Why Chris Hansen keeps fighting for a Seattle NBA team

The NBA thrives on holding leverage over city governments. But it may not hold all the power.
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Chris Hansen, left, with Mayor Mike McGinn during a press event.

The NBA thrives on holding leverage over city governments. But it may not hold all the power.

Responding to a question about whether Wednesday’s vote by owners wiped out Seattle’s future ability to create momentum for pursuing another team, NBA Commissioner David Stern said something intriguing.

“Seattle,” he said, “will always act in its best interests.”

Spoken like the insincere, unctuous monopolist that he is. Stern used a high-minded phrase to disguise his true meaning, which was that the entire moss-caked culture will, from his view, always screw it up.

But it's not the full Charlie Brown, because Seattle gets in its kicks. Stern and NBA just keep moving the goalposts.

By a 22-8 vote of owners Wednesday who met for four hours in a Dallas hotel, Seattle was handed its hat a second time in five years by the NBA despite, in Stern's words, "Chris Hansen doing everything he could have done." So what, then, was the point of the exercise?

To push Sacramento to do what Seattle did not do in 2008 — gather wealthy local ownership to buy a franchise that can force construction of a new NBA arena with a large amount of public funds the municipality can little afford. And as side benefit, inflate the equity appreciation of the other 29 franchises.

Well done, Mr. Hansen. And the reward for being used? A commitment to an expansion team, right?


“Just our promise of fair dealing," said Stern, "and ultimate consideration on our part.”

Whoo. Hoo. That and $3 won't even get service at Howard Schultz's little coffee shop.

The fact that none of this can be a surprise does not lessen the emotional impact for fans of Seattle pro hoops, not to mention for Hansen and his buddy, Steve Ballmer, who have invested a little more than emotion. Which helps explain why Hansen, responding with cool defiance on his website sonicsarena.com after the vote, wrote that he "looks forward to hearing back on our agreement to join the Maloofs as limited partners in the Kings."

That refers to his "backup" deal announced Saturday, in anticipation of being denied relocation, to buy 20 percent of the franchise from the owners, the Maloof family, for $115 million, as they continue to operate the team in Sactown.

Stern, on the other hand, believes the Maloof family will come to their few senses and sell their 65 percent share of the team to the Sacramento group led by Vivek Ranadive for $341 million, instead of the $406 million offered by Hansen. Apparently, the Maloofs are as dim as everyone keeps saying.

"It is my expectation that we'll be able to make a deal with the Maloofs and the Ranadive group to transfer title of the team in Sacramento," Stern said. "It's not a certainty, but we're going to work (toward) that result."

The positions of Hansen and Stern are in direct conflict. And as the cartel leader, Stern seems fated to win, because the NBA claims the right to veto minority owners as well as majority owners.

I wrote Monday that Hansen’s “backup” bid was a misstep because even if it worked, the outcome potentially was too much like the wretched, but NBA-approved ownership of the Sonics by Clay Bennett, who spent two years tearing down the team and pulling it away from the community in preparation for the 2008 relocation to Oklahoma City.

But seeing that Hansen didn't get so much as a potted plant for his efforts, and presuming  the Maloofs are smart enough to figure out that $406 million is more than $341 million, what could it hurt? Are the Maloofs going to have another gold star ripped from their NBA epaulets? Will Hansen be fined by a league to which he does not belong?

Yes, even to a Seattle resident, the idea of keeping the Maloofs around another year is unpleasant. And the idea of Hansen partnering with them to help move forward the infant arena plan is as insufferable in Sacramento as Bennett was here in 2007, stomping around the weeds of the Muckleshoot wetlands claiming to be looking for an arena site. But really, that isn't the point.

The point is to have some leverage right now. Hansen had a deal with the Maloofs, and neither party feels compelled to go away yet. But they probably would, if the NBA offered a commitment to a 2014-15 expansion team so that the arena project can move ahead.

Sacramento no more deserved to lose the Kings than Seattle deserved to lose the Sonics, a plan set in motion in 2005 when Stern nudged his pal Bennett into the face of then-owner Schultz. Neither city was a bad basketball market; they were both victims of desperate, foolish owners.

But the NBA takes no responsibility; it merely takes advantage.

That view would ebb if the NBA decided to make good with a bidder "who did everything he could" and his partner, whom Stern called "the prototypical NBA owner."

But that would mean losing a tool against the next city who needed help with its "incumbency" in a cash-strapped municipality.


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