Seattle v. NBA: How the Sacramento Kings were won

Wednesday's move made it clear just what a shifty game the NBA and the Maloofs are playing with two desperate West Coast cities.
Crosscut archive image.

David Stern, commission of the National Basketball Association

Wednesday's move made it clear just what a shifty game the NBA and the Maloofs are playing with two desperate West Coast cities.


My guess is Sacramento longs for the old days, when real-life drama extended only as far as Gov. Schwarzenegger and his housekeeper. Couldn't understand that either, but at least the plot line was familiar.

This business of savings the NBA Kings . . . well, there's been nothing quite like it in sports. Even the effort to save the Sonics in 2008 was pedestrian compared to this net-free, high-wire act.Crosscut archive image.

The latest is that the Maloof family – the owner of the Kings with a deal to sell the team to Seattle investor Chris Hansen – emerged from its self-imposed sarcophagus Wednesday to put a figurative gun to the heads of Mayor Kevin Johnson and his investor pals (whomever they may be at the moment). "Give us proof your offer is legit by 5 p.m. Friday, or we kill you dead."

At last that was the essence of a Wednesday report by the Sacramento Bee, citing an unnamed tipster. Whether the threat is a) true b) enforceable c) another sly, Machiavellian manipulation by the NBA, or d) the final word on the competition, is not clear. Johnson, as is his habit, is acting as mall security cop, telling people staring at the broken display window that there's nothing to see here. Please move along.

And by the way, the Kings are 27-50 and riding a four-game losing streak and the most-overvalued entertainment value since Milli Vanilli. But that's another column.

Let's hit the refresh button:

After hearing presentations by both sides April 3, the NBA is scheduled to vote on competing offers for the team April 19 at an owners meeting in New York. After the first meeting though, a weary-looking NBA commissioner, David Stern, said the issue was unprecedented, weighty and complicated, and because of that, the vote might be delayed.

Three weeks earlier, Stern publicly scolded the Sacramento effort, saying a "substantial variance" existed and if the offer didn't improve, "it would not even be considered." The Sactown wealthies apparently responded because, in answer to a question April 3, Stern said that the difference in value was no longer an issue.

But that was before lead investor Ron Burkle backed out Monday. Burkle cited a conflict of interest with his investment in an entertainment company, Relativity Media, which is also the fourth-largest athlete agency in the the U.S., representing more than 50 NBA players. NBA by-laws say a team owner can have no affliliation with players' agents or financial interests.

With Burkle suddenly out of franchise ownership as well as arena planning (even though his involvement with Relativity was public record and frequently newsworthy), Johnson introduced a new investor Tuesday: Real estate developer Mark Friedman, whose family apparently leads Sactown in tycoonery. Johnson claimed that Friedman had been wanting to get into ownership all along, and Burkle's abrupt departure was coincidence.

Right. And Mariners rookie pitcher Brandon Maurer meant to give up six runs in two innings Tuesday to the Houston Astros.

That brings us to Wednesday, and the Maloofs' sudden extortion play. Here's my guess: The NBA, already groaning after threatening Sactown once, told the Maloofs that, if they wanted the bloated franchise price, they would have to go get it themselves. The Maloofs said, "Yeah, we'd like to pistol-whip KJ and his pals."

People in Sacramento, who have followed the Kings saga for years, say that the Maloofs have hated Burkle ever since 2011. That’s when he stepped in uninvited and made an offer to buy the Kings, which gave Stern the leverage to stop the Maloofs' sale of the Kings to a group that would have moved the franchise to Anaheim. There is a strong belief that the Maloofs would never sell the team to anyone associated with Burkle. 

Now that he is out of the picture though, the Maloofs have insufficient personal animus to preclude a sale to Sacramento. Cash is now cash again.

One of the most astute saga-followers is Marcus Breton, longtime Bee columnist who wrote this Wednesday: "NBA owners are nothing if not hypersensitive to the wishes and desires of fellow owners. The Maloofs are said to be very motivated to sell the Kings to Seattle interests. But with Burkle out, the Maloofs can't pull the 'disrespected card' that they have dropped around Sacramento at every turn for years.

"Stern already said that the Maloofs have a say in the sale of the team, but not where the team resides. It's up to Stern to make sure that the Sacramento group can make the Maloofs whole – and it seems that everyone agrees that it can."

As the Maloof threat pertains to Hansen and Seattle, it appears that the NBA is doing everything it can to push Sacramento into presentability in order to deny Hansen. Stern has repeatedly demanded that the Sactowners tuck in the shirt, zip the trousers, tie the shoes and run a comb through the raggedy mop. Otherwise it's no Kings for them.

If Sactown provides proper documentation to the Maloofs of their offer, The Bee reported Wednesday, the Maloofs will consider it "a serious back-up proposal" if the NBA turns down Hansen. The Bee's source declined further comment about who issued the ultimatum, when, or why.

The threat represents the first public peep from the Maloofs about the deal. Even though Maloof family spokesman Eric Rose told the newspaper, "Our policy is not to negotiate in public," they sure as hell just did.

If you are a Sonics fan interested enough to make it this far, the conclusion is unsettling: The NBA is using Seattle's offer to force Sacramento into all manner of hasty agreements and actions. All of which are designed to not only keep the team there, but inflate the values of all NBA franchises by setting a floor of $525 million (Hansen's offer) for the plainest among them.

Here is the easiest way to understand the current tangle: Seattle desires an NBA team. Sacramento needs an NBA team.

Seattle, from an NBA perspective, can wait. The needy will do anything to avoid getting shot.


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