SEATTLE — There’s that feeling again. It’s an unofficial feeling, I suppose, because the NBA didn’t formally break Seattle’s basketball-loving heart Monday. It just had a committee recommend misery.
The league told us that, if this hurts, just wait at least seven business days for the pain to become permanently excruciating.
The NBA isn’t returning to Seattle.
Not now, at least. The seven owners who form the NBA’s Relocation Committee voted unanimously to recommend rejecting Chris Hansen’s bid to move the Sacramento Kings to his hometown. It sends the strongest message to date that Sacramento will retain custody of its team.
Sonics fans are angry that they couldn’t steal another city’s squad. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, the hijackers of the real Sonics are cheering on the Thunder during the NBA playoffs with childlike enthusiasm.
If you can make sense of this, go solve the debt crisis, please.
Really, what game has Seattle been playing with the NBA all these years? Over the past seven years, since Howard Schultz sold out the city in heartless and irredeemable fashion, Seattle keeps losing because it’s playing an NBA game in which the rules change constantly.
Five years ago, we thought the Sonics left because of the league’s coldhearted business practices — “Build us a new arena or perish!”—which the city shunned. Now the league is primed to turn down one of the best business propositions it has ever been presented.
Five years ago, we were taught that stealing is OK, that NBA teams are mere chess pieces rather than civic assets. Now, we are losers and hypocrites for daring to try to snatch Sacramento’s precious gem.
Five years ago, we learned that loyalty didn’t matter. Now, loyalty helped Sacramento keep the Kings.
In 2008, Seattle played the game wrong, only to be wronged. In 2013, Seattle played the game right, only to be wronged again.
What kind of system is this?
Who turns down an ownership group of Hansen, Steve Ballmer and Erik and Peter Nordstrom, which would’ve immediately been one of the strongest and wealthiest in the league? Who allows two cities to engage in an epic bidding war with preposterous millions thrown around and then doesn’t have the foresight to consider expansion?
In a perfect NBA, this fight turned out the way it should—teams should leave their cities only as a last resort—but we know this league is more flawed than it would like to believe. Ultimately, NBA commissioner David Stern used Seattle as a pawn to find local ownership in Sacramento and revive a dead arena plan. On the surface, it worked, but here’s the problem: If the Maloofs indeed sell to the local group that Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson put together, how are these owners going to make enough money to survive long term now that the Hansen group raised the price to big-market proportions?
In only three months, Johnson did a fantastic job of putting together an ownership group and a plan to build a $447 million downtown arena. The fact that, in Sacramento, the government never gave in is the difference. In Seattle, political leaders upset Stern, and he turned vindictive. Johnson, a former NBA All-Star point guard, knew how to play that part of the game. But his group will have to get creative to afford paying $357 million for 65 percent of a team now valued at $550 million, as well as their $190 million share for the arena.
Now that Hansen is likely out of the Kings’ mix, perhaps Sacramento could play hardball and negotiate a lower price with the Maloofs. If this results in the Maloofs not getting the full Hansen price on the sale, it would be perhaps the worst thing Stern has ever done to one of his owners. There’s also the slim chance the Maloofs could keep the team.
Of bigger concern in Seattle is what happens to its NBA pursuit. Hansen is going on three years working on this project. He was dealt a blow Monday, and even though he, Ballmer and the Nordstroms figure to remain committed to bringing the NBA back, there are now hordes of upset fans who will be difficult to rally. As I’ve written before, this was the best time for the NBA to return, and now that Seattle feels left at the altar, old wounds have reopened, and old bitterness has resurfaced.
With no expansion on the table, there is no clear path to acquire a team, and while the deal to build a $490 million Sodo arena could stay together for up to five years, can the fan base really stand to go through another relocation tug of war with an incumbent NBA city?
It’s impossible to trust that a victory is possible until Stern retires. Count the days until Feb. 1, 2014. Maybe then, when Adam Silver takes over as commissioner, the game will have clear rules.
Hansen tried to win the right way. He tried to do it with transparency; no buying the Kings and pretending to want to stay in Sacramento. He tried to do it with record-setting money and a polished business plan.
But the NBA is a liar’s game, full of hypocrites, improper alliances, a lack of financial creativity and a commissioner who is more powerful than the owners he represents. Stern revises the rules according to his whims. It seems Seattle was destined to lose in this ever-changing game. We’re back in a familiar place with that spirit-crushing league.