The Sacramento-Seattle NBA deal: Reading between the lines

What we can learn about the future home of the Sacramento Kings from David Stern's press conference.
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David Stern, commission of the National Basketball Association

What we can learn about the future home of the Sacramento Kings from David Stern's press conference.

Who does the NBA tell to drop dead: Steve Ballmer or Ron Burkle?

That difficult question is why NBA bosses went temporarily into a fetal position Wednesday regarding the fate of the Kings. The once-plain franchise is suddenly Angelina Jolie, Heidi Klum and Kate Upton all rolled into one purple pile of pulchritude.

In a remarkable display of public haplessness, a tired-sounding NBA Commissioner David Stern said he didn’t quite know what to do with the bids of Seattle and Sacramento in their unprecedented pursuit for a free-agent franchise.

“There is a lot at stake here for two communities and the NBA,” he said. “It is a weighty issue.”

So Stern all but postponed the vote on the relocation to some time after the originally planned April 19th vote, which was slated to take place at the Board of Governors’ regularly scheduled meeting.  The delay is significant on at least two levels:

  1. Sacramento, led by supermarket-magnate Burkle, is officially credible as a bidder.
  2. Owners already may be divided in ways unseen.

An easily overlooked remark from Stern says a lot about the impressions left after the cities made two-hour back-to-back presentations at the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan.

“Every owner seems to have different questions,” he said. That says that, in the power politics of the NBA boardroom, each bidder has friends and enemies in their quest for the same goal: Increasing the post-lockout value of each franchise.

Stern and the owners always say their plans are driven by fans’ desires. But by now, the hunt to find the last person to believe that will take longer than getting bin Laden. The NBA owners are driven by money, and want to know whether a team in Seattle or Sacramento will get them more money faster.

That’s why the post-presentation media chat by the Sactown crew was more intriguing than Seattle’s. Chris Hansen was confident and careful with his words, as was Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine. All well and good.

Sactown mayor, Kevin Johnson – the guy former Sonics coach George Karl called “Princess” during his NBA playing days – was ebullient as usual. But it was the bid’s lead investor, Vivek Ranadive, a Silicon Valley billionaire originally from India, who offered the most intriguing sales pitch of the day: NBA 3.0.

The original NBA was the pro version of the game that began in New England’s high school gyms, he said. The 2.0 version was the David Stern era that began in 1984 (blatant suck-up there).  The future of pro basketball, Ranadive said, was about three things: Technology, globalization and an agency for change.

It’s easy to dismiss the storyline as the airy dreams of a tech geek, and that may be true. But Ranadive is already a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors. He knows what plays well to his audience, nearly all of whom made their fortunes – to some degree – by looking ahead and capitalizing.

“It’s really about NBA 3.0, which is really making basketball the sport of the 21st century – what soccer was to the 20th century,” he said. “At one point [in history] China and India were two-thirds of the world’s economy, and at some point in the next couple of decades, that probably will happen again.”

“This opportunity [in Sacramento] is to bring together all of the stakeholders – fans, city and state governments, ownership and the NBA [to] create the 21st century coliseum and have the needle move on the city.”

For all we know, Steve Ballmer may have made a similar pitch to the owners, but he didn’t submit himself to media scrutiny, which was a missed opportunity.  And Ranadive’s view had nothing to do with mundane stuff, like buying up all the parcels of land for the proposed arena or fighting off litigation, or all the other things still to be done in Sacramento that give Hansen a head start in Seattle.

Anyone who has made enough money to own an NBA team didn’t do it by sweating the small stuff. And small stuff includes the popular current image of Sacramento as the potty break between San Francisco and Tahoe.  To the rest of the world,  Seattle was fishnets, sawdust and Boeing metal-benders until some cockamamie idea came about to host a World’s Fair. Perhaps you’ve heard – or lived – the rest of the story.

I don’t think anyone can forecast the outcome. For once, I will take Stern at his word that this decision is “far more complicated” than simple economics between the cities. But it is also hard to deny that things seem to be close to a dead heat.

Another thing from Stern’s remarks: Asked about the increasingly plausible notion of a solution via expansion, Stern again shot it down, saying it would be “imprudent” to add another team. This is generally true, when perhaps as many as a dozen teams will be losing money this season. The full benefits of the new collective bargaining agreement have yet to appear.

But Stern’s remarks about the expansion question began with the phrase, “right now,” and ended with the phrase, “right now.”  By the end of the month, it will no longer be “right now.”

Stern is right about expansion being “imprudent,” just as he is right that this situation is unprecedented in NBA history. But if anyone had offered the word “imprudent” to any of the owners during their previous business successes, said person would be shown the window – not the door.

Either that, or somebody gets to tell Ballmer or Burkle to drop dead. Neither of them is prone to even opening a window before putting someone through it.


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