SEATTLE — Inside the small club on Seattle’s Capitol Hill late Monday night, the chant would not be contained by the walls, drifting out onto the street with every urging scream from the performers on stage.
“Super,” the DJs would shout.
“Sonics,” was the emphatic reply from the crowd.
After months of waiting and politicking, recommendations and reversals, and a remarkable amount of money being thrown around, fans in Seattle will finally learn Wednesday whether they will cheer on a team with the SuperSonics name again or whether the Kings will remain in Sacramento.
“I think we’ve been in this game a long time. We’ve had setbacks and we’ve had gains and if it goes against us we’ll deal with it, but I am confident in our guys: Steve Ballmer, Chris Hansen,” said Brian Robinson, the former head of “Save Our Sonics,” the grassroots fan group that pushed to block the move of the Sonics to Oklahoma City five years ago. “They are willing to put the resources into making this happen one way or another.”
“May,” remains the important word as the NBA Board of Governors meets on Wednesday in Dallas to tackle the issue of whether the Kings stay in Sacramento or are allowed to move to Seattle, where they would be rechristened the SuperSonics.
Investor Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer have had a deal since January to buy a 65 percent controlling interest in the Kings from the Maloof family. Hansen originally offered a total valuation of $525 million, then increased that offer to $550 million after a competing Sacramento group matched his deal. He hoped to move the team to Seattle to replace the original Sonics, who were relocated and renamed the Thunder in 2008.
After months of staying quiet and letting the process play out, the Hansen and Ballmer group went on the offensive following the NBA relocation committee’s decision on April 29 to recommend denying the move.
The Hansen and Ballmer group elbowed its way back into the conversation using money and creativity.
It started last Friday when Hansen increased his total valuation of the Kings from $550 million to $625 million. Hansen also announced on his website that he has guaranteed owners that the franchise would pay into the league’s revenue-sharing system if it was in Seattle and not collect money as it has in Sacramento.
On Saturday, word leaked of a backup deal with the Maloofs to purchase a minority interest in the Kings with the Maloofs remaining the controlling party. The limited partnership would be a purchase of at least 20 percent of the Maloofs’ stake in the franchise at a valuation of $600 million, but the Hansen/Ballmer group would retain a two-year option to purchase majority control.
They were bold and aggressive moves by the Seattle group. And for fans, they were a needed boost.
“If they had folded, we would have folded,” Robinson said.
All that brings the whirlwind back to Wednesday’s meeting in Dallas and likely the last chance to provide clarity. Anyone who says they definitively know what will come out of the meeting is likely just taking educated guesses. The roller coaster both cities have been on emotionally since January has come with stomach-knotting twists and turns that have provided little clarity about what the final answer will be.
Will the Kings stay in Sacramento with an ownership group led by Vivek Ranadive and plans for a new downtown arena?
Will the Maloof family remain majority owners with Hansen and Ballmer as minority investors in a Sacramento team?
Will Hansen and Ballmer be successful in throwing enough money into the pot that owners are swayed to give the Kings a one-way ticket to Seattle?
Or will expansion finally be a plausible solution that could satisfy both markets despite the NBA’s stance thus far that expansion won’t be discussed until after the league’s next television deal is negotiated?
“I’m really excited. I think there is an opportunity for this saga to end,” Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said before boarding a flight at Sacramento International Airport on Tuesday.
There is just as much apprehension in Seattle, where the criticism of the NBA has quickly risen since the relocation committee’s recommendation. Fans already feeling burned by the league after the messy Sonics divorce are having flashbacks.
“If they spurn us again and we’re not offered a clear path toward a franchise at some point we have to say, ‘Do they want us to be their customers?’” Robinson said. “I think the NBA needs to recognize that this is a very special moment and probably the opportunity to reclaim this market because of the work a lot of people have done on the ground here.”
On Monday night, those concerns were forgotten for a few hours. Bouncers were forced to turn fans away from the club after capacity was reached and then exceeded. Those fortunate to arrive early and stay inside raised their bottles at every scream of the word “Sonics,” and they treated former Seattle great Shawn Kemp like a rock star when he took the stage.
Kemp was the same as the others, keeping hope that Wednesday’s result would see a return of the Sonics.
“There’s only been a couple of times, a couple of times in this whole ordeal where my spirit has been broken,” Kemp said. “But I can promise you this, Mr. Hansen has definitely kept my spirit up.”