cares who couldn't avoid the daily drama of the Seattle-Sacramento fight, the pursuit of the Kings produced a contemptible visual: Billionaires throwing ridiculous sums of money and civic disparagements at each other in a fight over a luxury item; an argle-bargle that looked even sillier in an economy that remains in the dumpster for many.

In short, the episode didn't win over any of the undecideds.

It's hard to fault Hansen's business strategy – the Kings were the only available established team. There wouldn't be a better chance in the foreseeable future, nor was expansion on the agenda of a league coming out of a nasty lockout. As often happens, it was the unintended consequences that proved tawdry.

But the outcome at least provided something Hansen could use: Time.

Asked about expansion vs. relocation Tuesday, Hansen said, "I don't want to estimate that. We'll know more in a year which direction has a higher degree of likelihood. A new TV contract [with a proposed inclusion of Seattle in the NBA] would add value.”

"But I wasn't in the room [at the owners meeting] for any discussion of expansion. You're better off asking an owner."

Time will change nothing regarding the league's reluctance to relocate a team, and the CBA has made the need to move less attractive. Regarding expansion though, time gives the NBA owners a chance to calculate their pending TV riches, particularly in relation to sharing them with a 31st (and perhaps 32nd) partner paying a $600 million or more entry fee – the new threshold Hansen established in his desperation.

It's possible that in a year or two or three, when the NBA finally decides to expand, Silver could induce other cities to bid, again introducing competition. But the prize will be for something new, not pre-owned by people disinclined to surrender a one-of-a-kind object of passion.

And any competition will be the kind unlikely to induce stomach ache in a worldly hedge-fund manager.

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