Seattle’s NBA fans proceeding with caution on proposed Kings move

SEATTLE — There were no rallies or parades in Seattle on Thursday to celebrate the city’s potential return to the NBA.

As news spread that a Seattle group was negotiating to buy the Sacramento Kings and move the team there next season, residents took a wait-and-see attitude, wary of getting too giddy about a deal that appears far from complete.

“Until it advances past gossip stage, I don’t want to get excited,” said Brian Robinson, a real estate investor who has led a citizens’ effort to bring the NBA back to Seattle since the SuperSonics left in 2008.

Sacramento officials have pledged to find competing bidders who would keep the team in Sacramento, with the possibilities including billionaire supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle, who has tried to buy the team before.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, speaking Thursday in Washington, D.C., said it would be reasonable to give Burkle a shot at matching Seattle’s offer, according to a USA Today post on Twitter. Burkle’s partner, Sacramento lobbyist Darius Anderson, declined comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, a source close to the Kings’ owners, the Maloofs, continued to insist that talks about a proposed sale to the Seattle group were still in the early stages.

With the Sonics’ departure for Oklahoma City still a bitter topic, Seattle officials treated the situation delicately. Mayor Mike McGinn declined to speak about the matter Thursday, as did a spokesman for Chris Hansen, the hedge-fund manager trying to buy the team.

The neighborhood around KeyArena, which would serve as the team’s temporary home, was mostly quiet except for the Sacramento reporters milling around. The buzz on sports talk radio was mainly about the Seahawks’ NFL playoff game this weekend.

Feeding the go-slow attitude was the reputation of the Maloofs, who angered many Kings fans when they abandoned a tentative deal for a new arena in Sacramento last spring.

Seattle fans are “proceeding with caution,” said Steve Sandmeyer, host of an afternoon sports-talk show on radio station 1090 The Fan. “They’re aware the Maloofs have taken Sacramento on a roller-coaster ride.”

As if on cue, the Seattle Times reported on its website Thursday afternoon that a potential snag had developed in the talks between the Maloofs and Hansen. Quoting unnamed NBA sources, the Times said the Maloofs, who would reportedly retain a small ownership piece in the team, were seeking an operational role as well.

Talk of a Kings move to Seattle exploded Wednesday on the Internet, one day after the financially struggling team ended discussions to move to Virginia Beach, Va.

Yahoo Sports reported that a Seattle deal was nearly done, with Hansen buying the team for a league-record $500 million.

A day later, a source close to the Maloofs told The Sacramento Bee that the family hasn’t heard from Hansen since just after Christmas and is still waiting to receive an actual offer.

“I fully expect we will see something (from Hansen),” said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

He added that the Maloofs haven’t heard from any other potential bidders even though Mayor Kevin Johnson said Wednesday he’s aware of several groups interested in buying the Kings and keeping them in Sacramento.

Johnson said Wednesday that he has “stayed in constant contact” with Burkle, whose effort to buy the Kings nearly two years ago was rebuffed by the Maloofs.

Another potential candidate is downtown developer David Taylor, who told the mayor’s office a few months ago he had been contacted by a group interested in building a new arena and possibly buying an ownership stake in the team. Asked if that group is still interested, Taylor declined comment Thursday.

The mayor on Wednesday said he would “make every effort” to find new owners to keep the team from moving. He couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Sacramento developer Larry Kelley, who held a minor equity stake in the team during the 1990s, said he wouldn’t be surprised if two of the current minority owners the Benvenuti family or developer John Kehriotis stepped into the fray. The two own a combined 27 percent.

“All you’d have to do is buy the Maloofs’ interest,” Kelley said. The Maloofs control 53 percent of the team.

Richard Benvenuti said his family wasn’t interested. Kehr iotis declined comment.

Johnson said a local buyer could enjoy, in effect, a hometown discount because he wouldn’t have to pay upward of $100 million in moving expenses, including a relocation fee to the NBA and repayment of a loan to the city of Sacramento.

The NBA’s board of governors, made up of league owners, would have to approve any ownership sale or franchise relocation. The Kings have until March 1 to seek permission for a move for next season.

The source associated with the Maloofs said the family still hasn’t made up its mind to sell. But he said the family’s recent financial setbacks, including the loss of controlling interest in the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, have prodded its members to become more open to the idea of unloading the Kings.

If Hansen makes an offer “that knocks our socks off … then the debate will begin internally,” this source said.

He added that brothers Joe and Gavin Maloof, along with their mother, Colleen, aren’t convinced the team should be sold. But their brother George is more interested in a sale, the source said.

Hansen has the backing of Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer and the Nordstrom family as well as a tentative agreement with the city and King County on a $490 million arena. He would rebrand the team the Sonics and revive the Seattle franchise’s green and gold uniforms.

Even as Seattle fans warmed to the idea of the NBA’s return, they expressed sympathy for Kings followers in Sacramento.

“Of course, we never want to treat another fan base the way we were treated,” said Adam Brown, who produced a documentary called “Sonicsgate” that detailed the Sonics’ departure after 41 seasons. “But if they’re going to move anyway, we want it to be to Seattle. That’s how we justify it.”


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