There is one thing that the NBA Board of Governors will be totally unable to deny in April when it considers the future of the Sacramento Kings: California's capital could not have done a better job of making its case.
Mayor Kevin Johnson presented his piece de resistance on Thursday: a primetime speech that often sounded like a political rally and ended with an announcement that 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and billionaire grocery magnate Ron Burkle would be teaming up to buy the team and build a new arena at the city's Downtown Plaza. Mastrov is leading the bid for the team. He will submit his offer to the NBA on Friday. Burkle will lead the arena development. He will continue negotiating the financing of the deal with city management, who was cleared by the City Council on Tuesday to come up with a term sheet.
This is all unprecedented. With all due respect, what Seattle has done is not. Chris Hansen and his group has lined up an arena deal to be consummated when Hansen successfully purchases an NBA team. There are plenty of cities that pursue arena deals in hopes to attract a team. Look at Oklahoma City, which funded and built a downtown facility using tax dollars in hopes of getting the state's first and only pro team. Look at Kansas City, which has a new arena that doesn't host a pro team. The only twist on Hansen's effort is that the arena won't actually get built until there's a team in place. Otherwise, it's all pretty mundane in a macro sense, though Hansen should be commended for navigating Seattle's anti-arena waters deftly.
The first news about the Maloofs selling the Kings to Hansen came out 51 days ago. It wasn't made official for a few more weeks. And Sacramento already has an official bidder for the team and the contours of an arena deal. And this only caps off years of efforts by the city to meet the NBA's requirements. Most importantly, the city did meet the NBA's requirements a year ago: it produced an arena deal that the NBA signed off on. Only later did the desperate Maloofs, in dire need of a massive bailout, preferably in the form of relocation to a bigger, shinier market before selling the team, kill the deal. And if Seattle wins this battle, it will have worked: the Maloof family will have gone from agreeing to a deal to stay in Sacramento to screwing the city sideways within 12 months.
Please don't try to compare what Sacramento has done to what Seattle did in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The comparison is just absurd. When Howard Schultz decided to sell the Sonics to Clay Bennett -- an Oklahoman -- the city's elected officials, business community and city management did not quickly step into action. Fans sure stepped up, but the city's power structure did not. When Bennett went before the Board of Governors and asked to join their club, Seattle's mayor wasn't there with an alternative offer that would keep the Sonics where they were born and had been successful for most of four decades. The city's power structure rolled over. Bennett, that new owner, faked his way through arena negotiations. Never did the city's power structure produce a clear, viable alternative message. Instead, the NBA was jeered by those in power while fans tried desperately to rally. There was no serious effort -- not even Steve Ballmer's private-public KeyArena renovation idea -- proposed before Bennett officially owned the team, and no cooperation with the NBA once Bennett was in control. The Kings have not officially been sold -- you need NBA clearance for that. At this stage of the process in the sale of the Sonics, there was no KJ in Seattle. There wasn't one quarter of a KJ. That's the difference.
In 2006 and 2007, Seattle did not provide an acceptable alternative to relocation until Bennett already owned the team and had the moving vans prepped. Sacramento has just produced an acceptable alternative before the sale is complete, within weeks of the announcement of a purchase agreement. The comparisons can stop. Seattle fans did all they could, just as Sacramentans are doing all they can. That doesn't matter. Sonics fans know better than anyone that it's what happens within the power structure that matters most. And David Stern never lets us forget how Seattle's power structure treated him and the NBA. And he hasn't let it go unnoticed that Sacramento has stepped up for the NBA time and time again.
No one knows what the Board of Governors will do. But it will be impossible for them to fail to be impressed by what Sacramento has put together, and I think it'll be hard to tell the city -- and all small market cities, in the league and not -- that the NBA doesn't value cooperation, partnership and major public subsidies. No one tells a saint to go to Hell, and I'm increasingly confident this issue will swing Sacramento's way.