Here we go again.
For the second time in three years, the Sacramento Kings will host their regular-season finale with the franchise’s future uncertain. Hours before the Kings tipoff against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, NBA owners will gather in a New York boardroom to begin deliberating where the team will be located next season.
Sacramento or Seattle?
Nobody quite knows for sure.
“Pretty much every year since I’ve been here, the past five years, the last game of the season has been at home and it’s been the same feeling — that uncertainty,” Kings forward Jason Thompson said. “It’s just a little bit more into the media this year and things have been really going back and forth and stuff like that, so it’s a little bit more emotion.”
The Maloof family reached an agreement in January to sell a 65 percent controlling interest of the Kings to a Seattle group led by hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen at a total franchise valuation of $525 million, an NBA record. With pressure mounting from Sacramento’s counteroffer to keep the team, Hansen announced last week he would “voluntarily” raise the valuation to $550 million “as a sign of our commitment to bring basketball back to our city.”
The NBA’s joint committee assigned to give a recommendation on the issue will convene again Wednesday. The annual meeting of the league’s Board of Governors, consisting of all 30 owners, is Thursday and Friday.
NBA spokesman Tim Frank confirmed Tuesday that no vote will take place on the Sacramento-Seattle situation at the board’s gathering, as Commissioner David Stern had indicated during a preliminary meeting on the issue April 3 in New York. A decision can be made at any time, including by phone or email.
Whenever a vote is taken, Seattle needs 23 of 30 owners to approve the sale of the team to the Hansen group. If the sale is approved, a second vote will be largely ceremonial to decide whether the Kings can move to Seattle. A simple majority — 16 votes — is all that’s needed to approve relocation.
Led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, Sacramento has fought back over the past three months to make the sale and relocation of the Kings a real debate. Johnson pushed a non-binding financing plan for a $447 million downtown arena through the City Council — complete with a $258 million public subsidy — and lined up an ownership group to compete with the Seattle contingent.
The potential Sacramento ownership group is headlined by TIBCO software chairman Vivek Ranadive, also a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors, and 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov. Others who have joined the bid include former Facebook senior executive Chris Kelly and the Jacobs family that owns communications giant Qualcomm.
Johnson has touted Sacramento’s strong fan support, the exclusivity the NBA has in the city — about 90 miles away from the Bay Area’s saturated sports market — and the fact Sacramento has delivered everything the league has asked. Ranadive’s reach to his native India, a market where the NBA is trying to increase visibility, could also be a factor.
The group said it plans to submit a formal, written counteroffer by Wednesday that it hopes the league — and the Maloofs — will accept if the Seattle deal is blocked.
“Our fingers are crossed,” Ranadive said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Sacramento with the mayor and other investors. They took turns thanking fans and drumming up support at the downtown site of the proposed arena.
While the stakes often seem stacked against Sacramento, Johnson has faced long odds before.
Most thought the Kings were on their way out two years ago, when the Maloofs prepared to move them to Anaheim, Calif. Everybody from fans to arena workers to the team’s broadcasters shed tears on the court after the Kings lost 116-108 in overtime to the Los Angeles Lakers on April 13, 2011, thinking it would be Sacramento’s farewell.
Instead, Johnson went to New York a day later to lobby owners to give his city more time — and succeeded. Then last April, the Maloofs backed out of a plan approved by the Sacramento City Council — and negotiated by Stern — for a new arena in downtown Sacramento.
Stern has said expansion, as of now, is not an option.
“This ownership transition will remain fluid until the final documents are signed — and even then litigation may follow,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “In the interim, the NBA will be working with team owners to determine their preference, which may boil down to considering whether to accept a higher bid or protect a franchise in an existing market.”
For Seattle, this week could be the conclusion of a two-years-plus effort by Hansen to bring the NBA back and it would come nearly five years to the day after the relocation of the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City was approved by the Board of Governors.
Hansen started talks with Seattle city officials in 2011.
Hansen and the city of Seattle and King County reached agreement last fall for funding on a new $490 million arena. He also plans upgrades at KeyArena, where the team would play for two or three years until a new home is constructed. Other investors include Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and two members of the Nordstrom department store family.
Construction on the building could start as early as late 2013 — but only if a team is secured. The purchase offer based on a $550 million franchise valuation — which implies selling the 65 percent stake for about $357 million — would be $100 million more than Joe Lacob and Peter Guber paid for the Warriors in 2010.
Hansen has banked on fan support, noting the ticket waitlist campaign that saw more than 44,000 season tickets requested. And he has touted Seattle’s thriving economy and the market’s reach around the Pacific rim.
Slowly they’ve helped heal wounds left when the original Sonics were moved to Oklahoma City. But what happens if the sale is blocked and the Kings remain in Sacramento?
Hansen has preached patience from the start. The memorandum of understanding with the city and county lasts for five years. And in an interview with The Associated Press last June, he worried about fans getting overly excited too soon.
“I’m sure there could be some disillusionment if this takes a long time,” Hansen said. “That’s one of the things that worries me. We live in a society and a culture where everybody wants what they want right now and in this particular case there are a lot of aspects that are out of our control. I don’t control when a franchise is available for relocation. All I can do is be ready and be opportunistic when that time comes.”
If anything is certain, it’s that Sacramento will not be the last leveraged NBA city. Five teams have changed cities since Stern took over as commissioner in 1984 — six if you count the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn this season.
The Kings have been a particularly well-traveled franchise, too.
The team began its first NBA season as the Rochester Royals in 1949, moved to Cincinnati in 1957, was rebranded the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972, then just the Kansas City Kings in 1975 before making the move to Sacramento. If this really is the end for the Kings, they coincidentally lost 108-104 to the Clippers — Wednesday night’s opponent — in the first regular-season game in Sacramento on Oct. 25, 1985.
But nobody in California’s capital city wants to believe this game will be Sacramento’s last.
While the Lakers loss two years ago felt like a funeral, this season’s finale is expected to be more of a pep rally. The possibility still remains: it could once again be goodbye for Sacramento.
“I know there’s probably going to be a lot of fans there. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be a fun environment,” said Kings guard Isaiah Thomas, a Tacoma native and former star at the University of Washington who has been torn between Sacramento and Seattle all season. “It stinks because you just don’t know if that will be the last game ever in Sacramento. You just don’t know.”