In an emotional saga that has dragged on for nearly three years, the NBA's relocation committee voted unanimously Monday to recommend that owners reject the application for the Sacramento Kings to move to Seattle, the latest — and by far the strongest — in a long line of cities that have tried to land the franchise.
Despite the recommendation, investor Chris Hansen pledged to "move forward with the transaction" he signed with the Maloof family to buy and move the franchise anyway. In a post on his Seattle arena website late Monday night, Hansen said he plans to pitch the NBA Board of Governors at its meeting the week of May 13, when league owners will vote on the issue.
"When we started this process everyone thought it was impossible," Hansen wrote. "While this represents yet another obstacle to achieving our goal, I just wanted to reassure all of you that we have numerous options at our disposal and have absolutely no plans to give up. Impossible is nothing but a state of mind."
Hours earlier, the feeling was far more festive in California's capital city.
Moments after the league announced the committee's recommendation, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson wrote on Twitter: "That's what I'm talking about SACRAMENTO!!!!! WE DID IT!!!!!"
At a packed pep rally at a downtown restaurant, fans serenaded Johnson with chants of "Sac-ra-mento!" He called the recommendation a "big day for the city of Sacramento" but stopped short of declaring victory.
"We do not want to dance in the end zone. We do not want to celebrate prematurely," Johnson said.
TIBCO software chairman Vivek Ranadive, the head of the Sacramento investor group Johnson assembled to mount a competing bid to keep the Kings, also expressed excitement.
"I'm speechless. Thanks to all of the amazing people who supported this great effort," tweeted Ranadive, a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors who could become the first Indian-born majority owner of an NBA team. He would have to sell his share in the Warriors if his group's bid for the Kings is successful.
"We did it, baby," said California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. The Sacramento Democrat joined Johnson and Republican state Senator Ted Gaines at the rally in a show of bi-partisan support.
Barbara "Sign Lady" Rust, as she has become known by Kings fans, waived a sign as Johnson spoke that read: "Love found a way, now here we stay!"
"You should have seen me a few hours ago," she said. "I totally lost it. First I jumped like a crazy woman for a minute. Then I cried."
Who will own the Kings next season is still unclear.
The Maloof family reached an agreement in January to sell a 65 percent controlling interest in the team to Hansen's group at a total franchise valuation of $525 million, topping the NBA-record $450 million that Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the Warriors for in 2010. Then Hansen increased his offer to $550 million, which implies buying the 65 percent stake for about $357 million.
Hansen hoped to move the team to Seattle and rename it the SuperSonics, who moved to Oklahoma City and renamed the Thunder in 2008. Instead, those plans suddenly seemed to crumble.
But Hansen insisted again that his group has a more solid arena plan, offered more money and "placed all of the funds to close the transaction into escrow." At the bottom of his post, Hansen attributed a quote to boxing great Muhammad Ali that ended with the famous line: "Impossible is nothing."
The NBA Board of Governors is expected to follow the recommendation by the relocation committee, coincidentally headed by Thunder owner Clay Bennett, already a reviled figure in Seattle. The other owners on the committee are Miami's Micky Arison, Washington's Ted Leonsis, Utah's Greg Miller, Indiana's Herbert Simon, Minnesota's Glen Taylor and San Antonio's Peter Holt — who's also the chairman of the board.
Even still, the Maloofs are not bound to sell the team to the Sacramento group — and the threat of lawsuits always looms. Johnson said he was unsure what the next step is in the process or whether the NBA would — or could — take a role in streamlining the team's sale.
In a letter sent to the relocation and finance committees during its April 17 meeting, the Maloofs said they preferred to sell to the Seattle group and expressed discontent with Sacramento's latest bid, saying it falls "significantly short." NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the offers are in "the same ballpark."
Stern said owners felt leaving Sacramento just didn't make sense. He also reiterated his long-held stance that expansion is unlikely at this time.
"As strong as the Seattle bid was, and it was very strong, there's some benefit that should be given to a city that has supported us for so long and has stepped up to contribute to build a new building as well," Stern said on NBA-TV.
A Spokesman for the Maloof family declined to comment on the committee's recommendation. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn pledged that his city will continue to fight for an NBA team.
"I'm proud of how Sonics fans have rallied together to help Seattle get a team," McGinn said in a statement. "We're going to stay focused on our job: making sure Seattle remains in a position to get a team when the opportunity presents itself."
While the odds often seemed stacked against Sacramento, the city rallied each time.
In 2011, the Maloofs made plans to move the Kings to Anaheim, Calif., before Johnson convinced the NBA to give the city one last chance to help finance an arena. At one point, Johnson seemed so certain the team was gone he called the process a "slow death" and compared the city's efforts to keep the Kings to a "Hail Mary."
Johnson delivered on his promise of a new arena plan — which Stern helped negotiate — before last season. But in a stunning move, the Maloofs backed out of the tentative deal for a downtown arena, saying it didn't make financial sense.
The city of Sacramento and the owners broke off talks, reigniting fears the franchise could relocate. Cities such as Virginia Beach, Las Vegas and Kansas City surfaced as potential new homes.
In January, the Maloofs caught Sacramento — and to a certain extent, the NBA — by surprise when they announced the deal with Hansen's group, which includes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and members of the Nordstrom department store family.
Led by Johnson, Sacramento fought back to make the sale and relocation of the Kings tough for the league to recommend. He pushed a non-binding financing plan for a $447 million downtown arena through the Sacramento City Council — complete with a $258 million public subsidy — and lined up an ownership group to try to compete with the powerful Seattle contingent.
The potential Sacramento ownership group also includes 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, former Facebook senior executive Chris Kelly and the Jacobs family that owns communications giant Qualcomm. Johnson has touted the group as a "California team" with members from all over the country's most populated state.
Johnson, a former NBA All-Star point guard known best by his initials "KJ," also commended Seattle for its efforts and wrote that the Pacific Northwest city "no doubt deserves a team in the future."
"Just not ours," he said.
"I feel good for KJ because he's worked so hard," said interim Brooklyn Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo, who worked with Johnson at NBC and coached the Sonics in their last season. "If it goes down that way, there's no question who deserves the credit because, I mean, they could've rolled over a long time ago. Kevin just really made this happen, which is great."
Seattle is now back to wondering when, and if, the NBA will ever return.
Hansen's purchase agreement with the Maloofs seemed the perfect solution for the heartache that has lingered in the Puget Sound since the Sonics — and their 41 years of history — were moved to Oklahoma City. Hansen spent nearly two years working to get an arena plan approved by the city and county governments and spent more than $65 million buying land in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood where the arena would be built.
In the last few months, fan interest and support seemed to be at its highest since before Bennett purchased the team from Howard Schultz in 2006. Now those same fans are stuck waiting to see what the next move by Hansen and Ballmer will be, including mounting an effort for expansion or buying another team.
Hansen has a five-year memorandum of understanding with the city and county on the arena plan. Whether momentum for the NBA in Seattle will remain also is unclear.
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