Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson flashed a few smiles when his bid to save the city's NBA franchise finally succeeded. Just not too many.
The former All-Star guard didn't want to celebrate at the expense of Seattle after league owners voted today to reject, once and for all, an aggressive bid to move the Sacramento Kings.
"I went to Seattle," said Johnson, who spent all but the first 52 games of his 12-year career with the Phoenix Suns. "I played against those fans in that community. It's a great sports town, it's a great basketball community. And for them to come up a little short, especially with what happened in 2008 to have lost their team, that's devastating. That's why we fought so hard."
NBA owners decided to follow the recommendation of their relocation committee, and Commissioner David Stern promptly announced that he hoped to have a deal in place in 48 hours with a group that wants to buy the team from the Maloof brothers.
"And now we think that because the Maloofs have overall been very good for Sacramento and the Kings and the NBA, that they will be motivated to do something fast so that the franchise can get cracking," Stern said.
The 22-8 vote by the Board of Governors rejected a deal that would have sold a 65 percent controlling interest at a total franchise valuation of $625 million to a Seattle group led by investor Chris Hansen, who boosted the offer twice after the NBA showed an unwillingness to relocate.
Now the Maloofs will try to complete a deal at Hansen's original price of US$525 million - still topping the NBA record of US$450 million - with a group put together by Johnson and fronted by TIBCO software chairman Vivek Ranadive. The plan includes a new downtown arena.
"I think that once Sacramento got engaged in doing this and being able to deliver on the promise, which didn't really exist when the original deal was made in Seattle, that the principal advantage to the incumbent was going to prevail," Stern said. "Nobody had any doubt that the same or similar thing could happen in Seattle. It was just, do you give the edge to a city that has a 28-year history of support?"
The vote ended an emotional saga that has dragged on for nearly three years. Hansen wanted to move the franchise and rename it the SuperSonics, who left Seattle for Oklahoma City in 2008 and were renamed the Thunder.
Hansen said in a statement posted on his website that he hoped to pursue a minority ownership role with the Maloofs, but Ranadive said his partners "haven't really considered" the Maloofs maintaining a stake in the franchise.
Stern praised Hansen's proposal and said the NBA might consider expansion once a new TV deal is in place, but said "we don't have anything concrete."
"Our day will come, and when it does, it will just be that much sweeter for the struggle," Hansen said.
It's the second time since 2011 that the Maloof brothers have made plans that would have ended in relocation for the Kings. The first target was Anaheim, Calif., but Johnson convinced the NBA to give the city another chance to finance a new arena.
Johnson delivered on a promise for a plan for a new downtown arena with help from Stern, but the Maloofs backed out, saying it didn't make financial sense.
The Maloofs had another surprise when they announced a deal in January with Hansen's group, which includes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and members of the Nordstrom department store family.
Johnson fought back again, this time lining up an ownership group led by Ranadive and getting the Sacramento City Council to approve a non-binding financing plan for a US$447 million arena with a US$258 million public subsidy.
"This is an ownership group that's played to win and kept us in the game, and put us in a situation where ultimately over the next couple days, if things go right, we can close this out and move to a new chapter in Sacramento," Johnson said.
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 bid, saying it fell "significantly short."
After Wednesday's vote, however, George Maloof denied that his family wasn't willing to sell to the Ranadive group and that the league was pressuring them to do so.
"It's been a fair process, a very fair process," Maloof said.
Hansen spent nearly two years working to get an arena plan approved by the city and county governments and spent more than US$65 million buying land in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood where the arena would be built. Hansen has a five-year memorandum of understanding with the city and county on the arena plan.
A small crowd at a Seattle restaurant was subdued as word spread that the franchise wasn't coming, while horns blared and cheers erupted from bars in Sacramento.
"In Kevin Johnson we trust," said season-ticket holder Jim Amen, who wore the jersey of No 16 Peja Stojakovic, the Kings' first-round draft pick in 1996. "This meant a lot to our city. It's not just about basketball, but about revitalising our downtown."
About a dozen Sacramento supporters wearing Kings jerseys and "Small Market Big Heart" T-shirts waited most of the day in the Dallas hotel to hear what turned out to be good news. Not so for a handful of fans in green and gold hoping for the return of the Sonics.
"It's been a roller coaster for both cities, but we've never looked at this as a competition between Seattle and Sacramento," Johnson said. "We thought this was about what we needed to do to keep our team in Sacramento. We'd take a back seat to no city when it comes to the way we support our team."
Now they have the backing of NBA owners.
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